As the academic year drew to a close this spring, the farewells were more emotional than usual at two Catholic schools in Jackson County. Both are closing for good, victims of tight budget and falling enrollment.
One, St. Mary’s High School in Independence, was founded in 1853.
The other, Christ the King Parish School in the Waldo area of Kansas City, opened in 1945.
Though members of the St. Mary’s community knew their school would close eventually, families at Christ the King were stunned to learn this spring they would have to find new schools for their children next fall.
In both cases, those saddened by the closings spoke of the close relationships they will always remember. Their schools went beyond education and faith. They were like family.
In the final days, those who called St. Mary’s home engaged in a familar ritual when facing a loss to be grieved. They ordered flowers and delivered baked goods.
Emily Echlin and family delivered homemade brownies to the school for the faculty and staff. Matthew and Steven Gordon and family gave platefuls of cookies and glass vases of red roses.
Shayla Jochum and her parents, Angie and Gary, sent a blue hydrangea. The Haggerty family dropped off cupcakes, and Drew, Alex, Julie and David Huttinger presented a pecan-sprinkled carrot cake.
Many people at St. Mary’s had hoped the school could remain open until 2015, when a larger Catholic high school is set to open in Lee’s Summit. That high school is expected to replace St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara High School in south Kansas City.
In the end, it came down to numbers. The diocese cited falling enrollment when it decided in January to close the more than 150-year-old school at 622 N. Main St. in Independence. Only 27 seniors graduated from St. Mary’s this year. Only seven enrolled for next year's freshman class.
The news was devastating to most, but soon became reality. Over the last few weeks, the school held an alumni-gathering picnic, complete with building tours and the auction of memorabilia for scholarships. Many continue to wear their “Forever A Trojan” T-shirts to show their pride.
“It’s been tough on everyone, but it’s settled in,” said Assistant Principal Sara Kenney, who was a 1987 graduate.
Kenney remembers going to sporting events to see her family play football, or her cousin wrestle. She later became a coach herself.
“I will always have fond memories of my St. Mary’s family and friends through my high school years,” she said.
Junior Anna Schnoebelen, who plans to attend O’Hara next year, would have been the third generation in her family to graduate. Her grandpa and grandma worked hard to send six children through St. Mary’s. Her parents continued the custom and sent Anna and her sister to Catholic school.
“St. Mary’s is more than a school to my family. It's been a tradition,” she said. “St. Mary’s is different from other schools by the fact that we are and forever will be a family. You wake up happy every day to go to school and see your teachers and classmates.”
Junior Selena Bedolla remembers the open arms that greeted her family, which includes aunts, an uncle and cousin all graduating from the school.
Two years ago staff members and other students reached out to her when her mother had cancer.
“St. Mary’s made sure we had everything that we needed, and assisted us whenever we needed help immediately,” she said. “We are so grateful for all the things St. Mary's has provided for us.”
Bedolla plans to attend Truman High School next year.
The 19 faculty and staff members were also looking ahead. Four had planned to retire and three others had been placed, as of recently.
The diocese is trying to find positions for as many educators as possible, said Jack Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. The diocese provides resume assistance and letters of referral. Those not continuing with the diocese are eligible for severance pay.
“We have made all principals and directors aware of the teachers and staff who want jobs,” Smith said.
Christ the King
The sad news came in early April at Christ the King. This school year would be its last.
The announcement, a surprise to many, sent families scrambling for another school and left staffers only a few months to look for other jobs.
The sudden change intensified the distress for School Advisory Council President Jennifer Malone.
“It’s hard to find peace,” she said. “I feel like we did all the right things and had all the right things happening and it still didn’t work. A lot of (the decision) was due to leadership and not having a common vision.”
Unlike St. Mary’s, which is a diocesan high school, Christ the King is operated through the local parish.
“Its finances and debt are directly attached to those of the parish,” said diocesan spokesman Smith. “In this instance, the decision of the pastor was based on enrollment projections for the next school year.
“Those projections made an impossible budget for the parish in the coming year and it was incumbent upon Father (Gregory) Lockwood to make a decision as soon as he learned of this impossibility in order to give staff time to find jobs in the new year and students new schools.”
Lockwood told parishioners in a letter last month that student enrollment had fallen from 175 in 2005 to 58 pre-registered for next fall.
“Factoring in the anticipated enrollment, the school forecast a budget shortfall in excess of $200,000 in the next school year,” Lockwood said.
Malone has children finishing up fourth grade, second grade and preschool at Christ the King, at 85th Street and Wornall Road.
“On the first day, we were hooked,” she said, looking back. “This is one of the most loving communities. We are heartbroken.”
Malone first learned about the possibility of closing in late March and felt blindsided, she said.
“It was a shock to the community, and we wanted to work on a plan to keep it open, but we didn’t have enough time.”
The announcement affected Malone so much that started going to Mass elsewhere. She has toured five schools, hoping to replace what the family had at Christ the King.
“Luckily my kids had five years with the foundation and really good teachers,” Malone said. “I hope our next school feels this way. I’m not there yet, but I know my kids will be fine.”
Angie Maschler graduated from Christ the King in 1982, and has sent her children there. But the family is leaving the parish so her two younger girls can attend another nearby Catholic elementary school.
“The community loses a longstanding anchor in Waldo that represents more than just an education packed with faith and values. We lose a choice," Maschler said. "The school closing has taken the wind out of our sails. It's been rough, lots of tears, lots of sadness but we have each other, and we hold on tight."
Helen Pueschel, administrative assistant for 13 years, was a steady presence at Christ the King. When teachers needed computer help, she was the IT person. For a sick child, she was a nurse. She was also known to help in the cafeteria.
Previously she worked for telephone and insurance companies and joked that it took her 30 years to find a job she really liked.
A favorite memory is of two young boys, at the end of one of her early years there, asked whether she would return in the fall. When she said yes, they smiled and bumped fists.
“It’s like being at home every day,” Pueschel said. “The kids make your day.”
Linda Poull taught first grade the majority of her 34 years at Christ the King. She’s also looking around because she isn’t quite ready to retire. Her own children attended school there and she’s enjoyed watching first-graders completing milestones with “I did it.”
“There’s a sadness and a lot of uncertainty for faculty and most of the students and their families about where they are going,” Poull said. “Personally, I feel things happen for a reason and they will all work out.”