The Academy of Our Lady of Peace saves itself from closure

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NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ — Patricia Payton was reliving a nightmare.

Just three years ago, the Diocese of Paterson had closed Holy Family School, the Catholic elementary school her fourth-grade daughter had been attending since kindergarten. Payton and others fought the closure for a year, launching a fundraiser and reaching out to alumni, to no avail. At the time, she had felt sadness and melancholy. Now, though, she burned with anger.

No one saw the announcement coming. It was true that The Academy of Our Lady of Peace, a Catholic elementary school in New Providence, had witnessed declining enrollment numbers in the past decade, from around 180 students in 2010 to 155 students in 2020, but the drop-off wasn’t nearly as steep as at other Catholic schools in the region. The abrupt transition to remote learning in the wake of COVID-19 had been difficult, but the teachers had adapted quickly, learning how to use Zoom over a single weekend.

In any case, the United States Department of Education had designated AOLP as a Blue Ribbon Exemplary High Performing School in 2018, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, had attended the school’s celebration of its 66th anniversary in September. The horizon was clear.

So when the Archdiocese of Newark invited the teachers to a video group call on May 7, near the end of Teacher Appreciation Week, few, if any, expected to learn that they were jobless next school year, effective immediately.

Pointing to economic difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic, the archdiocese announced the permanent closure of one Catholic high school and nine elementary schools, including AOLP. Three other elementary schools in Union County were also closed: Holy Spirit School in Union, St. James the Apostle School in Clark and St. Genevieve School in Elizabeth.

“Although Catholic elementary and high schools continue as a priority for the Archdiocese of Newark, this historical moment presents crucial challenges to the sustainability and ongoing success of our schools,” Tobin wrote in an open letter to the community. “The snowballing crisis that threatens both health and economic stability continues to expand and has exacerbated the dual threats of declining enrollment and swiftly increasing subsidies that have been necessary to sustain schools.”

After the announcement was made, Patricia Payton immediately emailed the school principal, Joel Castillo, to request the contact information for the archdiocese school board. Castillo responded — to both her and another parent, Suzanne Fahy, who had independently reached out asking for the same information. Payton recognized Fahy as the parent of one of her seventh-grade daughter’s classmates.

Payton emailed her: “Call me.”

They began communicating that night. In their first conversation, they asked each other the same question: “What are you going to say to the diocese?”

What followed was a blossoming partnership and a whirlwind of networking, petitioning and fundraising that culminated in an achievement almost unheard of in recent years: the revival of a Catholic school set to close permanently.

“It was supposed to work differently”

Long before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools and pinched wallets, Catholic education had been in crisis. According to the National Catholic Education Association, Catholic school enrollment across the nation plummeted from more than 5.2 million students in the 1960s to 1.73 million students in the 2019-2020 academic year. Within the same period, the number of schools shrank from nearly 13,000 to just a little more than 6,000 today.

A 2018 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of New Jersey’s adult population identifies as Catholic, making it the second most Catholic state in the country, behind Rhode Island. The Garden State’s significant Catholic presence, however, has not shielded it from the nationwide decline in Catholic education, especially in elementary schooling. According to the Archdiocese of Newark, K-8 enrollment for the 2009-2010 school year consisted of 19,576 students in 89 elementary schools, whereas K-8 enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year was 12,369 students in 67 elementary schools.

Union County has been hit hard. Catholic schools that have closed in the past decade include St. Agnes Grammar School in Clark, Saints Mary and Elizabeth Academy in Linden, and St. Mary of the Assumption in Elizabeth.

Benedictine Academy announced its closure in March, leaving Elizabeth without a Catholic high school. According to the school’s director of advancement, Ray Brush, the decision was forced by a 29-percent decline in enrollment over the past five years. That decline, in turn, was driven by the collapse of local Catholic elementary schools, which graduated around 56 percent of Benedictine Academy students. With the recent closing of St. Genevieve School, the city of Elizabeth, once home to 15 Catholic elementary schools, now hosts only one.

Payton is all too familiar with the financial challenges that plague contemporary Catholic education. Her daughter’s old school, Holy Family School, closed its K-8 program after failing to meet the criteria set by the Diocese of Paterson: sufficient enrollment and self-sufficient funding, meaning not relying on subsidies from the parish. Today, Holy Family remains open strictly as a preschool and kindergarten.

