Queen of Peace to close school doorsExcited Queen of Peace students in Ramona Diehl’s third- and fourth-grade combined classroom hit the floor in record time Tuesday afternoon. Cloquet artist Terry Anderson had just spread out a shiny array of small stones on the carpet and told the kids they could each choose five or six to keep. For the next 10 minutes, the students were thoroughly distracted from the news that their Catholic school in Cloquet will close permanently at the end of the school year.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Excited Queen of Peace students in Ramona Diehl’s third- and fourth-grade combined classroom hit the floor in record time Tuesday afternoon. Cloquet artist Terry Anderson had just spread out a shiny array of small stones on the carpet and told the kids they could each choose five or six to keep.
For the next 10 minutes, the students were thoroughly distracted from the news that their Catholic school in Cloquet will close permanently at the end of the school year. Letters about the decision to close the K-6 elementary after 50 years were mailed to parents and parishioners last Friday.
“It’s painful,” said Father David Tushar. “It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to [give guidance on] as a priest.”
Tushar spoke to parishioners about it on Sunday during mass and found himself choking up with emotion.
“It was like having to tell someone that someone they love was going to die,” he said.
Although many factors played a role in the decision, Tushar said declining enrollment was the main issue and has been for years. A push in recent years to raise funds, market and promote the school yielded little in the way of saving it.
“In its inception, 233 students were enrolled in the school, which served K-8 students,” Tushar said. “In 1967, when it changed to K-6, we had 183 students. Since then, there’s been a slow but sure decline.”
In fact, this year only 40 students enrolled. And when Tushar and others conducted a phone survey recently, calling parents who had babies recently baptized in the church, the number of parents who said they would sent their children to the school was dismal. Just 19 of 119 potential students were slated to enroll.
“That’s only 12 percent,” said Andrew Genereau, chair of the school’s finance council and father of four, three of whom attend Queen of Peace. “A traditional guideline is upwards of 60 to keep it running. Forty-eight is the highest number enrolled in the past five years, so reality is there are just not the numbers to support a school at this time.”
Reasons for declining enrollment are speculative and varied. Tuition, at $1,900 per student per year, with a cap of $3,350 per family, is harder to come by, and the surrounding public schools are known to do a good job of educating students, too.
“Catholic schools do better in places with lagging public schools,” Genereau said. “In Cloquet and the surrounding area, we have no bad schools.”
A Barnum native who grew up in a Catholic family of nine kids, Genereau said he always figured he’d send his kids to Queen of Peace.
“Some of my younger brothers and sisters went there and now, living just north of Cloquet, it was part of the reason we live here,” he said. “[My older kids have] gotten a good education and they also get the religious part of it that they can’t get in public school. I feel sad that my youngest two won’t get the experience the older two got.”
Genereau’s children were sad when they heard the news on Saturday.
“They cried,” he said. “A lot of us have cried. The kids are resilient, though, and are already focused on making this the best last year possible.”
Queen of Peace Principal Bill Hoffman met with the whole school on Tuesday morning to discuss the situation.
“My concern is that the rest of the year is wonderful for these kids,” he said. “We talked about staying together as a family and I wanted to make sure they know it’s not their fault.”
With nearly three-quarters of the school year remaining, the decision was made now so school staff, parents and children would have time to adjust and make future plans, Tushar said. The closure will leave eight teachers and staff without jobs.
“The teachers are phenomenal and I’m not just saying that,” Genereau commented. “I’m sure they will be considered among the best teachers wherever they go.”
There are no other Catholic schools in Carlton County, so Genereau is considering sending his children to either Cloquet public schools or to St. Rose, the next-closest Catholic school in Proctor.
Father Tushar has spoken with school officials at St. Rose and St. James in West Duluth and said they are willing to meet with parents if they request it.
“No matter where the students go, I feel that our parishioners will come together to teach the kids our faith.”
School scholarship money will also still be collected at church with the proceeds going toward funding scholarships at other Catholic schools.
As for the rest of the school year, Hoffman said they will move forward as normally as possible. He envisions an all-school celebration sometime around June 3, the last official day of classes.
“We will bring the year to a good conclusion for everyone,” he said.
No plans have been made for what the church will do with the empty space, except that a decision will not be rushed.
Father David Tushar said this decision was one of the toughest he’s encountered, but was one that could not be avoided.
“I spent the first half of my career as a Catholic educator in Illinois, before coming back to the Duluth area,” he said. “It’s a painful decision ... but sometimes God writes straight with crooked lines. I’m hopeful for the future.”