Sacred Heart
Tom Barlas

VINELAND -- For the second year in a row, Sacred Heart High School students and their parents were told that the school would close at the end of an academic year.

But after a one-year reprieve, the end is now certain for the 86-year-old institution at East and Landis avenues here.

School officials told students, parents and staff gathered in the high school’s gymnasium at 8 p.m. Thursday that this year’s graduating class will be its last. Sacred Heart officials said the school was the victim of dwindling enrollment and no financial help from the Diocese of Camden.

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People leaving the meeting, which was closed to the general public, said the gathering was emotional, and many students and some parents cried over the upcoming closure. They said tears ran down Principal Charles Ottinger’s face as he spoke.

However, they said the biggest emotion was anger. They said the anger was directed at a diocese that many people in the gymnasium felt had abandoned the school and its supporters who worked so hard to keep it open.

“Betrayed,” said local resident James Goff as he left the building after the meeting.

Goff said his two daughters attend Sacred Heart, and they were so distraught that they could not attend the meeting. He said they will never have the privilege of graduating from Sacred Heart.

“We’ve been lied to,” Chase Farabella, a 16-year-old junior from Vineland, said, adding the diocese led him and other students to believe the school would remain open for years. “Now I have to find another school. I have to start all over.”

Another junior, 16-year-old local resident Nick Calabrese Jr., said he was in shock over the news.

“Not good,” he said quietly. “Not good at all.”

City resident Susan Stephens, whose son, Ben, is a freshman, called the whole situation “sad.”

“It’s not a surprise,” she said. “We couldn’t keep enrollment up.”

The decision to close Sacred Heart followed recent discussions with diocese officials, who determined that “we do not have enough of a student body to have an effective high school,” said Francis Reilly, president of the school’s Board of Limited Jurisdiction.

“We agree with that assessment,” Reilly said.

Sacred Heart has just 21 students enrolled for the next year’s freshman class and will have 52 graduating seniors, Reilly said. That means the school will fall far short of its goal to have a 200-member student body, he said.

Sacred Heart was built to hold 350 students, and it worked hard during the last year to increase enrollment. Sacred Heart even sent a team of student ambassadors to various elementary schools as part of the recruitment operation.

Reilly said the diocese also rejected a proposal by the school to supplement tuition for a period that was not to exceed the next four years. That could have made Sacred Heart more affordable for Cumberland County residents, he said.

According to Sacred Heart’s website, tuition for the current academic year is $7,995.

When asked how he felt, Reilly, who played a large role in the effort to prevent Sacred Heart from closing at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, replied, “Devastated.”

Sacred Heart is Cumberland County’s only Catholic high school. Reilly said parents and students attending Thursday’s meeting were given information about other private and public schools in the region.

“There are options if they want to remain in (Catholic) schools,” said Reilly.

Those options include Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, Gloucester County, St. Joseph High School in Hammonton, and St. Augustine Preparatory School in Buena Vista Township. Saint Joseph and St. Augustine are both in Atlantic County.

Thursday’s meeting was held in the same gymnasium where Sacred Heart officials told a shocked student body in January 2012 that the diocese planned to shutter the school at the end of the academic year.

However, the community and Sacred Heart alumni rallied to raise $17,000 more than the $300,000 they needed to collect by the May 1 deadline agreed to by the diocese. School officials also said that Sacred Heart secured five-year financial commitments from other contributors totaling more than $1 million.

Sacred Heart also opened for this current academic year with changes that included a school board to help govern operations and a streamlined operation.

Reilly said Sacred Heart will return the money not already spent on operations.

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