Uncertain times ahead for south suburban families facing closure of several Catholic elementary schools

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Four closing, two merging at the end of the academic school year

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SOUTH HOLLAND Ill. — For generations, it served the faithful.

As a place of worship, St. Jude the Apostle Church offered Catholics of South Holland and surrounding suburbs a place to gather; and at its adjoining elementary school, a place to learn.

Even through a cultural shift, as the mostly white faces changed to black and brown faces over the years, the school provided an education in the 1st through 8th grades. The institution changed with the times and Carolyn Strong was glad for that.

“That is what I wanted for her, something where education felt very personal,” Strong said.

Strong’s daughter, Ever, is a first-grader at the school. But it isn’t St. Jude’s anymore.  St. Jude became Christ Our Savior, welcoming students from surrounding schools when their parishes closed years ago as numbers declined.

At C.O.S., Strong says Ever thrives.

“They understand that culture and representation is at the center of what we’re trying to do here,” she said. “It’s important for Ever because I want my child to be in an environment where she’s celebrated, not tolerated.”

Or abandoned. But that’s exactly how Strong and other parents now feel having learned the archdiocese of Chicago has decided to close C.O.S. at the end of this academic school year.

“Why are you closing schools in a global pandemic?” she asked.

The Archdiocese of Chicago told families last fall the closure could happen. Then in January, it informed them in an email of the final closure decision. Strong reached out with questions with no answers.

“What is it that it would it take to keep this school open?” she said. “You’re saying it’s a financial issue. You’re saying it’s an enrollment issue.  What will it take? What do we have to do to prove to you that we should stay here?”

In a prepared news release, the archdiocese reported a 24% decline in enrollment over the past four years, and a loss of $300,000 this year alone.

And it’s not just Christ our Savior. The Archdiocese is also closing three other suburban Catholic schools:  St. Ann in Lansing, Sacred Heart in Melrose Park and St. Joseph in Summit. St. Benedict School in Blue Island and St. Walter School on Western Avenue will merge.

Two schools Strong points out have a higher white population.

“I’m not the person who likes to ding-ding-ding the race bell all the time. It is a real concern to me,” Strong said. “Everything else post-pandemic is going to have to have time to regroup. Qhy don’t we get that opportunity as well.”

The Archdiocese so far declined a request for an interview, but told the Chicago Sun-Times that the merging schools are a mix of white, black and Hispanic children and are joining because they’re only a mile and a half apart.

Church leaders sent out a map of Catholic school options, all of which represent a substantial distance. The closest options are between nine and 20 miles away.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do now,” Raschanda Hall said. She has a 4th grade son and a 2nd grade daughter at Christ our Savior. The idea of reaching the archdiocese suggestions for substitute schools miles away is unworkable.

“We’ll explore our options, but public education, maybe we go to Indiana, where we won’t qualify for financial aid options,” Hall said. “If I walk away from Catholic school, I don’t know that we’ll be back.”

Strong, who has a Ph.D. in education with a focus on cultural competency, questions the rate of the school’s population decline. To Strong, it’s not just the faith and quality of education that could suffer with a move, it’s her daughter’s sense of inclusion and identity most threatened.

“They understand that culture and representation is at the center of what we’re trying to do here.” Strong said.

She believes the diverse staff brings an understanding to the table, and it’s helped support her daughter, who in this pandemic expressed her thoughts in a book she penned. It was celebrated by her teachers at C.O.S.

“We’re going to support this 4-year-old in her endeavors in helping her process this social and emotional experience,” Strong said. “I don’t want to create a child that will shrink from ‘othering.’ When you put children in situations of othering it tends to make them shrink and I don’t want that for her or any other black child.”

Her daughter echoed her mother’s anxiety.

“I like my teacher a lot, she helps me learn,” Ever said.

“What will we do if COS closes?” Strong asked her daughter. Ever’s reply: “I don’t know.”

“School closures are always difficult because we recognize the impact they have on students, their families and our staff,” Dr. Jim Rigg, Superintendent of Catholic Schools wrote in a news release. “The archdiocese will work with each affected student and employee to assist them in finding places at other Catholic schools wherever possible.”

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