Payton relocated her daughter to the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in part because she believed the Archdiocese of Newark offered its schools a more robust financial model than the Diocese of Paterson, where each parish directly subsidizes its school.

The Archdiocese of Newark’s “Lighting the Way” program, implemented in 2014, restructured the administration and subsidization of its elementary schools. Aside from placing schools, AOLP included, under the direct management of the archdiocese, the new program also mandated that every parish pay an education tax, even if it didn’t sponsor a school. This created a centralized pool of funds run directly by the archdiocese, which was then redistributed to schools based on need. This avoided financially draining parishes and thus made school closings less likely — in theory.

“It was supposed to work differently,” said Payton, of the archdiocese’s new financial model. “And here the archdiocese is closing us, and it came down to the same reasons that Holy Family closed. That was the reason that I was angry: This system was supposed to work better, and it was not.”

Payton’s daughter had entered AOLP as a fifth-grader and quickly found “a family feel like we had at Holy Family,” Payton said. The transition had been made easier by the three friends and former teacher who accompanied her daughter from her old school. Overall, about 15 students from Holy Family School’s K-8 section enrolled at AOLP, according to Holy Family School Principal Mary Smith.

“I had a responsibility to the families that had crossed over to keep fighting,” Payton said. “No family who left Holy Family School wanted to be in this situation again, with the school closing. It’s not good for the kids. These are young children; this is the place they’ve known. All their teachers they won’t see again, all their friends they won’t see again. It’s devastating for the families.”

Fahy faced similarly personal stakes. Her oldest child graduated from AOLP in 2019, with two others currently attending the school and her youngest set to begin preschool next year. Fahy herself had been at the school since 2009 and had joined the Home School Association — the AOLP equivalent of a parent-teacher association — as vice president in 2017.

In April, just a month before the archdiocese’s fateful announcement, she had become president.

“A boulder on our back”

Fahy and Payton knew that an almost Sisyphean task lay before them. Much like Holy Family School, many other Catholic schools in the past decade had tried and failed to save themselves.

“It was climbing a mountain with a boulder on our back, but we felt it was worth it,” said Fahy.

In June 2019, the Archdiocese of Newark announced the closure of St. Mary of the Assumption High School in Elizabeth. In response, students and alumni launched a $2 million “Save St. Mary’s” fundraising drive. Though the campaign raised about $241,000, including a $100,000 pledge from Investors Bank, it fell far short of its goal. The school officially shut down in August.

There have been occasional success stories in recent years. In 2014, the Archdiocese of Newark reversed its decision to close Montclair’s Immaculate Conception High School after students and alumni raised nearly $500,000 through phone-a-thons, bake sales, car washes and a GoFundMe campaign. The school is still open today.

Immaculate Conception’s unlikely revival gave Fahy and Payton hope. They initially debated between a letter-writing campaign and a petition, eventually deciding on the latter because it would give more immediate feedback. Work on the petition commenced on Friday, May 8, a day after the archdiocese’s announcement. Payton and Fahy traded the document back and forth throughout the afternoon. Payton’s daughter helped draft the document, repeatedly reviewing it and making edits of her own.

“I wanted her to see that if you don’t like something that happened to you, you can try to change it,” said Payton, of her daughter. “You have the power to change the world.”

The sun had set by the time the three placed their finishing touches. The petition clocked in at 636 words. It described the devastating emotional and financial impact that closing the school would have on students, parents and faculty, especially on such short notice amid a pandemic.

“The parents, students and faculty of The Academy of Our Lady of Peace in New Providence, N.J., implore you to reconsider the decision to end our school operations in five weeks,” the petition read, addressing the archdiocese. “We ask for a joint dialogue to cooperatively keep AOLP from closing its doors in June 2020.”

The petition was posted online at around 9 p.m. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

“Our Lady of Peace, pray for us”

An hour after the petition was uploaded, 477 people had signed. By the time Payton awoke at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, the petition had blazed past its target of 600 signatures. Her daughter was so excited that she sat down and read the more than 400 comments that had been posted. It was these “heartfelt comments,” Fahy said, “that really captured the heart and the spirit of our movement.”

