Niagara Gazette — Despite recent news of closings and falling enrollment, Catholic educators said there was much to celebrate as Catholic Schools Week rolled around this year.
Moving past the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo’s decision to close 10 area elementary schools, education leaders say they are working to strengthen the state of Catholic education and the benefits it has for its students.
Even for those that aren’t Catholic.
Niagara Catholic senior Lauren Preti says that despite being an Atheist, a Catholic education is a great fit for her. Having received a private education in California, she says she wanted to continue with it after her family moved to Western New York a few years ago.
“Niagara Catholic felt like a family style school,” she said. “There’s only a little over 200 kids at the school. I can talk to everyone, they know me and I know them. It’s like a family.”
She added that she feels more comfortable in a private school setting, saying less fights and instances of bullying are among the reasons why she values the education she is getting.
It’s the reason Catholic education leaders working to overhaul and better the state of Catholic education.
“I think we did the responsible thing by doing a careful study and making decisions based on the findings,” said Sister Carol Cimino, the superintendent of Catholic Schools. “If we build bigger and better schools then Catholic education would have a stronger presence.”
Cimino explained the population of Western New York has seen decreases in the recent past and there just aren’t enough to fill schools. By closing schools and combining students, Cimino says the diocese is hoping to use its already limited resources more effectively.
In response, diocesan schools are enhancing programming to become more responsive to educational needs. Next year, they will implement the STEAM program, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math. This program is aimed at fortifying a well-rounded education, focusing even more on core curriculum guided by Catholic moral standards.
Between Niagara Falls and Lewiston there are five Catholic schools, Niagara Catholic, the Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls, Sacred Heart Villa, Stella Niagara and St. Peter’s. While they are not all governed under the diocese, area school leaders say they are dealing with the challenge of enrollment decline.
“Mount Carmel and Prince of Peace merged four years ago,” explained Jeannine Fortunate, principal of the Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls. “This is our fifth year and things have been steady, but we did see a decline. With the average family size there just aren’t the children to fill the schools.”
However, Sister Margaret Sullivan, principal of Stella Niagara Education Park, says that her school’s programs are alive and well and haven’t been too impacted by population declines.
“While we’re not the numbers we were in the ‘80s, we have maintained a healthy population,” she said. “We have an active board and parents who work hard at keeping a full program.”
Ron Buggs, principal of Niagara Catholic Junior/Senior High School, which is not a diocesan school, says his schools are improving their curriculum by adding more academic options for their students. Classes in Chinese, musical theater, entrepreneurship and marketing are among those offered to students.
“Next year we’re going to have the Hospitality and Tourism Academy,” he said. “Students who go through that program will enter college as first semester sophomores if they choose to follow the program to Niagara University.”
One goal of the academy is to create an interest in jobs that would be relevant to an area with as high a tourism rate as Niagara Falls, he said.
It’s the similar message from local Catholic school leaders — they are doing what they can to engage their students and provide a full experience.
“I hope our supporters stick with us,” said Cimino. “Things are happening and there are going to be some exciting changes.”