Transfiguring Catholic Schools

Transfiguration Academy, a new interparochial school being formed in Bergen County NJ is well named. The word transfiguration alludes not only to the miracle cited in the synoptic gospels, but also to the changing of appearance and organization of parish schools in an area where Catholic schools have faced declining enrollment and increased costs.

Three parochial schools faced with declining enrollments and threatened with closing, have combined to form the multi site academy. Pre K through 4th grade students will attend St John’s school in Bergenfield, and fifth through eighth grade students will attend Ascension school in nearby New Milford. A third school, St Mary’s in Dumont will close, and the facility will be put to other uses.

A focus group with parents and faculty from each of the three schools has been meeting since December to formulate a solution to the declining enrollments. The current set up is not financially viable. In addition to following the established curriculum of the Archdiocese of Newark, there will also be enhanced programs. These include computer programs that begin with Pre-K instruction, state of the art computer and science labs, and a warm intimate environment for the youngest students.

Currently, members of each of the three school communities are going through what can best be described as a grieving process. Each of these schools has operated for a long time, and enjoyed an excellent reputation. Both St John’s and Ascension are hosting open houses so that parents and students can see the new environments and ask all questions. “We need to rise above the problems and look for the betterment of the children” said Sister Madeline Hanson, principal of St. John’s. Acknowledging that the adjustment will take time and is a shock for some, she also is excited about the new arrangement. “The new academy will set a precedent for higher level academic excellence. It also will emphasize faith and community….This is a wonderful opportunity for Catholic education and for private schools in general”.

At St. Mary’s many school parents are taken aback by the decision to close their school and merge with the others. According to Catherine Gibson, principal of St. Mary’s, children are sad, but also excited about the new changes. At Ascension School, principal Sal Tralongo has held one on one meetings with parents which are described as being positive.

Perhaps the most difficult adjustment is that the staff will need to reapply for their jobs. If current teachers are not assigned to one of the sites, they will be placed on a priority list for hire within the archdiocese. If they are not hired, the archdiocese has promised a generous severance benefit.

It will be interesting to see the process of this new approach to parochial education. It indicates responsiveness to economic reality, and to the demands of remaining competitive in an area where families often have several options, public and private, available for educating their children.