Enrollment drama plays out at Atco school

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: February 08, 2013

Parents and grandparents of Our Lady of Assumption School sprang into action when they were told by their pastor to raise $156,000 and sign up 150 students in order for the school to remain open next year.

They held a golf outing and fashion show, cooked spaghetti and crabs, organized a 10K race, sold hoagies, played Bingo, signed up corporate donors, erected billboards, and hoisted a few at beef and beers.

The hard work paid off when the tiny Atco school exceeded the first benchmark, which was to raise $78,000 by Oct. 1.

On Friday, after a frenzy of calls to undecided parents, Assumption surpassed a second goal - securing $100 deposits from at least 150 students. It got 151, and that night, the school community celebrated at a spaghetti dinner.

Amid the celebrating, no one could anticipate what would happen the next day: One of their own, the chairman of the school board in fact, withdrew registrations for his three children.

"I just felt as though we were all slapped in the face," said Rochelle DeSorte, an alum whose daughter attended Assumption and who still has a fourth grader, along with nieces and nephews, at the school.

No one knows why the O'Donnells are leaving. Colleen O'Donnell is an active volunteer, supervising the playground and lunchroom, parent association president Tiffany Piro said. John O'Donnell is close to the pastor, the Rev. Tom Barcellona. The O'Donnells could not be reached for comment.

Parents say that when Barcellona called the school late Friday to get the final tally - before the Assumption families learned the O'Donnells were pulling out - he seemed surprised that Assumption had met its goal. Barcellona did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.

As of now, the school appears to be in limbo.

Parents say the pastor has not given them a letter guaranteeing it will stay open, as they say he had promised to do if they met the goals set for them.

They say they are getting the runaround from both their pastor and the Diocese of Camden, with neither giving them an answer about Assumption's future.

A spokesman for the diocese, Peter Feuerherd, said "they will get an answer, but not today."

At a Jan. 30 school board meeting, with 132 students signed up with just days to go board members were hopeful they would make the deadline, said Kelly Russell, a school board member and mother of two students.

O'Donnell's withdrawal on Saturday "was a day late, in my opinion," she said.

"He [Barcellona] has been beating into parents, parishioners, everyone, that Feb. 1 is the cutoff. If you have 149, I'm closing the school," Russell said. "We made our benchmark. Now we move on to the next one."

Russell and others said they expected even more students to sign up in the coming months. Parents have been aggressively promoting the school with marketing campaigns, billboards, and solicitations.

They've rallied before. The school was built in 1955 by Italian tradesmen and others who wanted a Catholic education for their children. It's not unusual to find families with three generations of Assumption graduates.

And they don't plan to let their beloved school go without a fight.

"We may be small, but we are ferocious. They are not shutting down our school. It's insane," said Diane Simpson, a member of the recently formed grandparents association.

Piro, of the parent association, a hive of activity this year as members boosted their fund-raising to come up with the extra funds, said she felt "used and overworked."

"We work and work and work to make it right and make it happen and it all gets squashed because [Barcellona] is going to do what he wants to do," she said. The school's third and final benchmark, $78,000, is due April 1.

DeSorte said parents feel betrayed. She said she confronted Barcellona on Tuesday and he said he did not know when he would let the school know its fate.

"He gives us deadlines he wants us to make. We make them," she said.

She said the parish office told her to call the diocese and the diocese told her to call the parish to get the final verdict.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," she said.

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

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