ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – In communities in the area still reeling from Superstorm Sandy, with a Catholic community still getting used to the joining of the two historic individual parishes of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Highlands and St. Agnes into a single Our Lady of Perpetual Help/St. Agnes Parish, parents of students in Mother Teresa Regional School were struck hard last week, as reported in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, when they learned, through a letter from the Bishop, that the PreK through 8th grade school will be closed June 30th.
Ironically, the PTA at the school, which was opened ten years ago as a regional school to accommodate five different parishes, was planning an Italian night fundraiser and social get together for Saturday, Jan. 30. That event had to be cancelled since the head of the Catholic Trenton Diocese, Bishop David M O’Connell, will be installing Fernando Lopez as the new pastor of the joined parish at St. Agnes Church. Knights of Columbus who were planning on assisting with the PTA event will instead be forming an Honor Guard for the visiting bishop.
Although OLPH and St. Agnes schools, when they were both active, were parish schools supported by both tuition and the individual parish, Mother Teresa Regional filled the need of those schools and others closing in the area and was opened as a regional school with support from the newly joined parish in Highlands and this borough, as well as Holy Family, Union Beach, St. Catherine’s, E. Keansburg, and St. Ann’s Keansburg, all former catholic elementary schools which have closed, as Mother Teresa is now, because of decreasing enrollment and continued financial challenges.
Principal Thomas Sorci, who has headed the faculty for the past three years and is the school’s second principal, expressed his own disappointment at the school closure news, but conceded it was not a complete surprise. “When I was hired three years ago, I knew we had trouble facing us, based on a sustainability study which had been done by the diocese,” Sorci said, “we were one of ten schools in jeopardy, so we knew what we had to do.”
The principal noted the school’s situation created a vicious cycle, because “we needed the parents to enroll their children in order to keep the school thriving, yet we knew families were hesitant to send their children to a school that might be closing.” As a result, some parents choosing a catholic education chose to send their children to the two parochial schools in Middletown, St. Leo’s or St. Mary’s. Sorci said enrollment has been declining at Mother Theresa at the rate of approximately 20 students per year, so it is understandable the diocese “had to stop the bleeding.” Currently, there are 96 students in grades K through 8, with another 30 children in the school’s pre-K programs.
If there is any singular bright spot for the Highlands and Atlantic Highlands students at the catholic regional school, it’s that their combined K to 12 Henry Hudson regional school district, has space in all three schools to accommodate all the Mother Teresa students who live in either of the two towns.
“Not only do we have the capacity, but we will warmly welcome every student who wants to come,” Henry Hudson principal Lenore Kingsmore said enthusiastically. The principal also noted that the incoming students will be able to continue to enjoy the small class size to which they are accustomed regardless of whether they will be attending Highlands or Atlantic Highlands elementary or Henry Hudson Regional 7-12 grade school.
Nor will the incoming students find any lacking in the educational levels, Kingsmore added proudly. “We have just received our Middle Schools evaluation for the next seven years, and every one of our middle school students has his own personal computer for work. I’m very proud of what we have here and will be happy to welcome more students. We are definitely on the way up towards even more excellence,” she said. The regional district has a 900 student population in the three schools, with this borough’s elementary the largest of the three.
The public schools in the two boroughs themselves went through budget crunches and regionalization issues to become what they are now. Prior to Henry Hudson, the former Atlantic Highlands and Leonardo high schools accommodated Highlands students; four years ago Feb. 1, the two separate elementary schools were joined with the regional 7-12 school under a single superintendent, Dr.Susan Compton, for more cost savings for both municipalities. The regional district has maintained a 0 budget increase and last year were able to reduce costs for Atlantic Highlands taxpayers. “We’re proud of what we have done and can do,” Kingsmore said.
Sorci said each of the parochial schools in the area is also offering open house visits to acquaint parents with what their schools have to offer, and will make additional accommodations for Mother Theresa students if necessary.
Although the Diocese sent a press release to the media saying the school closure would be announced at all the masses in the five churches involved last Sunday, there were no announcements made at either the Highlands or Atlantic Highlands churches. Father Fernando said that Mother Teresa is a Regional School run by the diocese and he does not have much information about the school. He referred all questions to the principal.