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PETERSBURG

Catholic School in Familiar Peril Hopes to Avoid Familiar Fate

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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

PETERSBURG, Va. -- For 132 years, St. Joseph School has helped provide a foundation for this small southern city rich in history but besieged by crime, poverty and economic misfortune.

But now, as with many Catholic schools across the nation, St. Joseph's future is in doubt.

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond has given the school until Monday to raise $1 million or its doors will shut, imperiling students and teachers, as well as a city on the brink of rejuvenation.

"What happens to Petersburg may depend on what happens to St. Joseph," Principal Ruth Bonner said.

Parents and other residents, many sporting "Save Our School" T-shirts, are raising money through cookie sales, a vacation raffle and pleas to friends, alumni, even strangers.

If the money is not collected by Monday -- a deadline chosen to give the 149 students and 28 employees enough time to find another school -- St. Joseph will close June 6, at the end of the academic year. A meeting to determine the school's fate is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.

So far, more than $750,000 has been raised for St. Joseph, considered one of the only alternatives to the city's failing public schools. "We're so grateful, absolutely grateful for the outpouring," said Annette Z. Parsons, chief school administrator of the diocese. "We hope people will respond to the challenge."

St. Joseph's plight mirrors that of other Catholic schools across the nation.

Financially strapped schools suffering from an economic downturn and declining enrollment have been closing at increasingly high rates -- a topic Catholic school officials, including Parsons, discussed with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the District in the past week.

President Bush said Friday at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast that he will host a meeting at the White House this week to find ways to keep Catholic schools open. A recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates that more than 1,300 Catholic schools, most in big cities, have closed since 1990. More than 300,000 students, many of them minorities from poor areas, were left searching for new schools, with taxpayers footing the $20 billion bill for those who transferred to public school.

Enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools peaked in the early 1960s with 5.2 million students. That number has fallen to about 2.3 million. In the District, the Catholic Church plans to give up operating seven of its schools.

But unlike most of the other schools, St. Joseph was not closed outright. It has been given a chance.

Two weeks ago, the diocese told school officials that St. Joseph could remain open if they raised $1 million. The money would be used to reduce debt and to renovate the building. Donations have ranged from $25 to $50,000. Two students raised $400 by circulating a jar at an arts festival downtown. Others students have donated their savings. Several in-kind donations have been made for the building repairs.

Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who attended Catholic school in Northern Virginia, visited St. Joseph in the past week, contributing $1,000 and bringing news that his former classmate, Dominion Power executive Thomas F. Farrell, had pledged $20,000. McDonnell described St. Joseph as "the lifeblood of Petersburg for 130 years" and sent an e-mail to 10,000 supporters asking for donations.

"As Petersburg begins to rebound from the setbacks of years past, it would be devastating for the community to lose St. Joseph School," he wrote.

St. Joseph School has been a fixture in downtown Petersburg since it was founded in 1876. It was the first Catholic school to be certified by the Virginia Board of Education, and the only one in a city where most public schools lack accreditation. Today, the brick building is adorned with a huge yellow banner that reads "Please Save Our School."

Parents describe St. Joseph as a welcome alternative to expensive, exclusive private schools and failing, dangerous public schools. Tuition ranges from $3,000 to $5,000 a year, though the actual cost of educating the students is $7,000 per pupil.

Teacher Beth Knight, whose son, Christian, attends first grade, said other area schools are not an option. "It's vital for us to be here," she said. "It's a safe haven."

Francis Stevens, with a son attending the school now and a daughter who hopes to do the same next year, has talked with his wife about moving if St. Joseph closes. "If we lose St. Joseph, you're not going to get the families you need in Petersburg," he said.

St. Joseph enrolls 149 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade; more than half are minorities, and only 20 percent are Catholic. "I like it because it's nice and it's 130 years old and it's very cool," said Joshua Coover, 7, a first-grader who helped collect donations. "I like it because my friends are here."

Petersburg, 25 miles south of Richmond, has approximately 35,000 residents, about 80 percent of them African American. It is best known as the site of a Civil War battle, depicted in the 2003 movie "Cold Mountain." Crime and poverty have taken a toll, but for the first time in decades, Petersburg is seeing signs of redevelopment.

New houses are in the works, a revamped golf course is about to open and the downtown is attracting more visitors. The expansion of nearby Fort Lee and the opening of a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine plant in a neighboring county are expected to help.

But city leaders and residents fear that families will leave Petersburg if the schooling falls short. "This area needs this school," said Ken Pritchett, a member of the Petersburg City Council who grew up near the school. "For the first time in probably 50 years, you see the activity that's going to bring Petersburg back to the good old days."


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