SHEBOYGAN FALLS — For 63 years, St. Mary School has provided Catholic education to students in this city of about 7,700 people, located just west of Sheboygan. With the conclusion of this school year, that era will end, as declining enrollment has dictated the closure of the school, according to Fr. Bob Lotz, pastor of Blessed Trinity in Sheboygan Falls, the parish associated with the school.

With an enrollment of only 44 students for K3 through eighth grade, closing had been a possibility for some time.

“This has been a whole process of about three years’ time with the parish council discussing the potential and the possibilities of having to close the school,” Fr. Lotz said.

“The real issue was never one of financial support … the parish has always felt the value of maintaining the school,” Fr. Lotz continued. “Certainly we were financially strapped, but our main reason for saying that we needed to look into other situations was because of the socialization process.”

Fr. Lotz explained that while a small school can be good, there was one grade with no students, one grade with one student and all the classrooms were looped, meaning there were two grades in each classroom. The largest two classes had nine students. “We tried our hardest to see if we could get more people involved,” he said.  

Last summer, according to Fr. Lotz, the parish council set enrollment goals for the school. In October, when it became evident that those goals weren’t being met, the decision was made to close the school by the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

However, there was still hope some form of full-time Catholic education could be offered.

“Our hope was that we were going to transition from having a 3K to eighth grade school to being a school that would primarily be an early childhood school from 3K through second grade so that we could provide religious training and education through first reconciliation and first Eucharist,” Fr. Lotz said.

The goal was to have 15 students enrolled in the kindergarten program, and 15 students in the first and second grades, with a February deadline.

“By the end of February we did not have enough students in either of those two areas to offer the early education piece,” Fr. Lotz said.

So the doors of St. Mary School will close; however, the door remains cracked open a bit as Catholic education opportunities may be available if the parish council’s plan comes to fruition.

“Our hope now, and our plan, is to do a two-year planning process and a feasibility study to see if, in two years, we might be able to offer that early childhood component,” Fr. Lotz said.

That process will include working with the archdiocese and a visioning group to try to work toward that goal.

“And we really need to re-educate the parents as to the value of parochial education. That is part of our two-year feasibility study. We will look at how we want to retrain and re-educate our people to consider full-time religious education for their kids in a parochial school,” Fr. Lotz said.

Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, called this a unique approach to a school closing, and one which could be a pilot for future schools.

“Certainly those first few years of education are fundamental, with both the sacraments of reconciliation and holy Eucharist involved. It’s a vitally important time,” she said. “We absolutely support and want to help in any way we can.”

If the early education enrollment goals are met, the school will re-open for those students in the fall of 2015.   

In the meantime, there are parochial school options for the St. Mary students, with two Catholic elementary schools in Sheboygan, as well as a parochial school in Plymouth, approximately 10 miles away. A stipend will be available to these students to cover tuition, and any out-of-parish school costs will also be covered.

“We also have some scholarships available,” Fr. Lotz said.

The building housing the current St. Mary School will remain open with a new emphasis.

“We are reopening the school as The Catholic Life Center. And certainly one component of that would be the feasibility of this early education program that would use some of the classrooms,” Fr. Lotz said.

The school will also be used for several other purposes, including religious education classes, along with parenting programs that would address the importance of parochial education, as well as family issues and family-centered programs. In addition, a senior life program will be housed there.

“This is where the future comes into play,” Fr. Lotz said.

And while the priest is cognizant of and empathetic to the feelings of loss the parents and students of St. Mary are feeling, he also has high hopes for the future.

“It’s a very exciting time in that we’re looking at how a parish that had to face closing a school re-identifies its role and responsibility as a parish. How can we transition from being school-centered to being family-life centered?” Fr. Lotz asked.

Fr. Lotz doesn’t describe this as a unique plan, but he thinks it represents the challenges of many parish priests and councils who have to rethink and reconfigure the parish under the current needs and constraints of the population.

“I think this is a somewhat inclusive model and we hope to actually do a study of this and do some good research in it and offer it as an eventual pilot for parishes that are in transition,” Fr. Lotz said.