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Catholic Education Will Be History In O.B. As Sacred Heart Closes Its Doors

Evening Edition

Aired 5/22/13 on KPBS News.

Falling enrollment makes Sacred Heart Academy in Ocean Beach part of a national trend, and the third San Diego Catholic school to close in as many years.

The grounds of Sacred Heart Academy were alive this past Sunday as parents and school kids attended a barbeque in honor of the school. Children bounced in an inflated jumper as loud music told people to put on their funky shoes.

But the Ocean Beach sunshine and the festive veneer concealed the sad fact that had brought people together on that day. This school, built in 1950, was having its last semester. The thought of the school closing pulled at the hearts of parents like Erin Robinson, who enrolled her first and fourth grader a year ago after moving to San Diego with her military family.

Sixth grader Sophia DeFabrizio struggled with emotions as she told me losing Sacred Heart Academy meant losing a part of her heart.

Sacred Heart Academy in Ocean Beach is a K-8 school founded in 1950. It will be the third Catholic school to close in the San Diego Diocese in as many years.

"I don't really know what I'd do without the school because I met my best friend here and I've know a lot of people since kindergarten," said DeFabrizio. "It's just … I love it here and I don't want it to go."

But it will go now that Father Ron Hebert, leader of the parish, has decided it is time to close the school after years of troubles. Those troubles came from falling enrollment and a shortage of money.

Sacred Heart Academy is the third San Diego Catholic school to close in as many years. And the plan to shutter Sacred Heart reflects a national trend as parochial schools face higher expenses, changing beliefs and changing demographics.

Sacred Heart principal Maria Tollefson said some parents had offered to try to raise money to pay off the school's debt.

"But you know I think, as I looked at the history, it would have just been a Band-Aid," she said. "And then what would you do for next year? You know we have a graduating class of 27. And our lower grades are really low. We only have eight in kindergarten."

That shortage of tuition-paying students is a problem all around the country. While the San Diego Diocese is closing one school this year, the New York Archdiocese is closing 24. Some said many Catholic families no longer feel an obligation to give their kids a parochial education. Now that nuns no longer teach the classes, schools have to hire lay teachers and pay a livable wage.

Schools also face many changing demographics. Established inner-city Catholic schools have seen their families move to the suburbs to be replaced by more low-income families, many of whom are not Catholic. Ocean Beach, the home of Sacred Heart Academy, has seen its own demographic problem.

Maria Tollefson was brought in as the principal of Sacred Heart Academy less than a year ago with the mission of increasing its enrollment. She says she wished she'd been given more time to accomplish the task.

"When you talk to people who sent their kids to school here years and years and years ago, it was more like a family community. Ocean Beach is not that anymore," said Tollefson.

You can add to that the competition from public schools and a yearly tuition cost of $5,700 per child at Sacred Heart, where the current enrollment is 138 students. Typically, an enrollment of at least 200 is needed to make ends meet.

Maria Tollefson was brought in as principal less than a year ago to try to turn the school around, and she says she's disappointed she wasn't given more time to raise enrollment.

But Father Ron Hebert at the nearby Sacred Heart Church said time was running out faster than he imagined.

"We did not know how much we would be bleeding money. And that became very, very clear by December. That was not clear last summer when Mrs. Tollefson was hired," Hebert said.

Hebert said the closing of Sacred Heart Academy is bittersweet, a time of loss but also a time of thanksgiving for the good education it's provided in the past. But back at the Sunday barbeque, students like Michael Nadell were hard-pressed to see the bright side.

Father Ron Hebert, the leader of Sacred Heart Parish, said he didn't realize until this year how quickly Sacred Heart Academy was "bleeding money." He made the decision to close the school this semester.

"When I found out the school was closing, I was actually at Disneyland. And it actually ruined my whole time there," he said.

Parents who choose Catholic education are looking for an affordable private education with a religious message and a strong system of discipline that maintains classroom order. But is there a better way to insure the system's financial moorings?

Sacred Heart parent David Sheppard says the San Diego Diocese needs to do more.

"I definitely think the Diocese should take a more active role. We're closing way too many Catholic schools and I think if they took a more proactive approach to the schools, I don't think you would see them closing," said Sheppard.

The San Diego Diocese, which now oversees 44 K-8 schools, has appointed a committee to study the financial sustainability of Catholic education. People are hoping for a more pro-education stance from incoming Bishop Cirilo Flores.

Tollefson suggested parish churches without schools should share the financial burden of keeping schools in the black. Flores would not comment for this story.

Sacred Heart Church will keep the school campus for confirmation classes and to house its preschool program. But Catholic education, as so many people have known it, will soon to be part of only the history of Ocean Beach.

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