As schools release students for the summer months, more changes in the Johnstown area’s Catholic schools were announced Friday.
According to a press release from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, seventh- and eighth-graders enrolled in parish-based schools will now attend Bishop McCort Catholic High School for the 2016-17 school year.
The new regional school will be named Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in honor of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
It was previously announced that four current Catholic schools – Cathedral Catholic Academy, Our Mothers of Sorrows School, St. Andrew School and St. Benedict School – would close to create a regional pre-K to eighth-grade system.
The original plan called for a middle school at the St. Andrew’s site, where a new STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – education format was planned to ease the transition into Bishop McCort’s curriculum.
But, after input from the Diocesan Finance Council, the regional school’s board decided that the Bishop McCort site presented a better opportunity.
“The board believes that the Bishop McCort building, which is already well-equipped for science and technology, can better accommodate students, thus avoiding tuition increases to pay for upgrades at the current St. Andrew School building,” the release states.
“A significant tuition increase could make the cost of Catholic education out of reach for many families. The new middle-school curriculum and the administration team previously announced will remain the same.”
Arrangements for students in grades pre-K through six will remain the same. Those students will attend classes at either the current Our Mother of Sorrows School building, referred to as the West Campus, or the current St. Benedict School site, which will be called the East Campus.
Tuition for Divine Mercy Catholic Academy students in kindergarten through eighth grade will be $2,450 per year for Catholic students and $4,800 per year for non-Catholic students, along with the $800 per family fundraising requirement and a comprehensive fee of $125.
According to the board’s release, Catholic schools in the Altoona and Johnstown quadrants are facing declining enrollment and rising costs, which places a great financial burden on parishes. Regionalization in those areas is part of an effort by Bishop Mark Bartchak to ensure that Catholic education remains available, accessible and affordable in Altoona and Johnstown for years to come.
Johnstown Catholic school parents have been expressing concern about changes to the regional school configuration, which was announced early this year.
One parent told The Tribune-Democrat she signed her student up to attend what will be the former OMOS school.
But the thought of sending a young student to a high school environment, in this case, Bishop McCort, is unthinkable, she said.
The parent declined to give her name, saying she was worried that “speaking out” against the diocese could lead to “vindictive” action toward her child.
Enrollment numbers appear to be driving the move, she said.
“They’re telling us they are doing what’s in the best interests of our children,” she said.
“It’s three months before the beginning of the next school year. How are they going to figure out this whole thing in three months?”
Diocesan priests, Catholic school educators and school parents recommended the three-school system after studying the idea for more than a year and hiring consultants to assist in the move.
The group chose the option to open a middle school after numerous parents expressed concern about shifting those same students to McCort in an October town hall.
Bishop McCort Principal Tom Fleming agreed with the board’s decision, saying the school has more capacity and better ability to align courses for the incoming students.
“We have the infrastructure to accommodate those two grades,” he said.
Middle school students in the new system will be kept separate from students in grades 9 through 12 for the majority of the day, Fleming said. Additional staff will be hired and existing staff will adjust for the change, he added.
Tony DeGol, the diocese’s secretary for communications, said the pastors of each current school were notifying parents of students Friday about the changes and will likely hold informational meetings next week. An open house for students who will be in seventh and eighth grade next year will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. June 5 at Bishop McCort.