On a giant alphabet rug in Rosemarie Bates’ classroom, a gaggle of first- and second-grade children giggle as they clap and over-pronounce words in order to count the syllables.
A short walk down the hall, in Barbara Moore’s kindergarten classroom, seven rambunctious children recite the days of the week in unison. Every time their teacher’s back is turned, mischievous grins appear on their faces as their youthful energy turns toward tomfoolery.
It’s a typical day at St. Patrick Catholic School, located at 1800 South Grand Ave. East. Everyone in the 101-year-old school – from the principal to the part-time volunteers – is confident about the school’s continued role as a fixture on Springfield’s east side. But it wasn’t always that way.
In February 2010, the school’s board voted to shut the school down when they determined there wasn’t enough money to even make payroll for the rest of the year, much less to operate the school itself. School administrators say the school’s finances are stable once more, and they’re taking steps to make sure St. Patrick stays open another 100 years.
The school holds kindergarten through fifth grade, with 47 students total. The first- and second-grade classes are combined, as are the fourth- and fifth-grade classes. The students need not be Catholic, principal Kim Marsaglia says, adding that only two current students actually are Catholic.
No class at St. Patrick has more than 15 students, and that’s by design.
“Because we have such small class sizes, we are able to take the time to analyze test scores and see where the gaps in instruction are,” she said.
St. Patrick’s executive director, Gary Sullivan, said some classrooms have fewer than 15 children, but the school will eventually have 85 students total once a pre-kindergarten class is created and the already-full lower grades move up.
“It’s difficult to go out and find 15 fifth-graders, 15 fourth-graders and so on,” He said. “We’re building from the base, and eventually each grade level will have 15 students.”
Meanwhile, the small size of the school allows teachers to know each student, Sullivan said.
“The students here are never at a loss for who they can go to or who they can talk to (about problems),” he said. “And at the same time, the teachers are aware of who the students are, so they can’t get away with anything. It’s a great atmosphere. I learned a long time ago that if you can call a student by his or her first name, you have the situation under control.”
Originally affiliated with the former St. Patrick Parish of Springfield, the school became an independent nonprofit organization in 2001, when St. Patrick Parish and the former Sacred Heart Parish merged to become St. Katharine Drexel Parish, but the school has always relied on donations. Sullivan said the large white house next to Boyd’s New Generation restaurant, which sits just across the street from St. Patrick Catholic School, used to house the nuns who taught at the school long ago.
Sullivan says St. Patrick school strives to remain affordable with tuition of $735 per year, which can be paid in installments of just $73.50 per month over the 10-month school year.
“We have teachers here who see this as a mission,” Sullivan said. “They work for less than they could make at other places.”
Formerly a teacher for about 30 years in Springfield School District 186, Sullivan took on the role of executive director at St. Patrick about two years ago. He says he originally intended to stay only three months.
“There’s a mission here to be fulfilled,” Sullivan said. “Once you get caught up in it, it’s a little bit difficult to walk away from it.”
Principal Kim Marsaglia says she came from a family of educators, and being involved in education was her childhood dream.
“It’s pretty much in my blood,” she said, adding that she instantly fell in love with St. Patrick school when she first visited. “There’s something about this place,” Marsaglia said. “Once you’re in, if it’s a perfect fit, you know it right away.”
A school with a mission
Sister Marilyn Jean Runkel, president of the school’s board since 1998, says the school has always had a mission of service. It opened in 1910 to teach the children of Irish immigrants, many of whom moved to Springfield to work in the coal mines. Runkel’s father – the son of Hungarian immigrants who didn’t even speak English – attended the school in the 1920s.
“St. Patrick has always had a mission, even in its opening days, for people with special needs,” Runkel said.
From those working-class roots, the school began to serve families in the surrounding neighborhood, then families from all over Springfield and nearby communities.
The school’s mission statement says, “We seek to give our students a variety of learning experiences which root them in Jesus’ message, which is that they are loved and respected.” The statement emphasizes positive thinking, productive citizenship and family involvement, among other values. But the unspoken mission of St. Patrick school seems to be serving a community in need. While not all students at the school have special learning needs or come from low-income households, those who do find acceptance and one-on-one attention at St. Patrick, along with a healthy dose of discipline and positive reinforcement.
Wylse Smith of Springfield sends two children to St. Patrick – one in kindergarten and one in first grade. She said the children need special help with learning, which they receive at St. Patrick because of the small class sizes.
“I didn’t want to send them to a public school where they would be in class with 18 to 20 kids and get shuffled around a lot,” Smith said. “At St. Pat’s, I have found there’s a lot of care and a lot of time spent individually with the children. They have received nothing but excellent care and services there.”
Marsaglia said 98 percent of parents attended parent-teacher conferences this year, and many parents interact with teachers and school administrators every day.
“We feel like there are a lot of positive things going on right now,” Marsaglia said. “The parents are very supportive.”
Sullivan called the level of parental involvement “exemplary.”
“I’ve been in education 30-plus years, and I’ve never had such a high level of parental support, cooperation and communication,” he said. “They don’t want to see this school close. It’s the only school offering a religious-based education on the east side of Springfield. To them, it’s a jewel to have it here.”
