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Published: Tuesday, 7/6/2004

Diocese copes with fewer students

BY SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

After a string of dramatic changes - including the closing of some elementary schools and the creation of a separate Catholic junior high school - education leaders in the Toledo diocese want to plan better to ensure the future of Catholic education here.

"We want to be a little more proactive so that if changes need to be made, they're made in the right way so that we maintain viable Catholic schools," said Jack Altenburger, superintendent of education for the Toledo Catholic Diocese.

A task force made up of diocesan leaders, principals from Catholic elementary and high schools, and Toledo Municipal

Judge Gene Zmuda has been meeting this year and plans a report to the bishop in the fall about the future of Catholic schools in the area.

"When all is said and done, some of the schools will be exactly as they are now - they're doing very well - and in some areas, we're going to need to build schools," Mr. Altenburger said. "What we don't want is 10 years from now to say all of our Catholic schools are serving the wealthy suburbanites and nobody in the middle income or poor."

A big part of the task force's work involves studying the urban elementary schools: Queen of Apostles, Rosary Cathedral, St. Adalbert, St. Charles, St. Hedwig, St. Hyacinth, and St. Elizabeth Seton, Mr. Altenburger said. According to diocesan records, enrollment in these schools has dropped from 1,845 in 1999 to 1,142 this year, a 38 percent drop. During the same period, the number of urban Catholic schools fell from 10 to seven, which are supported by 12 parishes.

"There's going to have to be some tough decisions in some areas," Mr. Altenburger said. "The old model, the parish school, doesn't work in some areas. They can't fund it. We've got to find a better way to fund it or change it. This is maintaining and providing an impetus for schools to grow or they're going to go away."

Meanwhile, the 7,268 students who attended other Catholic schools in Toledo dropped 16 percent to 6,114 from 1999 to 2004, according to the diocese, while the number in suburban schools dropped nearly 8 percent, from 2,714 to 2,509.

"We're just trying to, in one sense, dream and in another sense figure out how the schools could look in the future," said the Rev. Robert Reinhart, pastor at Blessed Sacrament in West Toledo, who sits on the task force's configuration committee. "What the task force hopes to do is to try to have some way of planning this in an organized fashion that isn't just waiting until you're so desperate that you have to close."

Jane McGee, principal at St. Ursula Academy and a task force member, said the panel's focus on the elementary schools is important to high schools as well. "We have a strong vested interest in their future," she said. "We have a large number of students who come from Catholic elementary schools."

Mr. Altenburger said the task force will focus on Toledo schools this summer but would likely work through the next school year to discuss schools in northwest Ohio, where the diocese covers 19 counties.

"If we had all the money we needed, I suppose we wouldn't have a task force. But even if we had more money, we're looking at what the latest research in education tells us about kids and how they learn and what they need," he said. "We need to provide not only that spiritual growth but parents are looking for high quality academics."

Contact Sandra Svoboda at:

svoboda@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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