Decades of class pictures have been taken down from the walls. The blue and yellow banners have been removed. So has the mascot.
One of the last, and definitely the oldest, Catholic school in the Mission, run by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, has closed. This fall, a new, privately endowed Catholic school, Mission Dolores Academy, will open — the result of a merger of sorts between Mission Dolores School and the Megan Furth Academy. Mission Dolores Academy will have students from both schools, with a total of around 250 students.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco has so far declined to comment on the exact reasons for the closure of Mission Dolores School, but an article published by Catholic San Francisco cited rising costs and declining enrollment.
Only a third of the 161 students previously enrolled in Mission Dolores School will be returning in the fall. The rest of the students will come from the Megan Furth Academy.
In a letter [PDF] sent to parents in February of this year, students from both schools were offered tuition subsidies to stay in the new school — if they met the school’s academic and disciplinary standards.
“Mission Dolores, because of its historical significance and central location, has always played a unique role in the religious, civic, and cultural life of San Francisco,” the letter stated. “It is our vision that the new Mission Dolores Academy will continue that great legacy by serving families not only in the Mission District but those from adjoining neighborhoods as well.”
Many families were eager to stay, encouraged by lower tuition rates, free uniforms, new after-school programs and the promise that their kids would have more access to new technology. Others decided not to return when they realized that with the exception of one teacher, none of the former staff will remain.
“Good families left,” says Alex Datoc, a parent of a current student, alumni (class of 1983) and former coach at the school. Datoc elected to keep his child enrolled. Those still with the school, he says, are in a “wait-and-see mode.”
Mission Dolores School dates back to 1852, making it around 160 years old, if you aren’t picky about the phases it went through before its present incarnation. It was taught by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Notre Dame, then just by the Sisters of Notre Dame. For a time it was a girls’ school, then a boys’ school, then re-integrated its classrooms in the mid-’70s. But through all its various iterations, the school was connected to the Mission Dolores parish.
Its closure is a blow to the type of multigenerational, tradition-focused, heavily Latino Catholicism that once dominated religious education in the neighborhood. “There was an intuitive sense of discipline because of the church,” says Alex Tiran, class of 1977. “There was a cloud of discipline that kept order. I don’t know if this will exist.”
The abrupt change in faculty and staff has also chilled the relationship between parents, alumni and the new school. “It used to be that you got excited about the teachers that you would get in eighth grade when you were in fourth grade,” says Tiran. “Now it’s creating chaos in the minds of some of the kids and changing expectations of what is to come.”
Other parents valued the way that Mission Dolores School was less test-driven than other schools. “I don’t want my child’s teacher to have to worry about having her student pass a standardized test so that the school will look good,” says Datoc. “I want to know that my child’s principal and teachers will care for them as secondary parents when I drop them off.”
“Yes, the ‘Mission’ is still there, but the soul and legacy of the school will no longer be present,” says another parent. “Now instead we have a video of the sign being taken down from the school on Facebook. It will become a memory, as [are] most of the surrounding parochial schools.”
Other parents worry that the new school will be less tolerant of Spanish-speaking parents, or that the new curriculum, with its emphasis on technology, will penalize families that are too poor to buy a computer.
Others, like Datoc, are heartened by the addition of new technology. News that the new school will hold mass every week instead of once a month, and that religion classes — initially rumored to be cut — are on the curriculum also gladden the hearts of traditionalists.
“I will have to keenly observe many things the new school brings to see if it is better for the children,” says Datoc. “After all, this school is for the children. I am hoping that it is not someone’s personal agenda to sell an educational model that costs teachers’ jobs and a school’s long history and culture.
“I am keeping the faith and I am staying at Mission Dolores so that the people here don’t forget what a historically rich school this is. Hopefully the school can start to grow again and flourish.”