St. Agatha Families Fight the DOE and Diocese to Keep Their School Open

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Erin DeGregorio

St. Agatha School and its large, ironic sign that says "Accepting Registration Now." (Brooklyn, New York) (Friday, March 24) / Photo: Erin DeGregorio

St. Agatha parentJulianna Rivera has refreshed her online petition page every night since mid-January in an effort to stop St. Agatha School’s closure. With 563 backers supporting her campaign so far, Rivera continues to pray for a miracle before the doors permanently shut on June 30.

“We refuse to sit down and let [the Brooklyn Diocese] take our school. I have begged my fellow Sunset Parkers to sign, but it’s like pulling teeth,” she posted on the petition’s page under the name Mothers of St. Agatha. “Saint Agatha School is a historical pillar in this community. Can’t we keep some part of our culture available to us?”

St. Agatha’s is a Catholic elementary school that has been serving children from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade since 1924 in Sunset Park. It is also the latest Catholic school in the Diocese of Brooklyn to be told that its future is bleak come June. Due to a low enrollment rate and a lack of $5 million for necessary repairs, it does not even have the option to become an academy and remain open.

A parish’s pastor oversees its Catholic school and is directly in charge, preceding the school’s principal. An academy, instead, is overseen and governed by a two-tiered board comprised of a Board of Directors and a Board of Members. Lay people, who work with the principal, make up the Board of Directors. Clergy members make up the Board of Members, assuring the Catholic identity prevails. Twenty-nine of the 33 Catholic elementary institutions in the Diocese of Brooklyn have become academies within the last few years. The only schools that do not have academies in their names are St. Edmund, St. Ephrem, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep and Catherine Laboure.

Families were informed of the closing in a letter from the school principal and church pastor in early January.

“This school year, there are eight classes with less than 20 students,” stated the letter that was circulated on Jan. 10. “The parish does not have the reserves to subsidize the school for the future, and the parish cannot subsidize the school at the expense of parish programs and ministries. To attempt to continue the school, while further curtailing academic services and extra-curricular activities, would be a serious disservice to your sons and daughters.”

But a local government representative said the closing could be beneficial for the rest of the community.

“We’re always very concerned whenever any school, public or parochial, closes in our district. However, there are now opportunities over with that space – that we have a dire need for public school seats in the local community,” Jeremy Laufer, district manager of Community Board 7, told NYCity News Service. “The two closest public schools to St. Agatha’s, P.S. 169 and P.S. 94, are at 60%, 70% over capacity. We need 3,000 additional seats locally and any additional space we could find would be helpful.”

Erin DeGregorio

St. Agatha School, written in English, Chinese and Spanish. (Brooklyn, New York) (Friday, March 24) / Photo: Erin DeGregorio

According to the New York City Department of Education’s “2016-17 Attendance & Enrollment (Unaudited) by District” report, there are 31,499 students enrolled in District 15’s public schools altogether. A representative from the State School Construction Authority attended Community Board 7’s Education Committee meeting on March 7 and said St. Agatha’s building could serve as a future public school site.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education told NYCity News Service their department has not purchased the building yet because it “may or may not be viable.” She also said the building needs to be inspected and appraised appropriately. Should the Department of Education decide to pursue the space, a set of hearings and a vote would have to be held before the purchase could be made on their end.

Carla Triviño, whose six-year-old son attends the school, created a GoFundMe page the day after the announcement was made. In the last two months, eight people have donated $540, which barely made a dent in her $1 million goal.

“The school is a true gem in the community,” she wrote in the page’s description. “As parents we believe in the amazing power of Catholic education – that every day we dropped off our children to school and don't look back; we aren't worried, we go to work or proceed to our dailies activities leaving our children in nurturing hands that know every single one of them individually.”

The parish has recommended that parents look at other schools for future registration. Six of the 13 seventh graders, who will be in eighth grade next year, commented on the petition page that they do not want to graduate with “strangers” in a new school. Parents have also complained that there are no viable options, both public and parochial, for their children next year and beyond. The public schools in their neighborhood are overcrowded. The nearest parochial academies in their vicinity are too expensive. The more affordable parochial academies are too far away from their homes.

St. Agatha’s tuition is $3,949, which is barely affordable for the low-income families in the neighborhood paying for this faith-based education. The average median household income of 11220, the zip code area in which St. Agatha’s is located, is $39,000. A school faculty member said a majority of its students are sponsored, as parents cannot fully pay their children’s tuitions.

Anastasia Domenech, an administrative assistant at Futures in Education, said 187 St. Agatha students have been granted different awards through their group, according to their 2016-2017 records. Futures In Education offers tuition assistance to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, who are enrolled in Catholic elementary school students located in Brooklyn and Queens. They have five scholarship programs – Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop’s, Be an Angel to a Student, Evangelization Scholarship and Teddy Forstmann – to help families afford their Catholic educations. According to their website, their mission is “to ensure no child is denied a Catholic school education due to financial constraints.”

Despite this tuition assistance offered within the diocese, Rivera said the Catholic education is still not affordable for her and her family.

“I would have to pay $800 more to send her to a school that is 12 blocks away from my home, and that’s a lot of money because I have 2 children,” Rivera said, referring to enrolling her daughter into Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “The thing with OLPH is they’re a lot more money. They haven’t offered to lower their price of the tuition because they’re an academy.”

Erin DeGregorio

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, located at 60th Street and 5th Avenue in Sunset Park - the nearest parorchial option for St. Agatha students, geography-wise. (Brooklyn, New York) (Tuesday, March 7) / Photo: Erin DeGregorio

Rivera also said public schools are not a feasible solution for her two young children either because of their dual language program.

“I’m angry because I feel like my children were sold short. But if my daughter was in a public school, she’d still be sold short because she would be in a dual language class and she doesn’t speak Spanish,” she told NYCity News Service. “I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

Parent Stephen Nygard, who also represents the St. Agatha Alumni Association, said Sunset Park will not “sit back and take this.”

“St. Agatha has been the center of our Sunset Park community for 95 years,” he posted on his personal Facebook page after he organized a rally outside the school last month.

While public officials may or may not buy the building, parents say they will continue to fend off the inevitable and fight the decision until, if need be, June 30.