Alumni, parents shocked at school closing


Parents and alumni of the Visitation School, which has operated for more than three quarters of a century, expressed shock and disbelief at the announcement by the New York Archdiocese it will be closing the school in June.

The Archdiocese announced on Feb. 6 that the school at 171 W. 239th Street will be closing along with five others in the city. In an email to The Press, a spokesperson cited unspecified organizational issues involved in parish mergers.

“Taking it away is a slap in the face to the hard working families that just want their kids to get a great education in a Catholic setting,” Yokairy Tavarez, a 1993 graduate, said in an email to The Press.

The Visitation School first opened in 1932, with just 17 students, under the leadership of the Sisters of Charity at Mount Saint Vincent. During the decades that followed, several generations of local students grew up attending the school, and a number of past graduates, such as Tavarez, sent their own children to Visitation.

Another parent, who asked not to be identified by name, said, “The school, while not earning millions, would have been able to sustain itself and provide a community with quality education.”

This parent and others, such as Josephine Guzman, said their children were taking the news of the planned closure badly. Guzman said her daughter Elizabeth, a third grader, has been crying herself to sleep since she learned the news.

“What I love about Visitation is the dedication,” Guzman said. “For example, the principal, Mr. [Chris] White [is] running a tight ship. There is always discipline… but at the same time that nurturing environment, which made the kids and the parents feel real welcome.”

“It is a family,” she said.

A family with a lot discipline but also a lot of love, according to alumni.

Graduate Deirdre Daly recalled how former principal Sister Rosemarie Connell would plant her director’s chair outside a classroom. “We’d line up in alphabetical order waiting for our turn for a one-on-one with her—remember that sense of discipline and respect? There was a dash of fear in there as well, as we waited in that line,” Daly, a 1992 graduate, said in an email.

The former principal also left a memorable impression on Tavarez, who graduated a year later. Tavarez said she wanted to go on to the Academy of Mt. St. Ursula, while her friend Reina wanted to attend Cardinal Spellman High School. They each took the scholarship exam, and each ended up winning financial assistance to attend the other’s school of choice. Each planned to give up the scholarship to attend the school of her choice. When Sister Rosemarie learned of their plans, she called each school and each agreed to switch the scholarships, Tavarez said.

Steven Schindler, a 1968 graduate, recalled that parish priest Father O’Sullivan gave him a book by writer Flannery O’Connor for winning an award when he was in the eighth grade. He had not heard of the writer at the time “Little did I know that years later, Flannery O’Connor would become a huge influence in my own writing,” Schindler said in an email. The author of books “Sewer Balls” and “From the Block,” which discusses the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s, Schindler has also written and produced news, sports and entertainment programming and won four Chicago Emmy Awards.

Nicole Ravetti, a 1999 graduate and parent of a second-grader, described the planned closing as the end of a community that played an important part. The closing “lessen[s] the value of a Catholic school education by overcrowding the small schools that are still opening, along with creating a generation that views the Church in a negative way,” Ravetti said in an email.

In a statement posted on its website, the New York Archdiocese said it would work with families to help them find new schools. But some alumni and parents have concerns about the schools on the list.

“The schools that they included there were some in the predicament we were in,” Guzman said in a telephone interview. “They were told that they could potentially close… Or the other schools are schools we [academically] outperformed year.”

Ravetti said the school had been approved for the city-funded Universal pre-K program, ranked in the top five in New York State and planned to start a basketball clinic next year.

In a statement posted on its website, Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools, said the planned closing was part of some “difficult but necessary decisions, and working together we will ensure our Catholic schools are stronger than ever.”

The Federation of Catholic Teachers said in a statement that the Archdiocese had given the organization “no prior warning” before the announcement and will result in hundreds of students, 76 full-time and part-time teachers without a school.

During previous closings, schools had the opportunity to draft a financial plan to keep them open and that the six schools did not have that chance, the teachers’ federation said. But the Archdiocese maintained that financial planning was not an issue.

“The decision to close Visitation School at the end of the current academic year was not due [to] budgetary considerations as the press release explains, but was made as a result of the logistical and operational challenges presented by the Archdiocese’s Making All Things New parish mergers,” said Nicholas Iacono, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, in an email to The Press.

“Therefore, the solicitation/submission of a financial plan would not have been pertinent to this situation.”

No decision has been made public about what would become of the school’s building. Visitation’s original building was demolished in 1950 to make way for the Major Deegan Expressway, and the current one opened three years later, according to the school’s website.

Before the school closes its door for the final time, Daly hopes that alumni could return for a final time. She said “every major, important moment my life took place at Visitation Church/School” and the school “instilled a sense of respect and discipline in me that will last forever.”