Catholic school merger causes an uproar

Parents of local parochial students might need to make new plans for next autumn


Saint Gabriel School students are guaranteed seats in St. Margaret of Cortona School, but will St. Margaret be able to hold more than 250 extra students from that school?

On Feb. 15, the Archdiocese of New York announced 12 schools would close for the next academic year, while four will merge — all in the Bronx and two in Riverdale. For the next academic year, St. Margaret school on West 260th Street between Delafield and Riverdale avenues will be called “St. Margaret of Cortona- St. Gabriel School.” The current home to Saint Gabriel on West 235th Street will close and most likely be sold by the archdiocese. The church will remain.

“Dean (Applewhite), he’s in kindergarten and already has about 21 students with him in the classroom,” his mother Anisha Applewhite said. “How many students are they trying to put in St. Margaret’s classrooms, 30? Are we turning into a public school?”

In addition to Dean, Anisha has two boys enrolled in Saint Gabriel. Her other son, Ashton, is in the fourth grade.

A class size bill sponsored by state Sen. John Liu was passed and then signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in early September. This means New York City must cap the size of classes for the 2023-28 academic years. Ultimately, city schools would have no more than 20 students in kindergarten through third grade, 23 students in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school.

In turn, more teachers would be required to teach students. If private schools follow the New York state rule, then schools would have to either build more classrooms or find other locations.

“Ashton’s thriving, he’s improved his literacy, he’s improved his math skills, problem-solving critical thinking skills,” Anisha said. “All of those skills has improved at Saint Gabriel’s.”

Ashton has 17 students in his fourth-grade class, which is perfect for him as he learns better in small class sizes.

Her fear is Ashton will lose something good that he already has. 

But Anisha stands her ground — public school is not an option. She wants her children to maintain a Catholic education, just like his other brothers. Meanwhile, as a public educator in high school, she already has experience with overcrowded schools, where they average 32 students in a classroom.

“I didn’t think it was on the chopping block because the people I talked to before we went here attested to the academic rigor,” William Sharp, parent of a sixth-grade student said about Saint Gabriel. “They could also attest to attendance. It wasn’t like the school lacked students.”

One of the reasons for the closure of schools and the merger is because of finances and under-enrollment.

Before the end of last year, to “promote continued growth” in the archdiocese, St. Margaret created a parent referral program. If a referral was made, a family would receive a credit of $500. Returning families would save $500 or more on 2023-24 academic year tuition.

“Will it be overcrowded? Are they expanding it? I just want to know what that would look like? Are they (St. Margaret) under enrolled?” Anisha said.

St. Margaret has 272 students and Saint Gabriel has 285. But Michael Deegan, the superintendent of schools, ensured parents their child will have a guaranteed seat within the saints Margaret-Gabriel school.

It is still being determined how the merger will work, as both school did not respond to The Riverdale Press for comment. Although, principal Anthony Naccari sent parents an email regarding how to enroll their children to the saint Margaret-Gabriel school as of Feb. 17.

A non-refundable re-enrollment fee of $125 per child will be included as they enter the new school. Financial aid or scholarships will still be available.

“I have mixed feelings about it, I’m like okay we’re not closing, great — but our lives still change,” Anisha said.

Anisha lives in the east Bronx near Woodlawn Cemetery and she drops her children off for school every day. Then she drives to work in Marble Hill. She told The Press that her commute will be longer as she must take another route to West 260th Street.

“Five or 10 minutes makes a big difference,” she said. “I might not be able to teach first period and if I keep Ashton in Saint Margaret’s, I might have to speak with my boss because it’s not fair to my colleagues.”

“My son is in the eighth grade and has a teacher now who’s been at Saint Gabriel’s for 45 years,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, professor and chair of religious studies at Manhattan College. “He is a deeply committed Catholic and a teacher, he brings that wealth of experience and knowledge to the classroom.”

Imperatori-Lee added there might be someone similar at St. Margaret’s, but Saint Gabriel will still lose something if they lose these teachers. Many teachers are long-time dedicated people who put their whole careers into the school.

Middle school math teacher Glen McCarthy has given his entire career there and it is still being determined what his position will be after the merger. And it is not only McCarthy and other teachers but custodians, nurses and colleagues, who are unsure of their jobs.

Employment is still up in the air for both schools. The superintendent of personnel and representatives from the Catholic teachers union will review the files of each teacher based on seniority and tenure.

“If it was a true merger, they should have found a way to keep everyone employed,” said a parent of Saint Gabriel, Kai-Lin Rausch.

“What will happen to principal Naccari?” Anisha said.

There can’t be two principals. Naccari said in an email to parents that he will conclude his principalship at the close of the school year. He has extensive years of teaching within the archdiocese and public schools.

It can be worse for seventh-grade students who are entering their senior year. Imperatori-Lee recalled when schools merge on occasion, they will let the seventh-grade class move as a unit with a familiar teacher. It allows them to integrate into a new place with minimal disruption.

But it’s hard say if something of that sort with happen.

“We don’t know how the church spends its money,” Imperatori-Lee said. “It’s not something that the Catholic Church usually does — have some kind of transparent accounting.  As a theologian, I can tell you it leads to a lot of mistrust. People don’t know where their money goes.”

Some have assumed that when the school buildings close the profit from the sale will help pay off a sex abuse settlement. For example, last year The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester reached a $55 million settlement for about 470 claims of sexual abuse.

The archdiocese has not mentioned the settlements as a driver of the closures. Officials have said maintaining buildings can be expensive, especially older buildings like St. Gabriel, St. Margaret, or any others in the Bronx.

Then there has been the impact of Covid on church attendance. Many people still haven’t gone back to church, which has affected the amount of donations collected.

Another reason the church is losing money is because of the relocation of Bronx residents. Imperatori-Lee explained as demographics go, as Catholics in the north get wealthier, they move away from the city and into the suburbs.

“I think that that the church’s presence, especially in in the Bronx, has been shrinking to the point where it seems to be given up on the Bronx.” Imperatori-Lee said.

The Church of the Visitation closed several years ago. Parents told The Press students went to Saint John as the church said seats were available. Then St. John was a victim of Covid-related closures as 20 Catholic schools were forced to close.

The professor said she “feels for those students.”

Ashton was a student at St. John, and he was holding poster signs in a rally fighting to have Saint Gabriel stay open, Anisha said. Once the announcement for the school closure was released, he couldn’t stop crying. He thought what he did was for nothing.

During remote learning at Saint Gabriel, Ashton had no friends. He eventually began to make new ones.

Anita Mitha of Kingsbridge is an eighth grader at Saint Gabriel who was once at St. John as well.

“I lost so many friends. We got separated and went to different schools. Some went to St. Margaret. Some went to Good Shepherd.

“To lose friends I made here in the lower grades and my grade hurts so much,” she said.

Saint Gabriel School, St. Margaret of Cortona School, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Anisha Applewhite, William Sharp, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Glen McCarthy, Kai-Lin Rausch, Anita Mitha,