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Catholic school in St. Pete Beach grows, but Gulfport Catholic preschool closes

New second-grade teacher Megan Spriggs gets a card from incoming second-grader Madeline Silinskie, 7, Monday at a meet-and-greet at St. John Vianney Catholic School, which has a waiting list.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

New second-grade teacher Megan Spriggs gets a card from incoming second-grader Madeline Silinskie, 7, Monday at a meet-and-greet at St. John Vianney Catholic School, which has a waiting list.

As a rare school on the barrier islands, St. John Vianney has a distinct advantage at a time of changing demographics and declining enrollment in Pinellas County.

The Catholic school in St. Pete Beach, recently authorized to offer the International Baccalaureate World School for the Middle Years Programme, has a waiting list.

In Gulfport, it's a different story in the Most Holy Name of Jesus parish. On July 29, the parish closed its early childhood center, spared in 2003 when the K-8 school was shuttered.

The preschool, which could accommodate about 40 students, had just 23 when it closed.

The decision to close the center was "based on a decrease in enrollment, which obviously causes a financial strain to the institution and to the parish,'' said Catholic schools superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos.

Susan Helms said her 4-year-old son had attended the center since he was 2. "He was going to stay there another year. I actually looked around for other VPK (voluntary prekindergarten) programs and decided to keep him there, because I liked it so much and because of stability,'' she said. "We're all sad and shocked. Even the staff was shocked.''

Helms said she learned about the closing when she picked up her son on July 25, four days before the center's last day.

"It was very inconsiderate to give such short notice. It definitely sent working parents scrambling for child care for the next week,'' she said.

"They suggested four other parishes that had preschools, but I personally decided that I would not go with the Catholic schools after that decision. I'm still looking for a permanent spot. I definitely felt it could have been handled better."

The Rev. James Ruhlin, Most Holy Name's new priest, declined to be interviewed, but addressed the matter in a recent church bulletin.

"After reviewing all of the various aspects of the ministries and services that Most Holy Name of Jesus has to offer, it was decided that this ministry would no longer continue . . .,'' he wrote.

The weekend before, the bulletin invited parents to sign up for the state's VPK program.

Vazquez-Matos said parents had received "appropriate notices" of the closure. The Gulfport center is the only one being closed in the five-county Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, he said.

Vazquez-Matos said socioeconomic changes such as high unemployment and families moving out of Pinellas County have affected enrollment in Catholic schools.

A few years ago, St. John Vianney Catholic School could be counted among them, but the closure of Gulf Beaches Elementary School across the street and a decision to reduce tuition gave the parochial school a boost. At the same time, the school also decided to charge the same tuition for parishioners and nonparishioners.

There are 245 students signed up for the new school year, and 35 are on the waiting list, Vazquez-Matos said. St. John Vianney's new status as the first Catholic school in the diocese to offer the IB Middle Years Programme also could increase demand. The program will initially be offered in grades 6-8, with the IB Primary Years Programme for students in prekindergarten through fifth grade to follow. Vazquez-Matos said St. John Vianney's IB students will have the option of continuing at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, the diocese's only high school with an IB program.

Faced with the recession and changing demographics, the diocese's schools are becoming more "innovative and proactive," Vazquez-Matos said.

This year, the diocese said it will offer over $1 million in tuition assistance to help families send their children to Catholic schools in the new academic year.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Catholic school in St. Pete Beach grows, but Gulfport Catholic preschool closes 08/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 15, 2011 4:30pm]

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