If there is one thing that is certain, a private school education can no longer be taken for granted. And for residents who have grown up in Chicago and the southwest suburbs, I can specifically point to Catholic schools.
I had worked for a Chicago paper for many years and reported on numerous closings. Since 2000, many schools have closed their doors due to low enrollment. In Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood, both St. Clare of Montefalco and St. Simon have closed. St. Rita Grade School at 62nd and Fairfield in the city closed a few years before that.
Other elementary schools that have closed over the past 16 years in areas I covered include St. Denis, St. Thomas More, St. Turibius and St. Rene. All-girls Catholic high schools have closed in recent years. Lourdes High School was the first, followed by Immaculate Heart of Mary, Maria and Mount Assisi Academy.
And this year, the Chicago Archdiocese made an announcement last month that St. Louis de Montfort Elementary School, 8840 S. Ridgeland Ave., Oak Lawn, will close its doors in June. The reason given was low enrollment and that belief that the school could not sustain itself in the coming years.
Then we heard the crushing news about Queen of Peace High School at 7659 S. Linder Ave., Burbank. I had heard rumors the past few years that the school could be in trouble. Low enrollment was the main culprit. Queen of Peace was established in 1962 and could house as many as 1,400 students. The school now had less than 300 students.
At least there is some good news for underclassmen who attended Queen of Peace. The administration at St. Laurence High School, the all-boys Catholic high school that is located next door to Queen of Peace, will begin accepting students from that school beginning this fall. The logistics of how that will be done is still being worked out, but at least Queen of Peace students have another option. The only difference is that they will be attending St. Laurence High School.
A lot has changed since the 1960s when many Catholic schools had large enrollments during the height of the baby boomers. But many families began to move in the 1960s and 1970s to suburban communities. Many neighborhoods were in transition, changing from a majority white population to African-American. However, many of these black residents were not Catholic and did not attend these schools.
Another factor is that we have less nuns and priests. I recall being taught by a majority of nuns at St. Margaret of Scotland and St. John de La Salle, two Chicago grade schools I attended. But by the time my younger siblings were about to graduate from their Catholic grade schools, there were few nuns. Lay teachers who receive a salary replaced them. Catholic schools in the past did not have to worry about payment for the nuns. This became a growing expense for the archdiocese over the years, especially as enrollments began to dwindle because of higher tuition.
For some families, the higher tuition became too difficult to pay for. Consequently, that’s why so many of these schools have had to close. From 1984 through 2004, 130 elementary schools closed, according to the Chicago Archdiocese.
That is why I pull for schools like Our Lady of the Ridge, 10859 S. Ridgeland Ave., Chicago Ridge. This is never been a large school but teachers and staff who work there say the students are the first priority. Sr. Stephanie Kondik, the principal at Our Lady of Ridge who has served 23 years at the school, said she knows all the students by name. These youngsters, Sr. Stephanie said, are more than just a number. She said she cares for them all.
Other teachers have said that the school has a feeling of community and warmth. Sr. Stephanie said the students receive a great education and they are cared for.
But sometimes residents and even people who no longer have a close connection to old Catholic schools begin to take them for granted. Sometimes residents need to be shaken a little to realize what is at stake. A neighborhood could drastically change after a Catholic school closes. It could deter younger families who have children from moving into the neighborhood. Some businesses may decide to move elsewhere.
So I was happy to see 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park jammed with people Sunday for a fundraiser with alumni, business and community leaders ready to do what is necessary to keep Our Lady of the Ridge open. Everyone was having a great time while collecting much needed cash.
The lesson learned here is to not take Our Lady of the Ridge for granted. I think that message is gotten through loud and clear.