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Blytheville school closing follows painful trend

'Financial hardship' is cited for shutdown

Published: August 18, 2007   

A sad trend is continuing in the Diocese of Little Rock with the closing of a third school in three years.

Immaculate Conception School in Blytheville announced this week that it will not reopen for the 2007-2008 school year. Pastor Father Joseph Pallo sent a letter to Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, diocesan administrator, on Aug. 3 requesting the school close. In consultation with superintendent Vernell Bowen, Msgr. Hebert approved the decision Aug. 7.

The school served 54 students in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade; 75 percent of them were not Catholic.

"We fully understand that to remain open would only bring additional financial hardship upon our already financially stressed parish. We can no longer do this. At this time there is no alternative but to close the doors to our school," Father Pallo, who has served the parish and school since 1989, wrote in his letter to Msgr. Hebert.

Father Pallo was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

In a letter to the parish community, Msgr. Hebert wrote, "In more recent years, the number of Catholic students declined and you reached out to the community at large to educate children of all faiths and backgrounds. This too was the work of Christ."

Blytheville, located on the border where Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee meet, is one of the largest steel producing cities in the country. Both the town and school have experienced a drop in population. From 2000 to 2006 the number of Blytheville residents dropped 10 percent to 16,403.

In a review conducted by Bowen of the school's enrollment since 1975, the student population has fluctuated between 57 and 144. In 1996 Immaculate Conception School enrolled 100 students. When Presbyterian Christian Academy closed in 2001, the enrollment jumped to 129, but three years later the enrollment was down to 84. By this summer, only 29 students had committed to returning when the school year was scheduled to start Aug. 16.

The previous school year count of 54 was its lowest but still allowed the school to remain open, Bowen said.

"If they had 50 or even 45 students registered, they would have opened," Bowen said.

Nearly all of the students are expected to enroll in local public schools. Private education in Blytheville is limited. Pathway Christian Academy serves students through 12th grade.

Susan Dryer, principal for the past two years, attended Immaculate Conception School from the first through eighth grade in the 1950s.

"It has meant a choice," she said of the school's impact on the town. "It's been here. I would hear from people in the community, 'We've got to keep this school' and they are non-Catholics. They have a love for the school because it has been here for so many years."

In the end, Dryer said the school wasn't able to overcome the persistent rumors in the community of closure.

"Since I have been here, there have been rumors that the school was going to close. Because he didn't have the numbers (of students registered) we didn't have the teachers. ... They were missing the boat about what Catholic education is about ... The love of God."

Dryer said she personally called each teacher and school family Aug. 2 and 3 to notify them of the school closure. For the principal, her greatest feeling is "disappointment."

"I describe it as a death," she said. "It is like losing something precious. It hurt our priest. It hurt me. It hurt my family. ... This is when we put our faith in God."

Bowen said the financial situation in Blytheville is similar to many schools that are forced to close.

"The demographic shift is a big factor in schools," she said. "The parish census indicates the students aren't there and the U.S. census does too."

The school also owed the Diocese of Little Rock money for unpaid insurance premiums. Bowen and Greg Wolfe, diocesan finance director, visited the school in November to discuss finances.

"Greg and I said they must have a balanced budget and pay back what is owed to the diocese," Bowen said. "We didn't want to place the parish in debt."

Immaculate Conception School has served Blytheville for 92 years. The parish, then known as St. Peter Church, opened a school for students in first through eighth grades, in 1915. Like many communities in northeast Arkansas, the sisters at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro were the teachers.

"At the time of the school opening there were about 13 Catholic families in Blytheville," according to a 1986 article in Arkansas Catholic about the school's 70th anniversary. "Two nuns came from Holy Angels Convent to staff the school and when the doors opened there were about 40 students."

Because students came from Osceola and surrounding areas, St. Peter's was also a boarding school. They arrived by bus on Sunday and went home for the weekend.

From the school's early days, it served as many Catholic children as non-Catholic.

"Fifty percent of the pupils are non-Catholics," according to a 1925 published history of the parish and school. "Their religion is never interfered with, and during the period assigned to religion they are permitted to follow their secular studies."

In the early 1940s, the pastor, Father John J. Thompson, started a fund to build a larger school. The school only had three classrooms but was serving 150 children.

A new school was built in 1952. In 1968 the school stopped offering seventh and eighth grade and in 1971 a kindergarten program was started.

In 1986 Holy Angels announced it could no longer staff the school.

Bowen said other schools could close in eastern and southeastern Arkansas where the populations are decreasing.

"There is a possibility (of more school closings)," she said. "If the parishes can support them and enrollment stays where it is, they aren't in danger."

In 2005 Holy Redeemer School in El Dorado closed and in 2006 Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Little Rock shut its doors. The merger of St. Patrick and St. Mary schools in North Little Rock also resulted in a drop in Catholic school students served.

Bowen said around the country generally suburban schools have waiting lists while inner city and rural schools are closing.

"It's a trend we are seeing nationally. There has been a drop in enrollment in the past 10 years," she said. "We've had a lot of school closings over the years and a lot of them had to do with demographics."


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