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New Era For NW Side Catholic Schools? Enrollment Up After Years Of Decline

Parents, teachers and students gathered Sunday afternoon to celebrate the opening of Pope Francis Global Academy with a picnic at the school's south campus, which was once home to St. Pascal School. [DNAinfo/Heather Cherone]

PORTAGE PARK — Pope Francis Global Academy will open its doors Monday and usher in an new era of Catholic education on the Far Northwest Side as part of an effort to reverse decades of rising costs and declining enrollment.

But even before the first bell rang, the only Chicago school named for the pontiff reshuffled enrollment across the Far Northwest Side, according to a DNAinfo Chicago analysis of 14 Catholic schools.

Heather Cherone talks about changes to NW Side Catholic schools.

At the four parish schools closest to Pope Francis Global Academy's two campuses — St. Edward in Old Irving Park, St. Thecla in Norwood Park, St. Robert Bellarmine in Jefferson Park and St. Ferdinand in Portage Park — enrollment will rise between 6 and 12 percent, according to school officials.

Enrollment at all other Far Northwest Side Catholic schools is flat or slightly higher.

St. Monica, St. Constance and Pope Francis Global Academy declined to release enrollment data. [DNAinfo/Tanveer Ali}

Jodi Thyen, director of admissions and advancement for Pope Francis Global Academy, declined to release the enrollment at the regional academy, which has two campuses, one in Portage Park and one in Gladstone Park.

New students are enrolling "every day," Thyen said.

Terrence O' Rourke, the head of Pope Francis Global Academy, declined an interview request from DNAinfo Chicago to discuss the school's opening and enrollment.

Parents, teachers and students gathered Sunday afternoon to celebrate the opening of Pope Francis Global Academy with a picnic at the school's south campus, which was once home to St. Pascal School.

Rosalyn Vellurattii said her daughter, Ava, 6, is excited to start first grade at Pope Francis Global Academy after attending one year of preschool at St. Pascal. The year before, Ava attended preschool at St. Ladislaus School, which closed in 2014 because of declining enrollment.

Vellurattii said Pope Francis Global Academy is more diverse than other Catholic schools she considered.

"We hope the good vibes we got at St. Pascal will continue on," Vellurattii said.

Rosalyn Vellurattii celebrated the opening of Pope Francis Global Academy with her daughter, Ava, 6, who will start first grade Monday. [DNAinfo/Heather Cherone]

Amie Zander, a graduate of St. Pascal whose daughter will attend preschool at Pope Francis Global Academy, said she was committed to supporting Catholic education.

"I hope Pope Francis Global Academy will bring more stability," Zander said. "It is a bigger community and we are pooling our resources."

The four parish schools at Our Lady of Victory, St. Cornelius, St. Tarcissus and St. Pascal that closed in June and merged to form the regional academy had a combined 751 students last year.

Archbishop Blase Cupich said a new approach was needed to ensure a "sustainable legacy" for Catholic education in Chicago.

"This is a new way, a new opportunity," Cupich said. "God will make something great."

The academy's curriculum focuses on global studies in an effort to help students "develop into critical, analytical and creative 21st Century thinkers and problem solvers in a faith-filled environment," officials said.

Cupich will celebrate Pope Francis Global Academy's first Mass at 10 a.m. Aug. 29 at St. Tarcissus, 6040 W. Ardmore Ave., church officials said.

The two Far Northwest Side Catholic schools with the biggest jump in enrollment from last year are St. Robert Bellarmine in Jefferson Park, where 12 percent more students enrolled this year than last, and St. Edward in Old Irving Park, where enrollment is up 7 percent, school officials said.

St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Edward and St. Constance are the closest parish schools to Our Lady of Victory, which had 159 students when it closed, and St. Cornelius, which had 135 students.

St. Constance School spokeswoman Leslie Figler declined to release the school's enrollment, saying only the Jefferson Park school's "enrollment is steady and healthy."

St. Ferdinand in Portage Park will also have 7 percent more students this year than last. It is the closest school to St. Pascal, which had 207 students when it closed.

St. Ferdinand Principal Denise Akana held the top job at St. Pascal for 14 years before the merger.

St. Thecla in Norwood Park saw its enrollment rise 6 percent this year, Principal Kathy Collins said.

Many of the parents of new students at St. Thecla, which is the school closest to St. Tarcissus, said they chose the Norwood Park parish school instead of Pope Francis Global Academy, while others said they did not want to send their children to overcrowded public schools in Norwood Park, Collins said.

"We have grown significantly during the past year," Collins said, noting that the school began the 2015-16 academic year with 191 students but finished with 212 students.

In February 2015, St. Thecla declined to join the regional academy, with alumni, students and parishioners voting overwhelmingly to remain independent, the Rev. Gene Dyer.

St. Constance in Jefferson Park also declined to join the regional academy.

Both St. Thecla and St. Constance are now prohibited from borrowing money from the archdiocese to make up for shortfalls caused by low enrollment, rising costs or emergencies.

Officials with the Archdiocese of Chicago warned during community meetings that the two schools would be closed if its enrollment fell and their budgets slipped into the red.

Katherine Divita, whose son will start 5th grade this week and whose daughter will start 8th grade, moved her children from St. Cornelius in Jefferson Park to St. Mary of the Woods in Edgebrook when it became clear the parish school two blocks from her home would close.

Divita said she never seriously considered sending her children to Pope Francis Global Academy.

"I didn't want to chance it with my kid's education," Divita said. "I didn't want to gamble on a new school."

In addition, Divita said she was dissatisfied with the way officials from the archdiocese communicated with parents about the new school.

Divita said her children have been welcomed with open arms at St. Mary of the Woods, where enrollment is set to grow 2 percent, said Principal Mary Yamoah.

"It was the best decision we could have made," Divita said. "My kids couldn't be happier."

The largest Catholic school on the Far Northwest Side is Queen of All Saints, with 655 students.

Principal Kristina Reyes was hired to lead the Sauganash school after one year as principal of St. Cornelius. She said some students followed her to Queen of All Saints.

"We are blessed to have them with us," Reyes said.

St. Monica Academy Principal Ray Coleman said Friday the Norwood Park school was still adding students to its rosters, but declined to release its enrollment.

In 2013, archdiocese officials moved to close Our Lady Of Victory after its enrollment dropped below 200 students. Officials said the school needed at least 265 students to be self-sufficient.

St. Thecla, St. Eugene in Norwood Park, St. Francis Borgia in Dunning and St. Bartholomew in Portage Park all had less than 250 students as the school year began this week.

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