Less than a year after arriving at St. Edmund Parish, Rev. John McGivern prepared to shut the doors of the nearly 90-year-old parish school after the Archdiocese of Chicago ordered its closure at the end of its 2004-05 school year.

Saddled with dwindling enrollment and debt in the thousands of dollars, St. Edmund’s demise seemed all but assured.

But persistence and pleas from parishioners and parents to keep the church and school open-along with a timely partnership with Dominican University-swayed the archdiocese to give the school a chance to turn things around. By June 2005, the parish was given a second chance.

Now, days after the start of its new school year, the school’s debt is completely erased, and the doors of St. Edmund parish aren’t likely to close anytime soon.

The school reached its goal of 135 students for the 2006-07 school year, a 5 percent decline in last year’s enrollment of 142 students.

But the slight dip doesn’t concern McGivern.

When he and Sister Mary Colette, the school’s principal, arrived in July 2004, “school enrollment was 61 students, our recruitment and retention was obviously hurting, and we had a debt of $400,000, so the archdiocese put us on the list to be closed,” McGivern said.

The announcement in early 2005 slated St. Edmund and 22 other Catholic schools for closure.

McGivern said the church received donations from parishioners and other supporters-including some anonymous donors-that helped chisel away its debt. The school’s academic program was greatly helped by the partnership with Dominican University, the first of its kind in the area, he said.

“This is more than just a few programs; there is a lot of sharing of expertise in marketing and governance,” said Nicholas Wolsonovich, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Through the partnership, which began in March 2005, St. Edmund has received helped from Dominican with marketing, grant seeking, and developing the school’s electronic alumni database. St. Edmund’s teachers have also received professional development training with Dominican.

“We find it very exciting. There is a lot of potential to learn and share with each other,” said Wolsonovich of the two institutions. “This is only the second year [of the partnership] but we see it growing.”

The partnership also produced a five-week summer reading program for 23 St. Edmund students. The classes are held on Dominican University’s River Forest campus. Dominican graduate students serve as tutors and mentors for St. Edmund students, and earn credits through participating in the program.

“It’s a partnership where we’re helping them fulfill their needs,” said Christine Kelly, an associate professor in the School of Education, and director of the Administrative Leadership Program at Dominican University. “We don’t dictate what St. Edmund needs. Instead, we listen to them and help them where they say they need assistance.”

Mary Prudence, a St. Edmund parent and chair of the school’s marketing committee, echoed Kelly’s sentiment.

“They are very open and receptive to any needs or ideas we may have,” she said of Dominican. “They have really made themselves available.”

On Tuesday, as St. Edmund begins its 2006-07 school year, McGivern and the school hosted a breakfast for students and parents. The “Tears-to-Cheers Breakfast” had a interesting meaning, McGivern said.

“It’s tears for the students who have to come back to school and cheers from the parents who are getting their homes back from the summer,” McGivern said laughing.

The school, he said, hired a speech and language pathologist, something few Catholic Schools have.

McGivern added that he’s most proud of the school’s administration and teachers.

“Not too many Catholic schools have sisters who are teachers. That’s becoming a rarity, which is why we’re pleased to have them on our faculty and administration,” McGivern said of the five nuns who are part of the school’s faculty and administration. “These are very intelligent women who have dedicated themselves to the faith and to education.”

McGivern said the school would like to keep enrollment below 200 students-190 at the most-because that’s the enrollment capacity for St. Edmund. But more importantly, it allows classes remain small.

“There’s no reason to worry about the enrollment,” he said. “We don’t aspire to have 400 students. People hear that number and say, ‘Oh, you only have 160 or 170 students.’ But that is right where we want to be.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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