Camden diocese closing Atco school

A book sale 11 days ago was among the many fund-raisers for the school, which needed to bring in $156,000. Bob Markart helped second grader Matthew DeStefano make his selection. TOM GRALISH / Staff
A book sale 11 days ago was among the many fund-raisers for the school, which needed to bring in $156,000. Bob Markart helped second grader Matthew DeStefano make his selection. TOM GRALISH / Staff
Posted: February 09, 2013

For one short moment last Friday, parents and supporters at Our Lady of the Assumption School in Atco thought they had passed the enrollment goal of 150 students to stay open next year.

But on Thursday, the Diocese of Camden came down with devastating news - they were never even close.

The diocese said it was closing the school next year despite "valiant efforts" from parents to meet financial and enrollment goals.

As word of the shutdown trickled out, parents who just last week celebrated their success in registering 151 students by Feb. 1 - one of three benchmarks for the school to stay open next year - were shocked.

"I'm beyond upset," said Nicole Schaeffer, who was picking up her kindergartner at the school when she found out he wouldn't be going to first grade there.

"I'd understand if we weren't making the money or weren't making the [registration] numbers, but we were," she said.

According to a letter to parents from the Rev. Thomas Barcellona, pastor of Christ the Redeemer parish, the school did not meet its enrollment goal because 20 of the registered families were behind on this year's tuition, "making their registration for the 2013-14 school year not assured."

The tuition requirement took parents by surprise. Rochelle DeSorte said it was never mentioned as part of the benchmarks and that parents generally had until June to pay their bills.

"We're ready to fight back. We're not letting it go. We already have a lawyer," she said.

Barcellona was expected at the school Thursday afternoon to announce the closing to the staff.

Teachers and administrators could try to find jobs in other Catholic schools, but employment is not guaranteed, said diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd.

He also said students could enroll at any other Catholic elementary school that has room and would be eligible for a $1,000 voucher.

Threatened with closure next year unless they raised $78,000 by Oct. 1 and the same amount by April 1, and registered 150 students by Feb. 1, backers of the school made it a veritable fund-raising factory, hosting event after event and recruiting students for next year with a combination of slick marketing campaigns and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

The principal, Sister Helene Cooke, even babysat students on weekends for $5 an hour to contribute to the kitty.

"We thought we were going to win," said Diane Simpson, who helped run a grandparents group that cooked spaghetti and crab dinners and sold hoagies to make money. "We made this second benchmark. We still had money to raise but we felt confident we could go on."

Parents had worried what would happen after the president of the school board, John O'Donnell, withdrew registrations for his three children one day after the deadline. That brought the total down to 148.

But parents believed they upheld their part of the bargain by getting $100 deposits from 151 students by the cutoff.

No one imagined tuition would be an issue.

"That was never part of the agreement," Schaeffer said. "Were these people [who were behind] notified? Did they ever reach out to us to help them, because we would have?"

For now, the spring fashion show, Coach Bingo, and all the other events aimed at propping up the school budget are on hold, said Simpson.

"We won't raise another dollar," she said.


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

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