HOWELL - When Mother Seton Academy announced plans last Friday to close at the end of the school year, parents took quick action.
“We were blindsided,” said Beth Femiano, the mother of two students and president of the school’s PTA. “Nobody knew about it, and nobody gave us a chance. They never said there was a potential the school might be closing and never gave this group a chance to fight for their school. We are willing to do so.”
The announcement from the Diocese of Trenton occurred late on Friday in the form of a letter to parents and a news release to the media.
The diocese, which operates the pre-K-to-eighth grade school, cited enrollment declines from 300 to 126 students in just the past two years, along with a $140,000 deficit.
“As co-directors of Mother Seton Academy, we write to you today to announce a sad, but unavoidable decision about the future of our school,” the Rev. John P. Bambrick of St. Aloysius Parish in Jackson and the Rev. Peter J. Alindogan of St. Veronica Parish in Howell said in a letter to parishioners and parents.
"After careful analysis of enrollment and financial challenges; consultation with advisers at the parish and diocesan levels, and prayerful discernment of any available options, we must formally announce the closing of Mother Seton Academy at the end of the present school year,” they wrote.
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But dozens of parents have since spoken out and claimed they were not informed in time to find other alternatives or seek a solution to the problems raised.
“At MSA, we are all like a family. That is something you simply cannot get at public school,” Melissa Clemens, a mother of two who launched the petition last weekend, which already has garnered more than 1,000 names, said via email. “The strong sense of community is irreplaceable. The email we received on Friday, January 7th, broke our hearts. We are sad and we are mad. We are mad that we were blindsided.”
She and several other parents also contend the 126-student enrollment number is misleading because it does not include a growing pre-K and kindergarten enrollment that would bring it up to 176 students.
They also contend that the 2019 enrollment figure of 300 students represents the number of students that had been at the former St. Aloysius School in Jackson and St. Veronica School in Howell. They merged that year to form Mother Seton Academy, which exists in the former St. Veronica School.
“This rash decision was made singlehandedly by the two priests who apparently never wanted to see this school succeed,” Clemens added. “They went straight to the bishop and presented false enrollment numbers and info and had him sign off on the school’s closure without consulting anyone in the school or on the board, yet alone the families of the students.”
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School administrators and the Diocese of Trenton did not respond to requests for comment.
In a notice placed on the school’s website, officials stated, “Despite the important and worthwhile effort to keep a Catholic school education available in our area, and the hard work invested in this ideal by so many in our community, we have been impacted by factors that impeded our ability to reach our goals. The most profound challenge has been declining enrollment, which, along with the coronavirus pandemic, has compromised our ability to sustain operations without significant outside assistance.”
The tuition, which is on a sliding scale based on the number of students from each family, begins at more than $5,000 per year.
Parents say they could have helped find a way to keep the school open if they were given notice earlier.
“They sent a letter out via email, and we weren’t aware of anything or got communication that there was a problem with the school at all. It was not communicated to the parents,” said Chastity Percell, a parent of prekindergarten twins. “We didn’t have the opportunity to prevent a potential closure. It would have given us a time to put in the effort to try to prevent the closure. There was no end goal.”
An emergency meeting of parents was held at the school on Monday that included nearly 100 parents, organizers said, while the Facebook group, “Save Mother Seton Academy,” has sparked heated discussions and drawn over 200 followers.
Matthew Callahan, a Howell resident and father of two, said the way the closing was handled was wrong.
“There was no communication that this was a possibility. It seems like it was a unilateral decision,” Callahan said outside the school as he picked up his sons, Sean, 6, and Jack, 9. “They didn’t give parents or anyone a chance to save Mother Seton Academy.”
Jamie Gaciofano, a mother of two first graders from Jackson, echoed that view.
“When we first enrolled them in September there was no mention of them being in any kind of trouble,” she said. “This is completely out of left field and we were given no chance to find another place.”
Most of the parents who spoke outside of the school on Tuesday as they picked up their youngsters said they would rather keep them here for the small class sizes, dedicated staff and feeling of community.
“The education we get here is amazing,” said Melinda Diab, the mother of a first grader. “It is a safe environment. The teachers go above and beyond and there is really no other Catholic school that is this close.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of three books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Mother Seton Academy parents organize to save Howell NJ school