By Michèle De Meglio
With tears in their eyes and yearbooks in their hands, teachers and students at St. Thomas Aquinas School said goodbye for the final time. Open for nearly 80 years at 1501 Hendrickson Street, the school is one of 22 the Diocese of Brooklyn has ordered to close their doors for good. While the last day of the school year is generally a joyous occasion for students, children – as well as educators – leaving St. Thomas were consumed by emotion. As seventh-grader Tyesha Lespinasse got her autograph book signed by her favorite math teacher, a St. Thomas fixture wished her friends well. Working as a crossing guard in front of the school for 26 years, Marjorie Corda was bombarded by teachers and children who presented her with presents, flowers and pink cotton candy. St. Thomas’ students and staff have had several months to prepare for the closing of the school. In February, the Diocese of Brooklyn announced plans to close 17 of the borough’s Catholic schools and nine others in Queens. Citing declining enrollment and an inability to cover the rising cost of running the schools, the diocese said it could no longer afford to keep the schools open. The diocese had explained that enrollment at all Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens has decreased by 11,000 students in the last five years. Last year alone, the diocese said it provided $7 million in assistance to schools whose revenues failed to meet expenses. Parents fought the closings by staging protests and encouraging their local elected officials to lobby for the schools to remain operational. Several schools were given an opportunity to stay open. Shortly after the closings were announced, many schools were given one month to create a business plan outlining how they would support themselves financially over the next three to five years without financial assistance from the diocese. St. Finbar’s School in Bath Beach, Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s School in Carroll Gardens, St. Virgilius School in Broad Channel, Queens, and St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr School in Ozone Park, Queens, were the only schools to submit business plans, all of which were approved. St. Thomas did not submit a business plan. Diocese Spokesperson Frank DeRosa explained that, in the fall, many of St. Thomas’ students will attend classes at a new regional site to be located at Our Lady Help of Christians School, 1340 East 29th Street. “At this point, there are at least 100 of the St. Thomas Aquinas students that are going to be going there,” he said. The future use of St. Thomas’ school building remains up in the air. “There has been no decision made at this point,” DeRosa said.