Supporters strive to keep Sacred Heart school open in Vineland

Sacred Heart High School in Vineland is scheduled to be closed after this academic year. Its enrollment is down to about 200; the school, which has served the region since the 1930s, was designed for 400.
Sacred Heart High School in Vineland is scheduled to be closed after this academic year. Its enrollment is down to about 200; the school, which has served the region since the 1930s, was designed for 400. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 30, 2012

VINELAND - There is probably no one more tied to Sacred Heart High School, Cumberland County's only Catholic high school, than Francis Reilly.

The Vineland public-relations executive's mother, back when she was Donata Cirelli, was president of the first graduating class of the school in 1931, and she still lives in Vineland at 98.

She married Charles V. Reilly, who last year was posthumously elected to the school's athletic hall of fame. He was valedictorian of that first Sacred Heart class and was her high school sweetheart.

Francis and his sister and two brothers all graduated from Sacred Heart as well.

But Francis Reilly has a tough task these days. He heads a hastily organized committee that is trying to save Sacred Heart, which on Jan. 20 got word from the Diocese of Camden that it and two nearby grammar schools are to close after the current academic year.

"While it was obvious that there are ongoing economic problems, it was still a surprise to be told Sacred Heart was designated for closing," said Reilly, who graduated in 1961. "We're going to be trying to put together a reasonable appeal to the bishop to give us time and encouragement to keep the school open."

Diocesan officials have agreed to meet with the committee on Feb. 7. Reilly said he hoped Bishop Joseph Galante would also attend.

Nate Jones, a junior whose myriad activities at Sacred Heart include swimming, cross country, the spring musical, choir, and the Samaritan Club, directs Pride of Sacred Heart, a student group hoping to keep the school open.

He said the group would focus on enthusiastic recruiting.

"Our goal is to get awareness out there that Sacred Heart is still open and we hope it will stay open," said Jones, who comes in from Mullica Hill, Gloucester County, every day.

He said raising the $300,000 that the diocese says Sacred Heart owes might not be all that difficult.

"We are in downtown Vineland, so restaurants and shoe stores and other merchants depend on us being there. I am sure they will take care of the money part."

Like many of the Philadelphia Catholic schools on the chopping block, Sacred Heart suffers from a familiar double whammy - shrinking enrollment and a deficit.

It is down to 202 students, 67 of whom are in the senior class, in a building designed for 400. The school has a staff of 34, including 18 teachers.

Coincidentally, the grammar school attached to Sacred Heart, Bishop Schad, was created by the merger of the old Sacred Heart grammar school and the defunct nearby St. Francis only four years ago, when Jones was in seventh grade.

(Two elementary schools that feed into Sacred Heart, St. Mary Magdalen in Millville and Notre Dame in Landisville and Newfield, also are scheduled to be closed and merged into other schools.)

Fran Plitt, attending Wednesday night's girls' basketball game, where his daughter Alexa, a sophomore, was playing, said he and Alexa loved the school because of its small size.

"They don't know what they will be missing by closing this school. It is the best Catholic way - attention for every student," said Plitt, whose daughter, like Jones, comes the 20 miles from Mullica Hill.

If Sacred Heart closes, he said, she will probably go to the much larger Kingsway or Clearview public high schools. "She will definitely lose something in the size difference."

Les Olson, who was working the snack bar at the game in his Sacred Heart Softball T-shirt - he is the coach as well as the parent of a former student - said he was confident the committee would make its best case to the diocese.

"On Friday, we were upset, but after a few days of people coming out to help, I think we will convince the powers that Sacred Heart is worth keeping," he said.

Kevin Quinn knows the precipice the Sacred Heart folks are on. He was a teacher at Wildwood Catholic High School two years ago when the Diocese of Camden announced plans to close it. But people there mobilized to save the school.

Quinn became director of development, helping to raise several hundred thousand dollars to erase the school's debt and start providing a foundation so it could stay solvent.

"There was great community support, and once the excitement of doing it got around, it spread like wildfire," said Quinn, who said enrollment had slipped to about 150, but two years later was up to 165, with expectations it will rise by 10 or 15 a year until it reaches the goal of 200, the right size for the school building.

Last year, the school for the first time hired a dean, Tony Degatano, a former teacher who has worked as an educational consultant for the last dozen years. Degatano has teamed with three universities - Seton Hall, Kean, and Drexel - to bring in adjuncts to teach things like technology, research skills, and basic law. He has helped start a boys' lacrosse team as well.

"We have to become more attractive in many ways to recruit students. We have good basic education and a Catholic sense of values, but there is a lot of competition, and economic times are difficult," Degatano said. He said Wildwood Catholic, like all of the diocesan high schools, costs about $7,500 a year to attend.

That is a burden, though, for many families in Cumberland, Salem, and lower Gloucester Counties - the sending areas for Sacred Heart.

This is one of the poorer areas of the state, said Mark Ronchetti, an accountant on the Sacred Heart committee, whose son Jeffrey is a senior at the school and whose older son, Mark Jr., graduated in 2010 and is now at Rider University. His wife, Betsy, teaches seventh grade at Bishop Schad.

"These past few years, $7,000 or so is a lot for people who have less income than, say, people in Camden County and go to Paul VI," Ronchetti said. "Part of what we will have to do is raise enough money to provide a base for scholarships. The big thing now is to get parents and kids who want to come here."

Two of the schools that students might transfer to, St. Joseph's of Hammonton, about 17 miles from Vineland, and Gloucester Catholic, in Gloucester City, more than 20 miles away, will be happy to have former Sacred Heart students, but are not poaching, their administrators say.

"There is room for them to attend, and we will do everything to make their transition smooth," said Nick Regina, St. Joseph's president. "We have implemented a scholarship program. It is a difficult time and we want to see as many kids as possible have a Catholic education."

Gloucester Catholic has an old building in a crowded part of town, but it has made a deal with the diocese to develop land in Deptford for new playing fields - with room for a new high school down the road if necessary.

"We don't plan on that, but it could be an option years from now," Gloucester Catholic Principal John Colman said. "Was I ever worried about our school suffering this fate? Well, enrollment drives everything, so we continue to do things - like the new fields - to assure current and potential students that we are a viable place to go."

Reilly said that was all his Sacred Heart group was asking for from the diocese.

"Now that we know what is necessary, we believe the community will come together to provide it," he said. "We hope that the bishop and his education committee will give us the time and opportunity to show what Sacred Heart means to Cumberland County."

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