The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

State's last black Catholic school to close

St. Peter School opened in 1889 as the Colored Industrial Institute and served black students in the area for more than 120 years

Published: May 12, 2012   

PINE BLUFF -- After 123 years of serving the Pine Bluff community, St. Peter School will close its doors May 25.

This spring the school announced it needed at least 60 registered students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade in order to open in the fall, but with only 37 students signed up pastor Father Anil Thomas, SVD, decided the parish could not subsidize the school and keep it open. All Catholic schools typically use tuition to cover the majority of their operational expenses, said

Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic schools. St. Peter Church, with only 75 registered families, supported the school through monthly collections and paying the water bill, but did not give the school a direct subsidy, Bowen said.

"I told you it is my feelings (to keep the school open), but I can't work with my feelings," the pastor told his small staff May 4 before publicly announcing it to the media and school board and sending home a letter to parents. "We don't have any money to run the school next year and we don't have enough enrollment. … It is very hard, but we don't have the resources."

2011 seemed to have several bright spots for the state's only black Catholic school and one of the oldest Catholic schools in the state. In November 2010 Trinity Episcopal School announced it was closing in May and many of that school's families seemed interested in attending St. Peter. St. Peter principal Dr. Carol Ann Beeman said the school might even be able to move to a larger campus at St. Joseph Church, also in Pine Bluff, to accommodate the growing enrollment.

In March the school adopted a new logo and announced it would implement the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program as well as expand its art classes for the fall.

When the goal of 100 students was not met during the summer 2011, Beeman said the school would work during the 2011-2012 school year to recruit more students and move the school in the fall of 2012.

Father Thomas, a young priest originally from India, was assigned to St. Peter Church in August. With Beeman taking medical leave, Father Thomas asked the diocese's school and finance offices to assess the school's finances and operations. Many of the new families began to withdraw their children from St. Peter. By November the pastor announced that the school could not stay open through May if $175,000 was not raised. His 7-7-7 Plan was unveiled. In seven days the school needed to raise the money to stay open for seven more months. A seven-year plan would be created to look toward the future of St. Peter School.

Within six days, the money was raised and Pine Bluff parishioners, alumni and business people saw a renewed hope the school could once again become financially stable.

In January the Pennies for St. Peter campaign was launched and several Catholic schools raised $8,995 to support the school.

Even in April, Father Thomas tried to garner more interest in the school by unveiling St. Peter Academy of Health, which would focus St. Peter's curriculum toward health education and health careers.

During the spring semester, enrollment dropped from 64 to 58 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, and pre-registration was not going well. After consulting with Bowen and Bishop Anthony B. Taylor, Father Thomas decided May 2 that the school would not reopen.

Father Thomas said he is convinced that something good will come out of the sad situation. He is concerned for the students and teachers who dedicated years to St. Peter School.

"Your relationship with the children is love. It is just like a mother and children. That is what gave me the strength to endure these struggles."

Bowen and associate superintendent Theresa Hall traveled to Pine Bluff to personally address the staff and attend the press conference. Both women visited Pine Bluff often in the fall to assist Father Thomas and work with the faculty and staff.

"I love all of you and I love the kids," Bowen said, holding back tears. "What keeps this school going is the staff here."

The school has seven teachers, four staff members and two teachers who provide tutoring through the Pine Bluff School District. Its interim principal is Sylvana Niciteretse.

"It is bittersweet," Niciteretse said, "but the way I look at it, when one door closes another door opens. I always walk by faith. I have to appreciate what I have learned. Everybody helped me. I am really proud that (the teachers) stayed together as one."

Twenty-year veteran Della Lee, the third- and fourth-grade teacher, said the closing will be sad for the community.

"It's a community service for the students and the parents," she said. "A lot of people think of St. Peter's as a Christian environment. They come here to learn about God and learn social skills, academic skills. … It's a legacy here. You will always have a lot of people talk about what we have done here.

"Just like Father Thomas said, we are like a mother to them. We protected them. … It was a joy for me to come to work here every day."

Tempest Smith, the pre-kindergarten teacher who graduated from college last spring, said it was hard for her to lose students throughout the school year.

"A lot of parents were scared," she said. "We said, ‘Please stay, please stay.'"

Brandon Smith, who came to St. Peter two years ago as a new teacher, said it was Sister Denise Duplessis, DC, who gave him the confidence to be the best music and physical education teacher he could be.

"She held my hand and said, ‘Whatever you do, you will do well.' I hold on to that."



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