The scene outside Assumption-Guadalupe School earlier this week was vintage first-day-of-school.
Excited students in navy blue uniforms trooped toward the school at 22nd and U Streets, lugging backpacks.
There was even a little first-day drama: A bagel that scorched in a staff microwave oven sent smoke through the building, triggering alarms and summoning a firetruck.
But there was sadness as well.
Assumption-Guadalupe is one of three Catholic grade schools in southeast Omaha that will close at the end of the school year as part of a broader plan the Archdiocese of Omaha laid out in June to strengthen schools and parishes in eastern Omaha. Also slated for closing are Holy Ghost School near 52nd and Q Streets, where classes started Monday, and St. Stanislaus School near 41st and J Streets, which opens today.
Geri Tolbert, an Assumption-Guadalupe parent, said the school's pending closing has been tough. Her family has a four-generation history there. Her grandmother attended there. Her father graduated from the school, as did she and some siblings and four of her seven children. On Monday, Tolbert escorted her youngest, Geanna, a fourth-grader, for one last first-day-back.
“I've been very pleased to be a part of that school and parish,” Tolbert said. “It's just been home. I always felt comfortable sending my kids up the hill to that school. It's a hard transition to see such a family institution have to change.”
The schools' principals, however, say they're anticipating a good year. They'll celebrate the old traditions and say goodbye to the buildings along the way. Holy Ghost turns 90 this year, and a committee already is working on an all-school reunion.
“It's going to be a great year,” said Richard Leimbach, principal at both Holy Ghost and St. Stanislaus this year. “Obviously, we're going to have kind of a bittersweet journey.”
Rob Laird, Assumption-Guadalupe president, said he and his staff also are working with families to view the school's closing as a transition to a larger venue next year. He'd like to see them all move to Sts. Peter and Paul School near 36th and X Streets, which the archdiocese plans to make more welcoming to Hispanic students.
Sts. Peter and Paul will be one of five schools operating in a regional consortium next year. The consortium, similar to a mini-school district, will have a common governing board, director, tuition, teacher salaries, marketing and fundraising. The four others will be Holy Cross, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Thomas More and St. Bernadette in Bellevue.
“Yeah, we're sad,” Laird said. “We'd love to be here. What's happening now isn't working. I see it as a solution because the only other option is we're not here.”
Deacon Tim McNeil, the archdiocese's chancellor, said the archdiocese knows people have strong feelings for their schools and parishes. It doesn't take concerns lightly.
“We're going to help them with the mourning and the transition,” he said.
Official numbers aren't in, but enrollment appears to have dipped at all three schools, although less so at Assumption-Guadalupe.
The school ended the previous school year with 141 students, Laird said. In May, 37 had signed up to return. Many thought it wasn't reopening.
So office staff got on the phone. They handed out 4,500 double-sided cards — English on one side, Spanish on the other — with the message that the school would be open this fall.
Two weeks ago, Laird spoke at all nine Masses at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Going into Monday's opening, the count stood at 129.
“It's taken a lot of work to get there,” he said.
At Holy Ghost, enrollment stood at 54 on Wednesday, including a few late arrivals, Leimbach said. Last year, the archdiocese's report listed about 100.
He expected 66 at St. Stanislaus, down from 90 last year.
Both schools have consolidated some grades and dropped kindergarten for the final year.
Leimbach himself is new to the schools, although he previously served 12 years as Sts. Peter and Paul principal. Laird last year headed St. Philip Neri School in northeast Omaha, which had merged with the now-closed Blessed Sacrament School.
Some of the student drop-off came with incoming seventh-graders, Leimbach said. Parents wanted to avoid sending their children to a new school for eighth grade and then move once again to a high school.
Leimbach said a few students have switched to Ralston, Omaha and Millard public school districts, although he didn't have a tally.
Some parents sought transfers to other area Catholic grade schools, but the archdiocese last spring asked pastors and administrators not to accept transfer students for the current school year from within the consortium area, largely east of 72nd Street. Special circumstances were required for such transfers.
McNeil said the archdiocese adopted the policy to prevent large numbers of students from transferring and leaving schools and teachers in the lurch. Not many were approved, he said.
“We just wanted to maintain the status quo as much as possible for students, staff and teachers so we could maintain the best learning environment” possible, he said. “We knew not everyone would like it, but we felt it was in the best interests of the students.”
Chris Nelson, principal of Holy Cross School at 48th Street and Woolworth Avenue, accepted two families who lived within the geographic boundaries of the school and parish, as allowed by the archdiocese.
Veronica Rosman, a Holy Ghost parent, transferred her two children to the Ralston Public Schools after being denied her request to send her seventh-grader to St. Joan of Arc.
“We wanted her to have more than one year at a new school — get roots, get friends, get settled,” Rosman said of her daughter.
Geri Tolbert, the Assumption-Guadalupe mom, said it was difficult for her to commit to one last year, given the uncertainty surrounding the school. “The parish is very strong,” she said, “so I just couldn't pull away.”
She's proud of the progress the school has made over the years. “As a graduate, I always felt we had a very good education. It provided a very good base for our future.”
Meantime, Laird said the school continues to work toward that future. That means reaching out to both Latino families and others. Laird is learning Spanish. He listens to Rosetta Stone, a popular language instruction program, every night.
The Spanish teacher at Assumption-Guadalupe, which has a largely Latino enrollment, already is working toward developing a Spanish language arts program that would transfer to Sts. Peter and Paul.
Many students can speak Spanish, but they can't necessarily read and write it. The school wants to build students' skills in both English and Spanish.
“We are trying to make the best possible school for South Omaha,” he said.
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