When students at Pope John Paul II Catholic School have concerns about their faith, they write down questions and put them in a little box for Father Bob.
For parent Jennifer Petrella, personal spiritual relationships like these drive her passion for saving the school from being shut down.
“My son stumps his teachers with religious questions,” Petrella said. “We call him Father Drew.”
In the Catholic Church, a diocese is a regional district under the supervision of a bishop.
Bishop Robert Lynch announced this month that the Lecanto, Fla., school is not meeting the diocese’s benchmarks for enrollment and renovations. This could mean the only Catholic school in Citrus County could close in June.
The bishop has given parents until April 15 to present a plan that would let the school remain open for another year. While a welcome gesture, a mere one-year extension makes it difficult to encourage newcomers to join the school, said Petrella, who is leading marketing and fundraising efforts.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg estimates that the 29-year-old school needs $300,000 to renovate the roof, the boiler and the air conditioning system.
Academically the school is doing well, but has low enrollment, diocese spokesman Frank Murphy said. The school currently has 150 students, but he expects that number to drop in the near future.
The faculty was shocked at the news. The diocese has not guaranteed new positions for teachers at other Catholic schools, said Mary Ann Camisa, a fourth-grade teacher for 22 years at the school.
“We were in a crisis situation without knowing it,” Camisa said. “I wish they had told us even just two years ago.”
Jennifer Hewitson, a member of the Catholic school’s board, said parents weren’t informed of the school’s issues until now. Had they known earlier, they would have raised money for repairs.
“We mow the lawn. We clean. We do all kinds of things,” Petrella said. “But we didn’t think we had any say in how to revive the school.”
Catholic school closures have risen in the past decade. The National Catholic Educational Association reported about 2,000 schools closed or consolidated from 2000 to 2013.
According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report on private schools, the decline in Catholic school enrollment is attributed to changing demographics in the Catholic population, sex abuse scandals and the economic downturn.
The local economy took a hit after Duke Energy shut down the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant and fired or relocated several hundred employees to leave in 2013, Murphy said.
Several parents who worked at the plant formerly had children enrolled at the school.
Crystal River Mall department store closings also contributed to the economic loss, said a Citrus County Chronicle editorial defending the school.
“The availability of a Catholic education is one of the important factors some families look at before they move to a new place,” the Chronicle said in its editorial.
Stephanie Flaherty, a fifth-grade teacher and alumna of the school, said that her students were saddened by the news, but they were full of fighting spirit.
“The work that’s going on right now would give anyone hope,” she said.
Despite the ominous prospects, parents want to focus on advertising the school’s academic strengths, Petrella said. She hopes non-Catholic families will join the school and come to know their faith.
“That’s a cultural change for Catholics,” she said.
If the school closes, Bishop Lynch has two alternatives for students, diocese spokesman Murphy said. Either the diocese will offer $1,000 to each family or they will provide a bus service to allow the children to attend other Catholic schools.
At least one K-8 Catholic school in Marion County is already full, said parent Annie Shank, who explored other schools after being notified about Pope John Paul II.
Catholic schools in neighboring counties are at least 40 minutes away from Lecanto. Petrella said she didn’t feel it was safe to send her 5-year-old on a bus to another county.
Hewitson said the transition from a tight-knit religious school to a large public school would be hard for the children. Since the school has one class per grade, the kids know each other very well, she said.
Generations of families have attended the school and return because of its spiritual community, teacher Camisa said.
“I want this school to be open for my grandchildren,” she said.
Shank said her daughter’s attitude toward academics shifted once she started attending Pope John Paul II.
Shank’s daughter previously attended a public school where there was poor behavior and low academic standards, she said. She declined to give the public school’s name.
“She would come home and say things like, ‘I’m sure I got 100. I wrote more than 10 sentences in language arts,’” Shank said.
At the end of the day, Petrella said, the parents aren’t fighting only for the school’s academics. Other Citrus County schools, both private and public, have great academic standing, she said.
“It’s our faith that keeps us here,” Hewitson said. “You grow your church from your youth.”