When St. Joseph Sister Eileen Jude, principal of All Saints Catholic Academy in Bayonne, N.J., walks through the gleaming hallways of the school, which opened two years ago, she swells with pride.
“This year’s eighth-grade class has earned almost $500,000 — half a million dollars! — in scholarships,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “The students took the High School Placement Test and the scholarships just rolled in.”
Passing the sports trophy case, she said, “The All Saints Boys Varsity team won the Bayonne City League Basketball Championship — the first time in 20 years a Catholic school has accomplished that feat.”
Then there are the tech-savvy Smart Boards in every classroom— reducing the once ubiquitous blackboard to only occasional use.
When Sister Eileen was considering the principal’s position, however, and read the job description, the first thought that popped into her mind was, “What nutcake would do this?”
The city of Bayonne, which is in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., was down to four Catholic elementary schools — all running major deficits and losing students. Three schools had been closed earlier. Now the plan was to close all the existing schools and merge them into one super-school, a decision with the potential for upheaval from both students and parents who were loyal to their inpidual parish schools.
When Sister Eileen learned more about the plan, though, she became intrigued.
“I realized what they were trying to do with All Saints Catholic Academy is the future of Catholic education,” she told OSV. “All Saints would rest on the foundation of all seven original heritage schools and keep Catholic education as a viable option in Bayonne — and make sure this option exists for our children’s children.”
Bayonne sits on a peninsula, with its busy docks overlooking the Statue of Liberty. Generations of immigrants settled in Bayonne, and each group built its own church. For more than 100 years, there were eight parishes, with seven thriving Catholic elementary schools.
By 2006, however, three of the schools had been closed and the remaining four were in trouble.
“The plan to merge the four schools into one large Catholic elementary school in Bayonne came from the pastors of the remaining heritage schools,” said Newark Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Donato. “And then all the parish pastors in the deanery signed on with their full support. With the leadership together, we immediately brought in the laity to become fully involved, so they couldn’t say that the decision to close and merge the schools was made ‘on high.’”
“The decision wasn’t an easy one,” Msgr. Paul Schetelick, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church and juridic pastor of All Saints Catholic Academy, told OSV . “We would be dealing with the emotional loss of a parish grammar school and losing the identity of the students — coupled with building a new school spirit. There were naysayers, of course, but we were blessed, and we had a lot of help.”
One All Saints eighth-grader admitted to being scared about going to the merged school at first. “Then I realized that I already knew a lot of the kids that would be going to the new school. But I still wanted to stay in my old school,” Dana Cotter, a member of the student council, told OSV .
All Saints Catholic Academy opened with 500 students on July 1, 2008. Economies of scale provided immediate benefits to the students. “Because of the size of the new school and the funds available, the entire curriculum was updated,” said Sister Eileen. “New technology is available to the students. Language-arts programs were implemented — this year we’ve introduced Italian along with Spanish. If our children are bilingual, their opportunities to be marketable in the future soar.”
Cotter said she is now very comfortable at the school, and added that “being at All Saints has opened our horizons more.”
Colleen Mernar, a fellow eighth-grader, added that “merging all the schools into one school really brought the whole community together. We learned to make new friends because we had to make new friends. When we get to high school this fall, it will be a piece of cake making friends.”
Students at All Saints Catholic Academy also benefit from “a priestly presence that is almost unheard of, which helps us immensely with faith formation, which has such a positive effect on the children,” Sister Eileen told OSV.
Bayonne priests teach classes at All Saints, and Father James Manos from St. Vincent’s Church specializes in guidance. “Our students are in a program at St. Peter’s [Preparatory School] , and one of the kids — not ours — in the group committed suicide,” said Sister Eileen. “Having a priest in the school to provide counseling to the students experiencing such a traumatic event in their lives was invaluable.”
The priests of all eight parishes — Our Lady of the Assumption, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Andrew, St. Henry, St. Mary Star of the Sea, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Joseph and St. Michael — also support All Saints as if it were their own school on-site.
A central piece of the academy’s plan is fundraising to create an endowment. A full calendar of events has generated substantial income — with more innovative development strategies in the works.
“For almost 100 years there were eight parishes and seven schools in Bayonne, and each school was filled,” Sister Eileen said . “We have literally hundreds of thousands of graduates of Bayonne Catholic schools, and if we can tap that population — to remember their roots and their foundation as Catholic school students — we have a tremendous fundraising opportunity to offset budget increases.”
While the Catholic community in Bayonne confidently looks to the future of education, Bishop Donato reflected on how much attitudes have changed .
“A number of parents weren’t too optimistic about the success of the school, and they came to me and the priests and conveyed their concerns,” he said. “Recently one of those parents said to me, ‘I was one of those who weren’t happy with the merge, and I want to tell you how very happy I am now. And how very proud I am of All Saints Catholic Academy.’”
Sidebar: By the numbers
Prompted by the media attention to the closing of Catholic parish elementary schools, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University conducted a survey of Catholic elementary schools that studied finances and concluded that the tuition model is under severe strain.
All Saints Catholic Academy in Bayonne, N.J., fell right in line with the CARA findings regarding the per-pupil cost of $5,397 for their demographic. However, there was one category in which ASCA differed from the CARA results dramatically: The school receives no parish subsidies.
“That is most unusual,” conceded principal Sister Eileen Jude, SSJ, “but we ran in the black last year, and we’ll be in the black this year also, because of our fundraising, which pays 25 percent of the costs per student.”
All Saints Catholic Academy also hasn’t raised tuition and doesn’t plan to do so. “Rather than burden our parents with raising tuition every year — with each tuition raise causing us to lose students — we plan to endow the school on a regular basis,” said Msgr. Paul Schetelick, juridic pastor of the deanery.
How will All Saints accomplish that goal? With an even more aggressive development and marketing campaign. “My real prayer,” said Msgr. Schetelick, “is to get us back to zero tuition like the old days.”
--Mark Jury writes from Pennsylvania.