St. Theresa School in Hellertown is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2020, but the milestone achievement could be the school’s last if enrollment numbers for next year don’t increase substantially in the near future.
Enrollment at the kindergarten through eighth grade school has declined sharply over the last two years, from 129 students in 2017-2018 to 81 students this year, according to school data. And while the attached parish has been using its savings to help keep the school afloat financially, “we cannot continue to afford to do (that),” St. Theresa of the Child Jesus pastor, Father Jerome Tauber, stressed in a Feb. 24 letter to parents.
“For the upcoming school year, we are projecting the school will show a deficit of approximately $129,000,” Tauber wrote. “To date we have already withdrawn over $230,000 from parish savings to cover school deficits. Another school year with a similar deficit will almost completely deplete the unrestricted savings of the parish.”
To add to the financial pressure parents, students, staff and administrators at St. Theresa are feeling is a school study by the Diocese of Allentown which is currently under way.
The goal of the study is “to objectively review our finances and plan for the future of the school,” Tauber said in his letter. “We will be reviewing options over the next several weeks and any decisions will be shared with you by the end of March,” he concluded.
When asked why enrollment at St. Theresa School fell so drastically in such a short period of time, principal Peter Schutzler said he believes a combination of factors contributed to the decline, including fallout from a Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed decades of child sexual abuse at the hands of priests throughout the state. St. Theresa School was not implicated in that report, however other schools were.
Schutzler, who became principal of St. Theresa School last June, said the August 2018 report caused enrollment to dip at Pennsylvania Catholic schools across the board.
When asked whether the Diocese may have played a role in decisions that contributed to declining enrollment, Schutzler said “each school is responsible for its own fate.”
“Long-range sustainability in a school has to be something that goes beyond being person-dependent,” he added.
As of Tuesday, he said the school had fundraised approximately $20,000 of the $129,000 it needs to fill its tuition-subsidy gap and keep its doors open.
That $20,000 includes a $10,000 “challenge grant” whose award was contingent upon the school raising a matching amount of money. A $5,000 grant will be presented to the school by a different local benefactor if it raises another $5,000, Schutzler said.
Money raised by things like the church’s Lenten Friday fish dinners–which are open to the public–is also helping to narrow the gap, and there have been other recent successful fundraisers such as the school’s annual gala and a School Basket Raffle.
Tauber in his letter said the events have narrowed this year’s deficit by more than $50,000, and he noted that the school’s current enrollment has also grown since the fall.
As of Tuesday there were 81 students enrolled for the next (2020-2021) school year, which represents an enrollment increase of five students since Feb. 24, officials said.
Advancement director Hilary Jebitsch said it’s not easy to calculate how many additional students need to be enrolled in order to keep the school’s doors open–since that number is tied to the tuition-subsidy gap–but enrollment needs to increase significantly.
Jebitsch invited local parents who are interested in an alternative to public school to schedule a visit and tour as soon as possible, or to attend one of two upcoming open houses that will be held on March 15 and March 22, respectively, from noon to 1:30 p.m.
Each open house will be followed by a bingo fundraiser, one of which will be for teens.
Just like the fish dinners, Jebitsch said bingo helps bring people in the door who may never have been to the school before.
Jebitsch and Schutzler both said they’ve been campaigning hard to increase the school’s visibility, in part to help with fundraising efforts, but also to help dispel misconceptions.
One misconception, they said, is that one must be Catholic to attend St. Theresa School. In fact, many students who are not Catholic are currently enrolled, and the school welcomes students from diverse backgrounds.
The school is housed in an older building, which might make it appear dated from the outside. Inside, however, students are equipped with the latest technology and benefit from the same 1:1 computing initiative Saucon Valley and other public schools have.
In keeping with the times, modern safety and security upgrades have also been made in the past year, Jebitsch said.
In terms of curriculum, St. Theresa School follows state-mandated curriculum guidelines and provides ongoing professional development for its teachers, Schutzler noted.
In addition to support from the parish during this periof of uncertainty, Jebitsch said many parents have been helping to brainstorm and carry out fundraising efforts on St. Theresa School’s behalf.
Alumni, too, are involved in the effort to help save the school, with some speaking about their St. Theresa education and what it’s meant to them at masses that were held Sunday.
St. Theresa School parents are scheduled to speak about their experiences during masses this weekend.
“For many years this (school) was the best kept secret,” said Jebitsch, who was hired about a year ago. “But we don’t want it to be a secret.”
To register to attend one of the upcoming open houses, contact her by calling 610-838-8161 or via email at email@example.com.
There is also a Facebook event for this Sunday’s open house.
The next Lenten fish dinner at the school is this Friday, March 13 from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
Click here to visit the school’s website, here to like St. Theresa School on Facebook and here to make a donation to the school online. For more information about how to help the school as a donor or with fundraising, contact Jebitsch or Deacon Peter Schutzler at firstname.lastname@example.org.