Rosemarie Bates, the first- and second-grade teacher who teaches kids to count syllables by clapping, started teaching at St. Patrick in 1973. Like Sullivan, Bates lauds the level of parental involvement at St. Patrick.
“These parents care about their children,” Bates said. “They love their children and want the best for them. They’re like any other parents; they want their children to have it a little bit better than they had it when they were growing up.”
Bates said she has stayed at St. Patrick over the years because of the family atmosphere. The faith-based education at St. Patrick helps develop the students’ character, Bates said.
“It’s a safe environment in which children can get a very good education,” she said. “We add the Catholic Christian aspect to it, and I think it gives kids more of a reason to be good and do the right thing, because we can talk about it.”
Sarah Stanley, the third-grade teacher at St. Patrick, described the school as “a small family.”
“The kids are all different and unique,” she said. “It’s not like I just have my own two kids at home. I have my own two kids, and I have 10 kids here. You get to know each one on such a personal level that you know everything about them, not just their academic needs. I really like that.”
Though the school may be a mission for some, keeping it open has been an uphill climb. The school is run primarily from donations, Sullivan says, so maintaining relationships with donors is a constant endeavor. The closure scare in February 2010 was caused indirectly by the unstable economy, he says, because donors weren’t recommitting to future contributions and the school’s $1 million endowment didn’t yield much interest that year.
The school receives about $50,000 annually from the Catholic church’s Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, while the endowment provides about $40,000 per year, Runkel said. The diocese also provides bookkeeping services to the school and an affordable lease on the school building. Still the school must raise about $400,000 in donations and grants each year to operate.
While the low tuition cost of $735 makes the school an attractive option for parents, it also means tuition is not a significant source of revenue for the school. Marsaglia said it costs about $8,000 per year to educate one child at St. Patrick.
Previously, the school could count on the former St. Patrick Parish to handle fundraising and finance, Sullivan said.
“The fact that we’re no longer affiliated with the parish poses funding problems for us,” he said. “The difference is we have to raise our own money.”
Back from the brink
Sister Marilyn Jean Runkel describes the closure scare as “a blessing in disguise” because of the community’s response.
“It alerted the community that they did not want anything to happen to that school,” she said. “The community came forth with significant pledges to enable us to stay open.”
Runkel said donors who responded to the school’s pleas for help told her they could not see the school closing.
“It’s been there for more than 100 years,” she said. “It’s a very respected icon over there. It’s a source of positivity. People said to me, ‘If that closes, there’s another empty building on the east side.’ They just didn’t want that to happen.”
Bates, the first- and second-grade teacher, said she was amazed at “how many people stepped forward and wanted to help.”
“We got phone calls and letters from so many people,” she said. “One of my little boys came in with a five-dollar bill and wanted to give me his birthday money to help.”
Despite the positive response from the community, Runkel said the school can’t simply rely on current donors to continue giving indefinitely. The school board worked with the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, also known as ACE Consulting, to devise a plan for the future. A main component of that plan, Runkel said, is a strong school board whose members not only contribute to the school, but also actively seek out new donors and funding opportunities. ACE will return in January, Runkel said, to train board members in fundraising.
“We need a board that’s going to be very involved and very active in our future,” she said. “Board members need to connect with people so they know more about the school. The board has to be part of the public relations arm, thinking creatively – out of the box – about how we can secure our future.”
Sullivan said St. Patrick will emphasize its faith-based curriculum while adding more technology to classrooms. The school already has “smart boards” – interactive computerized whiteboards – in almost every classroom. Textbooks for English, math and reading were recently updated. The school also added a library this year through book donations.
Sullivan said the school can use volunteers with a variety of skills. One professional heating and air-conditioning repairman in Springfield, who Sullivan said wishes to remain anonymous, donates his expertise whenever the school needs help. Another volunteer provides new glass whenever a window is broken.
George Fairchild, a volunteer for 11 years, visits the school every morning to tutor children who need individual help with math, spelling, English and more. Fairchild, a retired Springfield businessman, said he started volunteering because he saw a need at the school.
“It’s a clean, wholesome environment where kids can get a good education and good discipline,” Fairchild said. “I don’t know what more you could ask for with your children. (The children) can come in at 8 in the morning and not have to leave until 5:30 at night, so that’s quite a value for parents who work.”
He said volunteering at St. Patrick is his calling for now.
“I think it helps to keep you humble, to give you a sense of giving back to a community and giving back to your fellow man,” Fairchild said. “My wife could tell you every day I’m happy about coming here. God has given me the direction and the ability to come here and help out in my own small way.”
Sullivan said the school needs donors who are willing to “sponsor” students by helping to make up the difference between the tuition fee and the actual cost of educating a child.
“Every little bit helps,” he said. “We get checks in the mail ranging from $10 to $4,000. We just need more of the $4,000 ones.”
Runkel likened St. Patrick to a mission like those in other parts of the world.
“We always talk about missions in Africa, Haiti, Indonesia and all those places, but there’s a similar situation here in the middle of our city, where these children need a good education,” she said.
Sarah Stanley, the third-grade teacher, said she and the rest of the staff are hopeful and confident about the school’s future.
“I think it’s going to do nothing but get better,” she said. “I think you almost have to come in and check it out. It’s not like any other school I’ve ever been in.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.