RACINE — Emblazoned with dollar signs printed with green crayon, the manuscript paper was folded in half – a handmade card decorated and given to his mother to bring to work. The words were straightforward, “Please help save our school!”
Young Luis (last name withheld), a fifth grader, proudly brought the card to the teary-eyed school secretary with 37 well-worn $1 bills enclosed. A glimmer of hope included, and along with it, a small testament of love the young student has for the tiny Racine Catholic School.
The rumors were escaping before it was official: San Juan Diego Middle School was in financial trouble and students like Luis were worried.
“This was the hardest part,” admitted Laura Sumner Coon, executive director for the fifth through eighth grade school. “His mom brought that little card to her entry level, minimal wage job and her co-workers all donated a dollar to help.”
But it was too little and too late to keep the 70-student school open after the final desk closes this month. The unique school opened in 2003 to offer Catholic education to children living in poverty and relied upon charitable funds for its survival. Due to the present economic condition, the board of directors determined that keeping the school open was no longer an option.
“We exist on donations and have from the beginning, and our primary funding sources are individuals, most of whom lived their careers and are in retirement. They had resources invested and lost lots of money in the economy,” said Coon. “We also had some funds coming from grants and foundations, but they also lost lots of money. We have never had a situation where we had an anchor of funding from any steady sources.”
Unlike in Milwaukee where school choice vouchers are an option for the low income residents, San Juan Diego struggled to make ends meet with low parental donations. Although neighboring parishes and individuals have helped over the years, the downward economic spiral has affected them and they are struggling to hang onto their parishes and schools.
“The community really supported us in the past six years; we had over 1,600 contributors donate $4.5 million because they believed in our model,” said Coon.
The school had planned for its biggest fund-raiser on June 5 at Festival Hall, but it was cancelled following the decision to close. School officials urge all San Juan Diego supporters to continue their pledges and commitments of financial support to help the school meet its financial commitments.
“Even though the school is closing, we still have staff to pay through the summer,” explained Coon. “Like many schools, we have contracts that provide for this. It is unique but we still need to raise money to pay the teachers and staff. We are hoping that the people who understood our mission and supported it will help us close responsibly and be able to meet staff, vendor and creditor obligations.”
For the remaining students, San Juan Diego staff will assist parents in placing their children in new schools for the upcoming year.
The public can still help share the mission of San Juan Diego, to offer children from low-income households an opportunity to attend a Catholic school they could not otherwise afford. Some families will wish to place their child in a local faith-based school but will need tuition assistance. San Juan Diego Middle School officials urge local parishes to help provide assistance for families who wish to continue their children’s faith-based education and will help coordinate a match among donors who wish to sponsor a student at another faith-based school.
Coon believes the school closing should act as an alarm for the Racine community, because for too long, children in poverty have been sliding into educational duress and hopelessness.
“We have not acted quickly enough to reorganize our public schools into successful learning institutions and opened the door of private, faith-based schools for people without the means to pay for such education,” she said. “It is my hope Racine learns from this experience and that people demand better education for the poor, push our legislators to expand the parental choice voucher program throughout the state and begin opening doors to educational opportunity for the most vulnerable children among us.”
The eighth grade class graduated on June 9. The last day of school was June 10. A public gathering to celebrate San Juan Diego accomplishments, thank the school’s donors and volunteers, and bid farewell to students will be at 5 p.m., June 14 at the school.