Holy Spirit Academy students will continue their Catholic education this fall.
Just not at Holy Spirit Academy.
After struggling for several years to keep its enrollment and finances up, the 113-year-old school — the last Catholic school in Lawrence County — apparently will close at the end of the current school year. However, a novel partnership spearheaded by Holy Spirit Parish pastor Father Joseph McCaffrey will allow the academy’s students to transfer to the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools in Hermitage, with continued financial, administrative and instructional support from Holy Spirit.
The plan already has received the approval of parish and diocesan officials, and awaits only the signature of Bishop David A. Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh to get rolling.
“The plan is not simply the closing of Holy Spirit Academy, but more importantly, the joining of our efforts for Catholic education with the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools,” McCaffrey said in a letter to staff and parents. “This must be a real partnership, and not just us telling our children to go there.”
McCaffrey’s plan would draw from funds that each parish of the Pittsburgh Diocese is assessed to support Catholic education. Instead of turning all that money over to the diocese, every Holy Spirit student, present and future, as well as current non-Catholic enrollees, would receive $2,000 toward tuition at Kennedy’s St. John Paul II elementary school.
Anything left over would then be forwarded to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
In addition, Mark Ferrara, president of Kennedy Catholic schools, said he would be pleased to add some members of Holy Spirit’s advisory board to his own leadership team, and to welcome Holy Spirit clergy to work with in Kennedy Schools. Also, Holy Spirit teachers who are losing their jobs would be welcome to apply for any classroom openings that occur.
“It’s a partnership,” said Ferrara, a former superintendent in the Greenville and Sharpsville school districts who also spent time as a curriculum coordinator and assistant high school principal in the Neshannock Township School District. “We don’t want people to feel that we’re gobbling them up. We have zero interest in that.
“We want to learn from what they have in place to make us better and stronger together. Partnership is the focus.”
BREAK FROM TRADITION
The partnership is unusual for a couple of reasons.
First, it breaks from the Pittsburgh Diocese’s approach of regionalizing its struggling schools, a program it launched in 2017 in Pittsburgh’s North Hill district.
“With regional governance,” the diocese said in a March 17 news release about the merger of St. Phillip and St. Margaret schools, “all of the parishes in a geographic region support Catholic school education, and all have a voice in the mission of those schools.”
Holy Spirit Academy, McCaffrey said, is included in a northern region of the diocese, and through standard procedures would be grouped with a school or schools in Butler or Beaver counties.
“The likelihood that our school would go away is very high,” he said. “Our kids would have to travel pretty far under that arrangement.”
Thus, McCaffrey turned his eyes toward Kennedy Catholic, just 20 minutes north in an area that Lawrence County residents already frequent for shopping, dining and entertainment.
The challenge was that Kennedy Catholic is in a different diocese: the Diocese of Erie.
It’s a “we’ve never done it that way” dismissal that Ferrara, for one, applauds.
“That was one of the things that we in public schools did a poor job with: reaching out to do more things collectively with our counterparts,” he said. “So my hat’s off to Father Mac. He gets it.
“It’s not going to be easy. There will be some growing pains, but when we’re done, we’ll look back a year from now and say, ‘Look how we’ve grown together. We’ve taken the best practices of both and melded them into one.”