MCKINLEY PARK — A local school with more than a century's worth of history will soon close, leaving parents scrambling, teachers without jobs and administrators looking to sell the building.
St. Andrew Lutheran School recently announced the closing of its school building at 3659 S. Honore St. after dips in enrollment. The school projected 93 students would fill the classrooms in 2013-2014 school year, but there were only 61 actually enrolled and the number has since dropped to 56.
“People just can’t imagine this building being anything other than St. Andrew Lutheran School. There’s been a lot of people pushing, saying ‘There’s gotta be something we can do.’ Well, what is it? There’s just no way to keep operating,” said longtime pastor the Rev. Doug Semenske.
Semenske said the decline was years in the making.
Each new decade has brought with it new challenges, from shrinking local Lutheran populations to the loss of local manufacturing jobs that supported private tuition. A one-time gift of $300,000 willed to the school in 2007 has dried up.
And there’s a recent development — the proliferation of Southwest Side charter schools — that seems to irk the mild-mannered pastor.
St. Andrew lost 12 students to nearby charter schools this year, including nine who enrolled at the nearby Horizon Science Academy, the K-8 school that arrived amid controversy last year. (One family will keep paying the monthly tuition to St. Andrew honor their commitment to the school while sending its student to the tuition-free charter.)
Now the faculty is helping to shepherd students into other area schools by hosting parent meetings, where they’ve invited representatives from private, public and, yes, even charters, to make their pitches to parents.
“Most parents understand why we’ve had to close. They’re very concerned about where their child has to go next year,” he said.
About half of the faculty, made up of four classroom teachers plus a preschool helper, has new jobs lined up for next year. The school has launched a fundraising drive to help keep the lights on and pay salaries for the rest of the year.
“Not as bad as thought it would be but there’s been a lot of stress,” Semenske said.
The history of the school dates to 1883, when it opened at 3619 S. Wood St. as a branch of First Trinity Lutheran. Waves of immigrants to the area led church leaders in 1929 to open the new building, which includes classrooms, a learning center for pre-schoolers and offices.
School leaders are now focused on prepping the big brick building for sale. It could be used for another private or charter school or community center. One real estate expert told Semenske the building could be bought by a developer and knocked down for condos.
“I don’t know if I want to see that,” he said.
Semenske said whatever proceeds from the building sale would be used to pay back private loans from congregation members who’ve lent the school money, to renovate the church basement and to turn the rectory adjacent to the St. Andrew church into perhaps a community center or child care center.
The last-ever class is set to graduate on June 8. Only then, Semenske said, will he make a move on any real estate transactions.
“That will be a reality check to a lot of people, to see a 'for sale' sign here," he said.