Open house a step in effort to save school

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NAUGATUCK — Parents are pinning their hopes of saving the borough’s only Catholic school on an open house scheduled for Saturday.

St. Francis-St. Hedwig School must increase enrollment to stave off closure at the end of the year.

Since the Archdiocese of Hartford informed the parish at a Jan. 25 meeting that the school was no longer sustainable, parents have rallied to work with school officials, state legislators and the Saint Francis School Foundation to come up with a plan to turn it around.

“I think we’ve made good progress,” said Kevin McSherry, incoming president of the Saint Francis School Foundation.

He said the open house will give the school a chance to showcase its assets to perspective students.

The open house is from 12 to 2 p.m. at the school, 294 Church St.

Currently enrolled students, parents and alumni are planning to attend to speak to newcomers about the school community.

Supporters are building buzz for the open house, with fliers posted all over town and a pep rally planned after school on Friday. Parents are sharing information on social media with the hashtag #sfshstrong.

Nikki McLaughlin, who has children in second and fifth grade at the school, said she was upset when she heard the school may close.

“They love it… They get really good grades. There’s no bullying there,” McLaughlin said.

She plans to attend the open house.

“Because of our family culture, as long as we stick together, we’re never going to close,” McLaughlin said. “This was a wake-up call to us parents… We don’t want to lose this school. This is the best thing that’s ever happened for our children.”

Although the archdiocese has not yet announced a decision, several people involved in the turnaround plan are convinced the school will remain open.

“The future is not up in the air,” parent Chester Cornacchia said. “The closure of the school’s a non-event right now. It won’t happen this year and it won’t happen next year. There’s no way that school’s closing and there’s no way the community will allow the thought of that school closing to occur.”

Although some St. Francis-St. Hedwig families have already left deposits at other private schools, they plan to stay in Naugatuck if the school remains open, Cornacchia said.

As part of the plan, McSherry said the foundation would make a significant annual commitment toward the school’s operating expenses, dipping into the foundation’s capital, rather than just paying for requests out of investment interest as it has done in the past.

The foundation has about half a million dollars in assets, Cornacchia said. However, some of that is earmarked for specific scholarships.

McSherry said the foundation is starting to get a clearer picture of the school’s finances.

The archdiocese’s projected deficit of over $300,000 included past debt from the 1990s which should’ve been extinguished when the two schools merged in 2011, Cornacchia said.

“They still don’t have their arms around the figures,” he said.

He said the school’s current situation is a “perfect storm” of changeovers in the past year, with a new pastor, principal, business manager and superintendent of schools who are unfamiliar with the school’s history.

Cornacchia attributed the loss of about half the school’s enrollment since the merger to the turbulence in school leadership and the lack of an advancement officer to promote the school.