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St. Benedict Elementary Closes After 121 Years in Englewood

By Wendell Hutson | January 14, 2014 6:34am
 The Academy of St. Benedict the African, formerly St. Bernard, in Englewood closed Dec. 20, after more than 100 years in the neighborhood.
Catholic School Closes
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ENGLEWOOD — Two broken boilers helped sealed the fate of a Catholic elementary school that has been around for more than 100 years.

The Academy of St. Benedict the African at 6547 S. Stewart Ave., formerly St. Bernard, was founded in 1892 but closed its doors Dec. 20, according to Kurt Wittenberg, school principal.

The school, which had 94 students and an annual tuition of $3,500, was one of six elementary schools the Archdiocese of Chicago recently announced it was closing this year. Wittenberg said most of the students had transferred to the school's other Englewood campus at 6020 S. Laflin Ave. and to Visitation Catholic School, 900 W. Garfield Blvd.

He said the cost to fix both boilers and repair a nearby wall would have been prohibitively expensive.

"The first boiler broke down in November around Thanksgiving and the second boiler broken down Dec. 9, the same day we had a parents' meeting," Wittenberg said. "I estimate it would have taken $200,000 to fix the boilers and wall, and we don't have that kind of money."

The school had six teachers. Their last day is Friday, according to Wittenberg.

"They, along with myself, will be placed at another Catholic school to help out," he added.

A tough economy and competition from charter schools have made it tough for Catholic schools, Wittenberg said.

"Charter schools are free to attend, and charters do everything Catholic schools do except pray," said Wittenberg. "Charter schools have a rigorous curriculum, and their students wear uniforms just like Catholic schools."

Jodie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said officials value their partnership with the archdiocese and noted that many schools in her network share or use Catholic school facilities.

"Chicago families are looking for high-performing and safe schools that best fit the needs of their individual child and align with family values and financial constraints. Charter public schools, like Catholic and private schools, strive to provide students with  a mission-focused, high-quality education in a safe environment near their home," Cantrell said. "We look forward to our continued partnership with the archdiocese as we work together to ensure every student in Chicago has access to a quality education."

Gone are the days when neighborhood schools were the top choice for parents, Wittenberg said.

"Parents now are opting to send their children to the best possible school and at the lowest price, even if it means sending them outside the neighborhood," Wittenberg said.

As far as the future use of the three-story building, Wittenberg said that is up to the archdiocese.

Ryan Blackburn, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago, did not return calls seeking comment.

The archdiocese has more than 30,000 students at more than 100 Catholic elementary schools in Chicago.