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The parochial school hopes a new fundraising drive will bring in the money to keep it going.

The school survives on little more than prayer and donations but it will not surrender, says the nun who runs it.

"We're not closing," Sister Maria Babatunde said, "even if I have to beg for these children. These are 80 kids that deserve education."

St. Peter Claver Catholic School is a small brick building tucked downtown, an enigma that struggles year after year to keep its long history alive.

A staggering $400,000 budget shortfall greeted the 2009-2010 school year, and officials are looking to private donors and government grants to save the beloved institution - again.

The school's beginnings trace back to 1893 when the Jesuit Fathers at Sacred Heart Church bought property on Morgan Street to establish a school for black children. On Feb. 2, 1894, two nuns opened the school with 16 students.

Ten days later, the school burned down. Arsonists left a note tacked to an oak, saying they objected to a black school in the middle of the "white and retired portion of the city."

The same year, Catholic leaders reestablished the school at the corner of Scott and Governor streets in a black neighborhood. It had 80 students by the end of the year.

Over the years, St. Peter Claver - considered the oldest active black parochial school in Florida - surged in enrollment, instructing several influential alumni such as African-American educator Blanche Armwood and NFL player and general manager Martin Mayhew. Cab Calloway performed in its auditorium, which was just a few blocks from the then-thriving Central Avenue black entertainment district.

Two years ago, the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg stopped subsidizing private schools. St. Peter Claver lost an annual $250,000 contribution. Diocese officials switched to tuition assistance programs or scholarships to help Catholic grade school children instead of funding entire schools.

Then in late 2007, Central Park Village, a 484-unit public housing complex next to the school, was demolished. A large-scale project of businesses and apartments in its stead stalled when the economy tanked.

Central Park Village, home to 1,300 residents, had been a major source of students to St. Peter Claver. With it gone, enrollment sunk from more than 100 children to about 80, where the school hovers now. The private school needs at least 100 students - and optimally 200 - paying the annual $4,000 tuition to function, Babatunde, the principal, said.

Getting parents of currently enrolled children to pay tuition bills is another problem, Babatunde said. About 50 children at St. Peter Claver qualify for Step Up for Students, a state private school scholarship for low-income students that pays most of the cost, but parents are still required to cover about $450 a year.

So far this school year, only one parent has paid the bill, Babatunde said. Many have more than one child attending the school and are financially strapped or unemployed, she said.

The combination of problems has created a budgetary black hole - but one Babatunde said the school can crawl out of.

Last year, the school met a $250,000 shortage through a massive fundraising effort.

Parishioners at nearby St. Peter Claver Catholic Church made pledges. Alumni adopted students and paid tuition. The school held an annual fundraising ball that brought in more money. Companies and business people made thousand-dollar contributions.

A few months ago, the school appointed an advisory board of alumni, supporters and St. Peter Claver parishioners, to spearhead this year's fundraising effort.

"This situation was inherited. We knew about it. I guess I wasn't aware of the depth of it as a parishioner," said Sonja Garcia, a retired University of South Florida library administrator who attends the church.

Her husband is a 1948 graduate of St. Peter Claver School. "We don't in any way feel that it's not attainable, it's just that we're not as well coached in terms of fundraising as we ought to be and that's what we're working on."

If board members are successful this year, Babatunde said, she hopes they will help her create an endowment to support the school long term.

Administrators, meanwhile, are stepping up their recruiting to boost enrollment by hosting several open houses touting the school's discipline, small teacher-to-student ratios and a highly educated staff.

More than half of St. Peter Claver's teachers have at least a master's degree, said social studies teacher Jeff Irwin, 30, of Milwaukee.

Most of the faculty could get higher paying jobs at other private or public schools, Babatunde said, but they feel compelled to stay because of the school's commitment to a largely ignored segment of the city.

"We have our projectors, we have our computers," Irwin said. "We can make this place come alive."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or

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Donations needed

For fundraising information on St. Peter Claver School, call (813) 224-0865 or send a tax-deductible check to St. Peter Claver Catholic School, 1401 Governor St., Tampa, FL 33602.