FLUSHING — One Catholic academy slated to close on Aug. 31 is being re-invented as an early childhood center that will educate youngsters from nursery school through third grade.
St. Mel’s Early Childhood Center will open in September — if the Diocese of Brooklyn opens schools at that time. School buildings were closed in March to avoid the spread of the coronavirus and stayed closed for the remainder of the school year.
The new center will be located in the same building in Flushing that housed St. Mel’s Catholic Academy, which was a K-8 school, for decades.
“We’re very pleased that we will be able to continue Catholic education in our community,” said Amy Barron, the principal of St. Mel’s Catholic Academy, who will head up the early childhood center.
Barron and Father Joseph Fonti, pastor of the Church of St. Mel, posted a joint statement on the academy’s website announcing the plans for the early childhood center.
“We would like to thank you for the outpouring of support you showed us following the heartbreaking announcement of the closing of St. Mel’s Catholic Academy. Resurrection is the foundation of our Catholic faith, and although we mourn our loss, our school will have new life as the St. Mel’s Early Childhood Center,” the statement reads.
St. Mel’s Catholic Academy was one of six schools selected for permanent closure, as announced in early July by the diocese.
In addition to St. Mel’s, the schools named to be closed were Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Whitestone, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in Howard Beach, Our Lady’s Catholic Academy in South Ozone Park, Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in East Williamsburg and St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy in Flatbush.
The schools had been facing declining enrollment and financial difficulties for several years, but diocesan officials said the coronavirus pandemic was a major factor in the decisions made by the boards of directors at each school to close them.
The diocese requires schools to have at least $300,000 in reserve, officials told The Tablet. St. Mel’s does have $553,644 on hand, according to the diocese, but when the 2019-2020 school year ended, the school had a projected deficit of more than $365,000.
The enrollment at St. Mel’s had dwindled down to 80 students during the 2019-2020 school year. In 2016, the academy had 208 students and between 2016 and 2019, the academy experienced a 60 percent drop.
During the 2018-2019 school year, the enrollment at St. Mel’s was so low, the academy did not have any classes in Grades 6 or 7 because there were not enough students in those grades.
While the outlook for St. Mel’s looked bleak, Barron said a closer look at each grade revealed a glimmer of hope.
“We realized that our early grades were our strongest grades,” she told The Tablet.
Barron said the goal is to expand the center beyond third grade so parents won’t have to find another school when children enter fourth grade. “Our hope is that we will be able to have such a strong third-grade class that the children will be able to move up right here.”
Parents, who were heartbroken over the academy’s closure, are hoping the new center gains a foothold.
“We’re determined to keep the remaining kids in that school building,” said Alexandria Ziraschi, who has three daughters who were students at the academy. “Father Fonti and Ms. Barron brought us new hope and new light.”
However, anger and frustration still linger over the academy being slated to close.
“Here we are, supporting Catholic education all of these years, and they close our school, just like that,” Ziraschi said.
For some, the Early Childhood Center is not enough. Parents and students held a protest rally to demand that St. Mel’s be allowed to expand to include upper grades.
“We have been dealt a terrible blow,” said Maria DiGiallonardo, whose granddaughter is a student. “We have pleaded with the diocese to keep all of St. Mel’s open in light of the closing of Holy Trinity, hoping to get many of their students to register at St. Mel’s.
“In addition, the uncertainty of the reopening of the public schools may see some interest in attending a smaller school,” DiGiallonardo added. “We have children who want to go to St. Mel’s. I want there to be a school for them.”