Atco's Assumption School works to stay open

Sister Helene Cooke, principal at Assumption School in Atco, talks with second grader Gabrielle Angrand. The school is being threatened with closure by the diocese.
Sister Helene Cooke, principal at Assumption School in Atco, talks with second grader Gabrielle Angrand. The school is being threatened with closure by the diocese. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

More than a half-century ago, the laborers of Atco - carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and bricklayers, many of them first- or second-generation Italian immigrants - raised Assumption School from the ground up.

They toiled free on weekends so that Catholic children in the growing Camden County town would have a school of their own.

"This is something they had wanted for a long time," recalled Sandy Pistone, whose bricklayer father was among them.

Pistone, 64, was a first grader when Assumption opened in 1955, and has seen her two daughters, and now two grandsons, attend the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Now, Assumption, which has less than half its original enrollment, is in a battle to keep its doors open in an era of parish consolidation and shrinking Catholic school attendance. It will be shuttered by the Diocese of Camden in June unless it balances its books and recruits more students.

The response has given Assumption's backers hope they can pull off a miracle.

Supporters, including a roughly 10-member grandparents' association led by Pistone and Diane Simpson, surpassed the diocese's requirement that they raise $78,000 by January. They expect to bring the total to at least $156,000 by April, another benchmark set by the diocese.

Organizers say they also are close to achieving the diocese's required minimum of 150 registrations for the 2013-14 academic year by Friday.

"The tremendous efforts made in both cutting costs and raising revenue have allowed us this moment in celebration," the Rev. Tom Barcellona told members of Christ the Redeemer Parish, in which the school is located, in a letter last month. "However, it cannot be a stopping point."

No date is set for the school to be notified of its fate, said diocesan spokesman Peter Feuerherd. But the criteria have been plainly stated, he said.

"It will be very clear [if] they are not opening next year," he said. "No one can say they didn't know what was happening."

Not only would Assumption close, Barcellona warned, but its pupils might not be guaranteed spots in nearby Catholic schools.

The diocese has since said that space would likely be available at St. Joseph's Regional in Hammonton and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Berlin. But no one wants to put that to the test.

The first sign that Assumption was in danger came two years ago, when four declining parishes - Sacred Heart in Cedarbrook, St. Lucy's in Blue Anchor, St. Anthony's in Waterford, and Assumption in Atco - were consolidated to form Christ the Redeemer.

As a smaller facility, Assumption School also had been struggling to maintain enrollment, and had hoped for passage of school-choice programs that would have helped out parents of parochial school children. But that didn't happen.

Community members have shown drive and creativity in their campaign to keep the school open. In addition to traditional fund-raising events - Coach handbag bingo, golf outings, a beef-and-beer event - the school's principal, Sister Helene Cooke, opened Assumption's doors Friday nights during the Christmas shopping season for babysitting at $5 an hour per child.

With the help of seventh and eighth graders, she designated classrooms for dancing, movies, computer sessions, even musical chairs. Business was so good she plans to do it again.

"We have fun doing it," Cooke said of the seemingly nonstop fund-raisers - from cookbook and popcorn sales to a fashion show and crab and spaghetti dinner.

The Broomall native has won the hearts of the Assumption community since she arrived about 18 months ago from a stint as an assistant principal in New York City. She has provided iPads for eighth graders, offered advanced math classes, and started a chess club.

"She's such an encourager - dynamic, like an Energizer Bunny," Simpson said of Cooke, who returns the compliment.

"We have a wonderful parent and grandparents association, and wonderful alumni," the principal said. "We hope they step up to the plate for our second [financial] benchmark."

Atco is "a little community and people want to stay there," said Freestyle Ski Shop owner Frank Anderson, 71, who helped build the school hall as a young man, and sent a daughter and grandson to Assumption.

It would be rough to lose the school, "but if they don't have enough people to make it run, you can't run at a loss," he said.

"It's my daily prayer that it will not close," Pistone said.

"I'm confident that it will stay open and it will continue for many more years," she added, recalling her student days. "As soon as you walked through the doors, you were happy. You felt safe and you felt nurtured."


Contact Kathy Boccella at 856-779-3812 or kboccella@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kathyboccella.com.

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