“Please don’t close our school,” wrote Kolby Okyne. “I’m in the fourth grade at AOLP and I really want to be able to go back to my school with my friends. I miss them and all my teachers.”

Another student, Kayla Brady, wrote, “This school means so much to me. I have gone here since kindergarten and I love it so much.”

Asia Starks, who began attending AOLP as a kindergartener in 2004, wrote that “although I am not Catholic, this school has shaped my life with Christ.”

Matthew Dunn recalled choosing AOLP “because of the love and concern the staff, students and community showed” when he visited from Virginia.

Kimberly Johnston, AOLP’s second-grade teacher, reflected on graduating from the school and then returning to teach there for 12 years.

“I was there 11 years,” wrote Patti Muench. “Pre-K–3 to eighth grade. 100,000 memories. I was planning on my twin girls starting pre-K–3 in the fall. My heart is shattered.”

Some signatories simply repeated the daily prayer with which the school’s students begin their day: “Our Lady of Peace, pray for us.”

Everyone, it seemed, had posted a comment: students and faculty, parents and grandparents of students and faculty, and alumni who had graduated from classes old and older — 2013, 1998, 1995, 1983, 1982, 1981, 1976, 1971, 1969, 1968, 1965, 1964, even 1959.

“It’s more than just a paycheck, this place,” said Danielle Mollo, the academy’s secretary and office administrator, in a June 19 interview with LocalSource.

Mollo, like her siblings and her mother, had attended the school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She graduated in 2006 but returned to the school as a substitute teacher while working as a kidney diagnostic technician. She loved the experience so much that she switched to education full-time.

The word Mollo used to describe the school was one that resurfaced, again and again, in the sea of comments on the petition: “home.”

“A Hallmark movie”

The overwhelming outpouring of support spurred the school’s advisory council into action. Besides Fahy, the council is composed of the principal, pastor and several alumni parents. The board members met May 11, four days after the archdiocese’s announcement. They decided to launch a three-year, $500,000 pledge drive to show the archdiocese that the school had deep-seated financial support.

It was around then that a board member called Fahy: “Suzanne, a movement has started to take place.”

The next two weeks were a blur of networking and brainstorming. Fahy and Payton kept parents and faculty updated with daily emails. Meanwhile, the two exchanged ideas every morning, constantly searching for new ways forward, even as the momentum of the campaign grew and more community members and alumni volunteered to help.

“Every time we stalled, we reconvened,” said Payton.

When Fahy had first told her children about her plans to fight for the school, she was greeted with concern: “Mom, you’re already so upset — we don’t want you to be disappointed.” Now, when they spoke to her, they adopted a decidedly different tone: “Can we talk to you, or are you still saving the school?”

Within days the online petition had garnered nearly 1,500 signatures, while the drive raised about $413,000. Pledges were evenly split, coming from parents, community members, parishioners and alumni. Some donations had come from as far afield as Florida, Colorado and California.

The advisory council soon secured a meeting with officials from the archdiocese. A potential solution emerged from their dialogue: the archiodicese would return AOLP to the parish, which would assume full responsibility for the school’s everyday operations and fiscal sustainability.

The viability of this proposal hinged on the Rev. William Mahon, pastor of Our Lady of Peace. He had served as the head of AOLP before the Archdiocese of Newark took over in 2014, after which he simply became the school’s “spiritual adviser.” Would he, and by extension the parish, be willing to take the school back?

That’s the question that the archdiocese’s vicar-general, on behalf of the cardinal, asked Mahon the day after the advisory council’s meeting. Mahon didn’t hesitate.

Although local public schools are “very innovative” and do well in the rankings, he told LocalSource in a June 9 interview, “this is a kind of area that needs a Catholic school.”

With that, the Archdiocese of Newark reversed its decision.

“When representatives from the academy’s community reached out to the archdiocese to present their plans to sustain the school, we had a duty and responsibility to open this dialogue,” said Maria Margiotta, the archdiocese’s director of communications, in a June 15 email to LocalSource. “Once it became clear that the academy had a comprehensive, sustainable plan that met all criteria for continued operations in the 2020-2021 school year, we collaborated with the parish on transitioning responsibility for operations. This is a success story for the school and its families and faculty, while also ensuring that the archdiocese can meet its obligations to steward the future of Catholic education.”

