VINELAND — Sacred Heart High School in Vineland will graduate its last class at the end of the current school year — a decision made by the Diocese of Camden that left students and staff stunned and in tears on Friday.
Bishop Joseph Galante announced in a letter sent to parents on Friday the diocese will close Sacred Heart, which was established in 1927, and two elementary schools — St. Mary Magdalen in Millville and Notre Dame in Newfield, Gloucester County — because of “declining area enrollment and financial pressure.”
On Friday night, about 450 people gathered in the Sacred Heart High School gymnasium — many outfitted in the high school’s colors of red and white — to express their concern .
Assemblyman Nelson Albano, an alumnus of the school, said he would do whatever he could to help keep the school open. That includes pledging $1,000 to any funds organized to benefit Sacred Heart High School, he said.
Albano said he was “demanding” a meeting with the bishop.
“We want answers,” he said. “We all want answers. I think it’s a disgrace the way they did it.”
Diocese officials said a meeting would be fruitless.
“The decision is final,” diocese spokesman Peter Fuerherd said. “There are no plans to reconsider it.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew also attended the meeting Friday night.
“To have this taken away is so wrong,” he said.
Jennifer Smith, of Vineland, said her daughter, who is a sophomore at the school, is “very upset and very concerned” about the announcement.
“She doesn’t want to leave at all,” Smith said before the meeting started. “As strong as it’s been we want to stay strong and continue.”
Before the meeting began, parents, students and alumni gathered form letters to mail to Galante.
Sacred Heart was built to hold about 350 students, but it only has an enrollment of 202, Galante states in the letter sent Friday. That includes a 67-student graduating class.
Two other diocesan elementary schools in Vineland — Bishop Schad and St. Mary’s — will remain open.
“There was a need to consolidate our two regional schools in Vineland as tuitions cannot be raised enough to keep up with costs and as parish subsidies have risen dramatically in recent years,” Galante said.
Principal Diane Tucker, who said she spent a sleepless night after learning Thursday about the closing plan, said the bad economy prevented many families from sending their students to Sacred Heart.
The basic tuition for the current school year is $7,995, according to Sacred Heart’s website. There are also other costs, such as a $495 general fee and a $125 technology fee.
Tucker said admission requests are about three times greater than they were at this time last year. Income from possible extra students still wouldn’t be enough to cancel the school’s operational deficit, she said. She declined to disclose the school’s finances.
Tucker said school officials were told they needed to get out of the “hole” they were in.
“We tried,” she said. “Extremely hard.”
Anne Hartman, assistant principal of academics and guidance, struck a more strident tone at the meeting Friday night,
“This is not a wake — this is a wake-up call for us and the diocese,” she said. “We are not going to quietly limp away — that’s not what Lions (the school’s nickname) do.”
Sacred Heart High School athletes will be able to play immediately at their new schools in 2012-13, according to Larry White, assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs New Jersey high school sports.
Lions student-athletes are not subject to the NJSIAA rule that requires transfers to sit the first 30 days of the season if they do not move.
“It’s a transfer if the school closes,” White said. “You can’t punish the kids because a school closes.”
Sacred Heart students were mobilizing by Friday afternoon in an attempt to convince the diocese to change its plan. A Save Sacred Heart High School page was up on Facebook.
“We refuse to go down without a fight,” a statement on the page reads. “We love our school, and we don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Junior Nate Jones, whose father, Keith, has worked at Sacred Heart for more than three decades, was leading students in developing a plan that he said will hopefully keep the school open. He said students also want to meet with Galante about the situation.
“This is our home,” Jones said.
Tucker said she will work with parents, students and the diocese in a last-ditch attempt to keep Sacred Heart open.
“There is always hope,” said Tucker, who has worked at Sacred Heart for more than 30 years.
Students said they were called from class to the gymnasium at about 10:30 a.m. on Friday. Students said school officials, including distraught-looking faculty members, arrived about 20 minutes later and said Sacred Heart was closing.
“They looked like someone died,” sophomore Dane Spolter said of the teachers.
Another sophomore, Katie Letizio, said students couldn’t believe what they were hearing, and many began to cry and sob. She said many of the students have attended classes together at Catholic schools since first grade.
“We’ve been together for 10 years,” she said.
Worse, Letizio said, is that some of those students may wind up graduating from different high schools.
“I can’t imagine we’re not going to graduate here,” she said.
“We all believe in this school,” said junior Angela Christaldi. “It’s our family.”
Julie Dwyer, who was at the school on Friday to pick up her daughters, Lindsay, a junior, and Lauren, a freshman, said she learned about the closing plans via a text from one of her daughters.
“I’m devastated,” Dwyer said. “My kids love this school.”
When asked if she knew where her daughters would finish high school, Dwyer said, “No.”
According to the diocese, the decision to close the three schools was reached after 10 months of consultations with pastors and principals.
The diocese said it’s willing to help families and staff during what it called a transition process:
n Students currently attending St. Mary Magdalen and Notre Dame will get a $1,000 tuition discount if they transfer to another Catholic school.
n Sacred Heart students who transfer to another diocesan high school will have their tuition reduced by $1,500.
n The Office of Catholic Schools will help Sacred Heart, St. Mary Magdalen and Notre Dame teachers find new jobs. Those who can’t be placed at another school will receive a severance package “to help them transition to new employment.”
“The changes were made most reluctantly,” Galante said in his letter. “I am aware that closing schools results in disappointment, sadness and even feelings of anger.
“Please be aware that the goal of these changes is to ensure a stable and, we hope, thriving Catholic school education in the Cumberland County area for the future.”
Staff writer Michael McGarry contributed to this report.
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