For the past week, it has been a rollercoaster ride for students and parents at St. Mel’s Catholic Academy in Flushing as they continue to fight to keep the school open for all students.
About 100 parents and students took to the streets on July 17 near St. Mel’s Catholic Academy, located at 154-24 26th Ave., protesting to save grades 4 through 8, as they scramble to find a new school for their children who they say have been displaced.
“We are grateful that St. Mel’s will remain open for younger students, but for the older students, it’s like they’re being thrown out and pushed to the side, and families aren’t going to realistically go to two different buildings to bring their kids to school if they can all be together in one place,” said Alie Ziraschi, a parent of three daughters — ages 4, 7 and 10 — who attend St. Mel’s.
Although St. Mel’s Catholic Academy will no longer exist in its current form, the school announced the opening of its early childhood center program — consisting of nursery, pre-K, kindergarten and grades 1 through 3 — in September, continuing to serve children in Flushing, Bayside, Whitestone and College Point.
“In the midst of that sorrow came some joy and we were able to use the school’s fund balance — since we pay our bills and tuition — to keep the early childhood center here,” Father Joseph Fonti told QNS. “I’ve only been here for a year and I’ve fallen in love with the children and their families. The march generated from parents was a demonstration of love and loyalty for the school. I think it’s a natural response because they want the best for their children, and I want the best for them, too.”
It’s a small victory for St. Mel’s, which was one of 20 Catholic schools around the city scheduled to close in August due to financial strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Diocese of Brooklyn’s July 9 announcement.
The schools have seen a decline of enrollment over the last five years, but the registration totals for the upcoming school year are down significantly, largely due to the massive unemployment and loss of business that has resulted from the pandemic, the Diocese said in its statement to parents.
Ziraschi was in a state of “complete utter shock” when she read the email sent by the Diocese, she said.
“It really took my breath away hearing that news and seeing that email because it came out of nowhere,” Ziraschi said. “At the timing of it, it was terrible because of the COVID-19 issue and situation — the kids haven’t been in school since March and didn’t have any closure to the school year as it was … and now to have their school out of nowhere closed, it’s just shocking to us.”
Ziraschi is choosing to keep her two younger children at St. Mel’s, even if she has to find a new school for her older daughter, who is entering sixth grade in September.
“I’m worried about her because it’s depressing for her being at home and not being able to be with friends,” Ziraschi said. “Being away from that environment for so long and finding out she lost her school, it’s an injustice to these kids.”
During a virtual zoom meeting on July 13 with Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of schools, Ziraschi said it was a “slap in the face” to families who were muted and not given the opportunity to speak.
“Only certain questions were answered in the chat forum and the meeting abruptly came to an end,” Ziraschi said.
In response, Ziraschi initiated an online petition that has amassed 2,464 signatures thus far to keep the school open for all students who have committed by registering for the 2020-2021 school year.
“Out of all the schools that closed on the list in the Brooklyn Diocese, our school was the only school that did not have any debts — no outstanding bills, tuition, so we weren’t in a deficit in our school and that came as a shock to us also,” Ziraschi.
In a statement to QNS, the Diocese of Brooklyn said St. Mel’s is closing due to low enrollment.
In 2016, St. Mel’s had 208 students enrolled, and in the 2019-2020 school year that just ended, there were only 80 students —which represents more than a 60 percent decline in enrollment.
“The Diocese of Brooklyn has set a standard that 225 students are needed in a school to maintain fiscal stability, healthy class sizes, and a robust educational setting,” the Diocese said. “About 80 students are almost one-third of that requirement.”
Additionally, the Diocese said, the 2019-2020 school year ended with a projected deficit of more than $365,000, and the per-pupil actual cost was $9,920 compared to the actual 2019-2020 tuition charged of $4,800.
“The classes that are strongest at St. Mel’s are nursery through grade 3, so there is a proposal to run such a program for the 2020-2021 school year,” the Diocese said. “It is the hope of the administration to use this foundation to rebuild the school.”
Many neighboring principals have been busy conducting tours for students from St. Mel’s, according to the Diocese.
“Our school community has been welcoming and is registering students from St. Mel’s so that they can continue to take part in the value of a Catholic education,” the Diocese said.
In the meantime, Ziraschi said they’re making the argument that St. Mel’s should remain open for its remaining students, and take in the overflow of students from other schools, such as Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Whitestone.
Organizers of another online petition are requesting that the Diocese of Brooklyn consider merging the two schools since both have high academic ratings and want to stay open.
“We just hope that the Diocese hears us. The principal of our school can work out an agreement and keep incoming classes in the upper grades, while their siblings attend early childhood programs,” Ziraschi said. “I’m hopeful that something can be done.”
Jacqueline Loiacono, a kindergarten teacher at St. Mel’s, described the school community as a “tight-knit family” with a very supportive community.
“A lot of families said they’re not going anywhere. They’re just really hopeful that we get more students and St. Mel’s can grow into a bigger and better school than it is now,” Loiacono said.