In Fahy’s own words, “I am not a Pollyanna by any stretch.” If anything, she’s inclined to cynicism — which made watching the community rally together to save the school especially breathtaking.

“I have cried every single day since the closure,” she said. “In the beginning, it was tears of upset. These days, it’s tears of joy. I truly feel this is a miracle. It’s one of the proudest achievements of my life.”

Payton, too, was moved. “You go through your daily life and you just do your life, you don’t think you’re affecting other people,” she said. “But now we get feedback from other people about how we’re helping them. That’s special.”

Fahy said that she sent her children to Catholic school because of the three tenets of Catholic education: faith, family and friendship.

“All three things came together to keep the school open, and that’s the beauty of the story,” said Fahy. “And I’ll be pitching a Hallmark movie shortly. I’m not joking! It has the perfect arc for that.”

The entire drama had unfolded in the span of two relentlessly intense, exhausting weeks. Now came the hard part.

“For the next 66 years, and beyond …”

In early 2010, the Archdiocese of Newark announced the closure of St. Agnes Roman Catholic School in Clark. In response, parents hosted open houses to encourage enrollment and raised more than $40,000 through a “Save St. Agnes School Inc.” fund. The campaign was successful, and the school remained open. Just four years later, however, in the face of stubbornly declining enrollment numbers, the archdiocese again decided to close the school. This time the decision was permanent.

Fahy and Payton are determined that AOLP will not meet the same fate. They, as well as other parent and alumni volunteers, have been drafting press releases, putting up flyers and developing a long-term marketing plan. Meanwhile, the school has begun offering both virtual and in-person, socially distant tours to prospective students.

Mahon is excited for the AOLP’s future — especially its newfound independence, as it will no longer need the archdiocese’s permission for everything it does. But he did admit that money remains a concern.

“If you’ve got a spare million, I’ll take it,” he said.

Still, he’s optimistic that the school will find a way to subsidize itself beyond the three-year pledge drive. According to Mollo, the school is planning several fundraisers, including a drive-in movie event in September, and also intends to begin selling face masks. Meanwhile, Fahy said that AOLP will reach out to corporate donors, such as Investors Bank, which donated $30,000 to Immaculate Conception High School in 2014.

“We didn’t fight for this for one or two more years,” said Fahy. “We fought for the next 66 years, and beyond.”

Mollo agreed: “My son is 2 years old, and I better see him graduate from here.”

Whether AOLP can serve as a model for sustainable Catholic education remains uncertain. According to Fahy, the archdiocese is “looking for us to be successful in the hope that other schools in our same situation could follow our lead and become parish schools.” Mahon is skeptical, as he doubts that “some of the other schools have the monetary stamina that we do.”

Payton, too, thinks that AOLP benefited from some unique advantages. The academy’s advisory council provided an infrastructure for parent and alumni outreach that schools like Holy Family lacked. That capacity to reach a wide audience quickly, Payton said, supplied “momentum and structure” for the pledge drive and the petitioning campaign, as a mass of parents and alumni volunteered to assist with marketing and other initiatives.

Still, Payton said that AOLP would be happy to advise other Catholic schools facing similar troubles.

Margiotta was frank about the precarious future of Catholic education, noting that, “if the archdiocese could not subsidize its schools at current levels before COVID-19, we will be even less capable once the quarantine eases.” However, she also stressed that, if “parents, parishioners, and donors have a viable and sustainable plan” to keep their schools open, like AOLP did, the archdiocese “will listen, assess the plan’s viability and make a decision.”

Payton acknowledged that investing in contemporary Catholic education will always carry a degree of risk. After all, she lost one school and almost lost another. Still, she has no plans to change course. Her daughter toured Catholic high schools last year and has already decided which she’ll attend after she graduates from AOLP next year.

“A parent has to judge the value of a Catholic education and what that holds to them, as opposed to choosing another route and giving up that value because it’s risky,” said Payton. “But in my mind, there’s a lot of risky things in life. And this is worth taking the risk on, for us.”

Photos Courtesy of Danielle Mollo, Liz Santo Domingo and Suzanne Fahy