East Village Catholic School Bucks The Trend

In recent years, Catholic schools across New York City have experienced multiple closures, declining enrollment figures and increased tuition fees. Despite this, one school is thriving in a time of uncertainty – adamant it will remain independent and continue to grow for years to come.

The Immaculate Conception Church

The Immaculate Conception School is located on East 14th Street, between 1st Ave. and Ave. A. Jack Williams | The Bridge

The Immaculate Conception School, on East 14th Street, has seen its enrollment increase, with the number of pupils rising from 197 in 2010, to 226 this current academic year. A key factor in this growth has been the school’s financial management, said Rev. Kevin Nealan, pastor of the Immaculate Conception.

The East Village parish appointed Nealan as its pastor in 2010, and he was quick to pledge its support to the school.

The money comes into the parish through donations made by those attending the church. The East Village is currently undergoing a wave of gentrification, seeing increased property values and the wealth of its residents.

Not all Catholic schools enjoy such ready support – many have to rely heavily on subsidies from the archdiocese. As a result, many Catholic schools are now considering becoming part of the “regional-based” structure, which will see all parishes in a specific area, whether they have a school or not, contributing financially to the archdiocese’s regional office. These funds will then be divided among those Catholic schools most in need of funding.

The Immaculate Conception does not have to consider this option.

“I think that we are lucky in that our pastor is involved in the school,” said Mary Barry, principal of Immaculate Conception School.

Barry believes that the Immaculate Conception’s smooth day-to-day running comes through Nealan, the school staff and faculty members working towards a common goal: first, making the school survive, and second, making it grow. This is a contrast to some schools – one example being St. Brigid School, on Avenue B between 7th and 8th Street – which, according to the archdiocese, do not currently have a link to a parish or pastor.

When Nealan was first appointed pastor, the parish was contributing between $300,000 and $400,000 to keep the school afloat. This was unsustainable.

Now the figure is down to $100,000, with 80 percent of the school’s costs being covered by tuition alone, according to Nealan. The annual fee currently stands at between $5,002 and $5,410 a year, depending on a child’s circumstances, which is lower that most parish-based Catholic schools in New York, says Nealan.

Immaculate Conception has only increased its tuition fees by around 2 percent since Nealan took over as pastor. Other Catholic schools have increased their costs on average by around 3 percent or more during the same period, according to Barry.

Nealan has also instituted other initiatives to help fund the school.

One is a weekly flea market. Set up on East 12th Street, Nealan hopes this will bring in an additional $100,000 annually to be split between the parish and the school.

The Immaculate Conception has also works closely with Helping Hands, a parish-based program that provides financial support for children whose families cannot cover their tuition. Anyone can make a donation to the program, and how many children receive scholarships depends on the amount of the donations received, with the funds helping cover up to the full amount of a child’s tuition.

A lack of financial support for pupils’ tuition fees is one of the main reasons why other Catholic schools are struggling, says Timothy McNiff, the archdiocese’s head of education.

“The problem is that 64 percent of our pupils here in New York live below the poverty line so there is no capacity to charge them tuition,” said McNiff.

McNiff confirmed that so far only 41 of the 92 schools that come under the New York Archdiocese have declared they will remain independent (or “parish based”) – the Immaculate Conception is one of them.

With this strong parish link and increased financial security, Immaculate Conception now hopes to advance academically.

The school has revamped its curriculum over the past two years to match the new statewide standard and has brought in additional programs and technologies. Some of these programs, such as robotics, crochet and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) mentoring program, are not offered at all other public and Catholic schools.

“We’ve changed the way in which we teach,” said Joan Wise, a 6th grade teacher who witnessed the transformation during her four years at the school. “We’re using more engaging activities that challenge the students to question and explore and to learn through real-life experiences.”

Virginia Rizzo, who attended the school and whose two children, Matthew and Luna, now study at the Immaculate Conception, believes the curriculum changes and recent improvements in science and math are the school’s biggest appeals.

“They are more with the times now,” said Rizzo. “They always reinvent themselves and are striving to keep our kids competitive with the other schools.”

Catholic schools do not follow a ranking system to allow comparison but according to Barry, Immaculate Conception wants to compete with other schools citywide. Barry wants her school to be “attractive across the board”: in educational standards, attendance figures and the aesthetical upkeep of the school.

“I’m not interested in being competitive with Catholic schools. I’m interested in being better than most schools,” said Barry.

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