After 81 years, sagging enrollment dooms Tampa's Sacred Heart Academy

TAMPA HEIGHTS

After all these years, some things about Sacred Heart Academy still stick out in Lucy Valder's mind. Like the navy skirt, white blouse, triangular red tie — and those awful-looking brown oxfords.

Then there were the maroon PE uniforms with pleated skirts that had to humbly drop no more than three fingers above the knee.

"God forbid if it was four fingers," said Valder, now 79.

Sacred Heart in the late 1940s and 1950s was a place of glee clubs and school camaraderie and, for Valder, a place of lifelong lessons and connections. She eats lunch every month with a group of 1954 graduates who still talk about the nuns who taught them.

"They formed in us, for the rest of our lives, values and everything else we needed for living," said Valder, who lives near Westchase. "It was a beautiful experience."

More so than the memories, Valder treasured the legacy the school left for future students during its 81 years.

But administrators announced last week that this year will be the school's last. Sagging enrollment, they said, is forcing Sacred Heart Academy to close.

"I'm very sad," she said. "My granddaughter was there up until last year. It was just this beautiful school that taught the kids well."

Sacred Heart was founded in 1931 by the Rev. Theodore A. Ray and was staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary until 1974, educating boys and girls from kindergarten to eighth grade and high school girls. The girls' high school closed in 1974, and Sacred Heart remained an elementary and middle school.

The school, at 3515 N Florida Ave., has been facing declining enrollment over the past eight years, principal Kenneth Hitchcock said. It currently has 110 students who pay about $5,400 a year in tuition — about half the revenue needed to employ the school's 19 teachers and pay for operations.

Sacred Heart Parish has been subsidizing 45 percent of the school's budget, Hitchcock said. The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg has also helped support Sacred Heart, granting the school a loan of $2.8 million over the years — all but $500,000 of which was forgiven.

This year, the school redoubled its efforts to save itself, sending out 7,200 mailers to Catholic families with children in western Hillsborough County, advertising to various Catholic churches and posting fliers in YMCAs and other agencies.

But this month families for just 73 students registered and put down a deposit for next year, so Sacred Heart officials decided to close down.

"We tried everything humanly possible to keep the school open," Hitchcock said.

"It's heartbreaking," added Frank Murphy, spokesman for the diocese, which did not play a part in the decision.

Hitchcock believes several factors contributed to enrollment problems. The campus is in Tampa Heights, an older part of the city, giving parents the false perception the school isn't safe despite no police calls to the school in years. Also, the recession forced families to cut back, especially if they had more than one child, Hitchcock said.

And years of enrollment struggles led to a perpetual rumor year after year that wouldn't die, driving away families.

"People kept saying, 'Sacred Heart's going to close' and people kept buying into it," Hitchcock said. "It became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The school's last day will be June 7, which will include a 14-student graduation ceremony. With the diocese's help, Hitchcock is trying to help students and teachers land at other Catholic schools. Church officials haven't decided what will become of the school's historic 20-classroom building, though the Rev. George Corrigan of Sacred Heart Parish hopes it could remain an educational facility, Hitchcock said.

"I'm devastated," said Chave Johnson of Riverview, whose cousins and son graduated from Sacred Heart and whose 9-year-old daughter, Miranda, attends the school. "This was where she was going to be. All of a sudden it's turned around, and she's not going to be there anymore. It's been a tough few days. Something that's been part of your life for 81 years, you don't think it's going to go away. Countless people in my family went through those doors."

"You feel like somebody passed away," Johnson said. "It's a feeling of loss."

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.

After 81 years, sagging enrollment dooms Tampa's Sacred Heart Academy 03/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 4:30am]

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