BRIDGEPORT — Private-school students concerned about how the Archdiocese of Chicago will consolidate schools on the Northwest Side might take solace from Bridgeport Catholic Academy.
The Catholic school celebrates its 30th anniversary this month with an April 18 gala, as the successful product of a similar consolidation in the mid-'80s.
"I think the Archdiocese of Chicago has to be creative," said Jeffrey Sadowski, who was in the school's first graduating class in 1986. "I think consolidation will work, and they can use the template of the BCA moving forward."
At a time not unlike our own, of declining enrollments 30 years ago, the new Bridgeport Catholic Academy culled students from several schools in surrounding parishes to create a new elementary school at three campuses: in the old Nativity of Our Lord School building where it still stands, as well at All Saints-St. Anthony and St. Mary of Perpetual Help.
Over the years, those other campuses closed down as well, but Lillian Buckley, the school's development director, said the strong foundation laid at the outset enabled the school to thrive.
Buckley, a longtime Bridgeport resident who graduated in 1964 from the Nativity of Our Lord School building that Bridgeport Catholic Academy now occupies at 3700 S. Lowe Ave., eventually returned to serve as principal for 10 years until three years ago, when she stepped down. She said the school was the first case of the archdiocese consolidating schools when it launched 30 years ago.
"We're really a happy little place," Buckley said, "but a very solid rock in the community."
That wasn't necessarily set in stone, however, when the school launched by consolidating students from All Saints-St. Anthony, St. Bridget, St. David, St. George, Immaculate Conception, St. John, St. Mary of Perpetual Help and Nativity of Our Lord.
"I had the pleasure of being the principal of Nativity of Our Lord from 1982 until 1985 and then to continue at the newly formed Bridgeport Catholic Academy until 1989," recalled Chris Dransoff, one of the three original BCA principals. "The newly formed six-parish consolidation presented many challenges, so many lessons in human nature."
Dransoff called it "a real learning experience for me and one that I have never regretted, though probably the hardest thing I've ever done."
Dransoff went on to serve as principal at three public suburban schools and is now principal at Visitation Catholic School in Elmhurst.
Sadowski echoed that sentiment from a student's standpoint.
"It was very challenging," he said. "It was very difficult, because everyone still had ownership of their schools that they originally went to."
"It's tough," Buckley said. "You're almost losing your identity, and nobody likes to lose their identity, so you try to do the best you can with what you've got."
That they did, although it wasn't easy, especially at first.
"It was very challenging that first month," Sadowski said. "It was a tough time. But at the end I think it was the best thing for the schools."
Sadowski said that the eighth grade at the North Campus, at the old All Saints-St. Anthony School he'd attended, burned through four teachers just in that first month.
"It was a turf issue," he said. "Students had a chip on their shoulder. You know, 'Why was my school closed?'
"It was a melting pot," he added, emphasizing the diversity, in both race and income, that continues to mark the various areas of Bridgeport to this day. "We really forged relationships. Today, the kids I met that year in eighth grade are still my best friends."
What turned the trick?
"You had so many passionate adults who volunteered," Sadowski said. "It was a very well-thought-out plan that was executed perfectly."
Consolidating schools enabled them to consolidate resources, so that suddenly students had regular gym classes, as well as the option to play football and basketball for the school team or take part in the drama club, where before there weren't any such activities.
"It offered more enhanced educational and extracurricular options," Sadowski recalled. "When I was at St. Anthony, all that we had was a bowling team."
According to Buckley, the three principals worked to bring the same classes from the three campuses together as often as possible, such as for holidays at Christmas and Easter, and for Communion and Confirmation ceremonies, in order to foster a sense of unity.
"They really wanted to be a team, because they had to," Buckley said. As a result, even students who had seen their old schools closed "didn't feel a complete loss."
"There wasn't one thing," Sadowski agreed. "There was just a culmination of events that just made people feel comfortable."
Sadowski, however, did mention a contest the schools held at this time 30 years ago, to have students from the various schools select a BCA mascot as a way of installing a common identity. A sixth-grade girl won by suggesting a raccoon, and the school's teams are still known as the Bandits, with a raccoon as their mascot.
"Bridgeport Catholic Academy was the center of my life from July 1, 1985, to June 30, 1988," added Jerry Molitor, another of the original principals.
"For me, that time was an exciting opportunity to work with two very talented co-principals, dedicated teachers and staff, caring parents desiring the best for their children, generous students who daily gave examples of kindness, cooperation and achievement, pastors and local school boards willing to unite in a new vision for excellence and parishioners who had great pride in their church and local community."
Molitor, who retired two years ago, said, "I was greatly enriched."
"I was at Bridgeport Catholic Academy from the opening in 1985 until 1988," said Sal Guccione, third of the three co-principals. He called his years at the school "some of the best of my entire career," adding, "I will forever cherish the friendships and relationships formed with fellow administrators, teachers, parents and students. I feel honored to have served as one of Bridgeport Catholic Academy’s founding principals."
Guccione is now a consultant to Catholic schools, after serving 25 years as an assistant superintendent of schools for the archdiocese following his term at Bridgeport Academy.
Those three principals will be honored at a 30th anniversary gala, "Honoring Our Past, Celebrating Our Future," on April 18 at the Italian American Club, 3031 S. Shields Ave., which is donating the venue. The event will honor not just the original principals and the first graduating class, but also the Class of 1990, marking its 25th anniversary reunion, and the Class of 1965 from Nativity of Our Lord School, marking its 50th.
Tickets are $80. The Rev. Daniel Brandt, chaplain for the Chicago Police Department, will return to Nativity of Our Lord Parish, where he once served, to act as master of ceremonies. The Vander Cook Jazz Ensemble will provide the music, thanks in part no doubt to Sadowski, who is director of philanthropy at Vander Cook College of Music after he, like Buckley, did a 10-year term at Bridgeport Catholic Academy, as a teacher at the school where he was once a student.
Sadowski, looking back, said students benefited from the consolidation, and the school continues to flourish.
"Overall, it was the best thing for that community," he said, and in that it offers hope for students about to go through the same sort of consolidation on the Northwest Side.
Bridgeport Academy was at the center of an "All Schools Reunion" two years ago, which attracted alumni from All Saints-St. Anthony, St. Bridget, St. David, St. George, Immaculate Conception, St. John, St. Mary of Perpetual Help and Nativity of Our Lord.
"A lot of work was put into this consolidation," Buckley said, "a lot of collaboration between the different parishes.
"There's only so much money you can spend on aging buildings and small classroom sizes," she added. "You have to move forward. There's no way around it."
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