Salve Regina Academy (with slide show)

by Marie Elena Giossi

Salve Regina Catholic Academy has two computer labs for student use, as seen above, SMART Boards in every classroom, two libraries and a high school science lab in two buildings.

Born of economic necessity and declining enrollments, Salve Regina Catholic Academy opened in East New York this fall.

One month into the new school year, the academy already features the largest enrollment of any diocesan elementary school and Principal William Geasor believes the move to an academy model will ensure Catholic education thrives in this low-income community well into the future.

As part of Preserving the Vision, the diocesan strategic planning process to strengthen Catholic elementary schools, parish schools are in the process of transitioning to independent academies with two-tier governance models. Since 2008, more than two dozen academies have been formed. In September, three new academies opened: Salve Regina; St. Catherine of Genoa-St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Academy, Flatbush; and St. Elizabeth Catholic Academy, S. Ozone Park.

After months of study and collaboration, the parishes/schools of St. Rita, East New York; St. Michael-St. Malachy, East New York; and St. Sylvester, City Line, decided the most viable option to sustain and increase Catholic education in the area was to close the three parish schools and open one academy housed at the former St. Michael’s School on Jerome St.

In a joint statement released last March, the pastors of the three parishes – Fathers Anthony Raso, St. Sylvester; Pablo Ruani, I.V.E., St. Michael-St. Malachy; and Luis LaVerde, St. Rita, said, “Building on the ideas of a very strong Catholic identity, rigorous academic standards and sound finances, we believe that the academy will not merely survive, but thrive.”

That is exactly what seems to be happening. The academy already has an enrollment of 732 students with three classes per grade in nursery through grade eight.

“Due to the leadership of the pastors and principals of the three parishes… the opening of Salve Regina is viewed as a success. It was the local leadership that developed the plan, implemented the plan and communicated the plan to the parent community,” noted Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, Superintendent of Catholic School Support Services. “The leadership is truly visionary and … I applaud all of their efforts and their leadership.”

The process of transitioning from three parish schools into a single, self-sufficient academy began last September, 2010. Geasor, then principal of St. Rita’s, said he and the other principals, Sister Peggy Merritt, O.P., of St. Michael’s, and Ana Maria Ricciardi of St. Sylvester’s, originally thought they could have one academy with three campuses.

A closer look at the financials revealed otherwise. Two schools were receiving diocesan subsidies and charging increasingly higher tuition rates as enrollment declined in order to cover teachers’ salaries.

“We looked at it realistically and decided that if we wanted to continue, we couldn’t stay operating with three plants. In the best interest of Catholic education in this neighborhood, we had to consolidate into one site,” Geasor said.

Of the three schools, St. Michael’s was deemed the ideal location for the new academy because it has two spacious buildings: the elementary school and a former high school.

Currently, nursery through third grades fill the elementary school, while fourth through eighth graders occupy the former high school building. In addition to standard class subjects and daily religion classes, supplemented by weekly Mass attendance at St. Michael’s, students have access to two libraries, two computer rooms, where most of the school’s 400 computers are located, SMART Boards in every classroom and a high school science lab, which will soon undergo renovations sponsored by Petro Heating and Oil Services. Eligible students also receive Title I services, free school bus service, and breakfast and lunch. Before- and after-school programs keep the school open from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. – a huge help to working parents.

Families were first notified about the impending changes in January, 2011, and took the news well. “We’ve all become accustomed to the fact that these things (reconfigurations) are occurring,” said Geasor, who was selected as principal by the three pastors.

Enrollment Expectations
In planning for the academy, one concern was how many students would attend. Last year, St. Rita’s had the largest enrollment with 450 students, followed by St. Michael’s with 300 and St. Sylvester’s at 200.

Considering St. Michael’s students had no location change and St. Rita’s is about five blocks away, it’s no surprise that “almost 95% of both schools stayed,” Geasor said.

Most of St. Sylvester’s students, however, transferred to other schools, understandable given that the two parishes are about 15 blocks apart.

Still, enrollment far surpasses original estimates of 550-650 students – and there are new students as well, noted Roxanna Elder, assistant principal.

The ethnic and religious make-up of the student body reflects the surrounding neighborhood, said Elder, who noted that students are largely Latino (60%) and black (35%), and almost all Christian with 75-80% identifying themselves as Catholic.

Elder, a graduate of St. Rita’s School and Nazareth R.H.S., Flatbush, taught for 12 years at St. Rita’s and served the last three years as assistant principal before being hired for the same position in the new academy.

“It’s good to know we’re working to keep Catholic education here in my neighborhood,” she said.

Besides keeping Catholic education alive in the community, the academy offers numerous benefits – the greatest for most parents has been a decrease in tuition.  The current rate is $3,600 with discounts applied for additional children enrolled.  “We kept the tuition rate of the school that had the lowest tuition,” to be fair and encourage the highest possible enrollment, Geasor said.

On top of that, 60-70% of students are receiving financial assistance from the diocese, the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Trust, Futures in Education, and outside sources, including Petro Heating and Oil Services.

“It is a poor neighborhood but it is our philosophy that anyone who wants a Catholic education will have one here,” Geasor said.

Another benefit is that the various extracurricular programs, including robotics, sports and Spanish classes, enjoyed at each individual school are in the process of being integrated into the new academy.

Furthermore, it’s been reassuring for both parents and students to see familiar faces at Salve Regina. Faculty and staff from the three former schools all lost their jobs when the schools closed. They have been given first preference for positions at the academy – something Geasor hopes to continue doing as the school expands.

While the principal handles day-to-day concerns, he has the benefit of assistance from an 11-person board of directors, a diverse group of local business people, a retired police officer and Catholic educators, as well as the board of members, which includes the pastors of the three parishes, along with Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano and Dr. Chadzutko. All involved, Geasor said, are working for “the good of the children and to make this school the best possible.”

“It’s a challenge because of the number of students but everything is working out fine,” shared science teacher Francis Belizario, who previously taught at St. Michael’s. He feels children are adapting well to the change. “We brought the good from all of the schools together,” he said.

Kindergarten teacher Marcia Lara added that teachers are also enjoying “increased collaboration and bringing together new ideas.”

4 thoughts on “Salve Regina Academy (with slide show)

  1. They overlooked the part of the day called recess.
    It’s unfortunate that something so necessary for children should be tossed out of the plan.

    1. Thank you for your comment and for expressing your concern.

      When contacted in regard to this issue, Principal William Geasor stated that your comment is correct — there is no school-wide recess time. This is a challenge currently facing the school, which has five lunch periods to accommodate its 732 students. However, Principal Geasor wants readers and parents to know that individual teachers do provide rest and recess times during the school day for their classes.

      Looking to the future, Principal Geasor added that the school may consider lengthening the school day — which currently runs 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (that is, six-and-a-half hours), including six required hours of instruction each day and a lunch break — to provide time for a school-wide recess.

      Thank you for your comment and for reading The Tablet.

      Marie Elena Giossi

    1. Dear Michael,

      Thank you for your question.

      When contacted regarding your question, Principal William Geasor had this to say:

      “Only 10% of the St. Sylvester students came to Salve Regina. Saint Sylvester was in the neighborhood known as City Line, at the Brooklyn-Queens border. Most parents chose schools to the east of St. Sylvester, in Queens county, rather than travelling west into the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.

      “Our belief as Catholics is that parents are the first educators of their children, and we respect the choices that they make. At Salve Regina, we want all parents to know that they are welcome if they so chose. We believe that those St. Sylvester parents who chose Salve Regina are very happy with the choice that they made.”

      Thank you for your question and for reading The Tablet.

      Marie Elena Giossi