After 129 years in operation in the Mission, St. Charles Borromeo School at 3250 18th St. will suspend operations in June, citing low enrollment and an inability to meet an expensive construction budget for outstanding seismic retrofit work.
“There has been a steady declination over the last five years and it’s been really dramatic over the last three years,” said Michael Brown, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Enrollment levels at St. Charles, a school that has served one immigration population after another over the course of its history, have dropped by almost half in five years. At present, only 81 students are enrolled, down from 188 students in the 2011-12 school year. Efforts to build enrollment have been unsuccessful, according to Brown.
“Several hundred [students] is what a school like this was able to thrive on,” said Brown, adding that the shrinking class sizes have not fostered a stable educational environment for the school’s students. “These are very small classes with just a few students. The socializing of education takes place is medium-sized classrooms.”
A GoFundMe campaign is seeking to raise $7 million to pay for the retrofit of the K-8 elementary school, and some $200 have been raised since the campaign’s launch on Thursday. But even if the money were raised, it is unclear what would happen because enrollment shows no signs of recovering.
Even older than the school is the building that houses it – at 130 years, it faces “imminent serious construction and seismic challenges,” according to a press release posted to the Archdiocese’s website. The Archdiocese operates 51 Catholic diocesan and parish elementary schools throughout the City, Marin and San Mateo counties.
“We need a lot of help,” said a parent of a St. Charles kindergartner who gave his name as Alfredo. Parents and students, who were notified this week, were unsure of the next steps.
A meeting will be held on Sunday at the school and again on March 2 to inform parents of their children’s Catholic school options.
Transitioning students into St. Charles’ sister schools, St. James Catholic School and St. Anthony Immaculate Conception School, both located in the Mission, will be a priority, according to the Archdioceses’ press statement.
“I don’t know what will happen next, it all depends on the meetings,” said Erlison Olivares, the father of a St. Charles seventh grader referring to his own situation.
“We live here and have to find a school in the [Mission]. My daughter has been a [St. Charles] student for seven years, her cousin also goes here too – it’s sad for her that she will not have a chance to finish her education here.”
The school’s director and pastor, Father John Jimenez, could not be reached for comment by press time, but the Archdiocese confirmed in an announcement on Tuesday that instruction will be halted indefinitely at the end of the school year and that is unlikely to reopen anytime soon.
Other Catholic schools around the city have also seen “slight declines” in enrollment said Brown, but “nothing matches numbers at St. Charles.”
Former Mission resident and restaurateur Christopher Reyes has had three children pass through the school – when his eldest daughter graduated eighth grade, there were 36 students in her graduating class. Reyes’ 14-year-old son, also named Christopher, will be graduating this June alongside just 12 other students.
Reyes’ son will not be affected by the school’s closure, but nonetheless expressed disappointment.
“It’s very sad, I have been at this school since Kindergarten,” said Christopher. “I think it will have more of an impact on seventh graders, they will have to adjust to a new school, new classes and new friends next year.”
But enrollment challenges aren’t unique to the Mission District Catholic school. St. Charles’ sister schools are also grappling with a shrinking student body, according to Brown.
While Brown said he is unable to speculate as to why enrollment has taken a hit in recent years, he said that the changes are in line with changes in San Francisco’s neighborhoods. “People move in and out,” said Brown.
Father Tony McGuire, a retired priest at St. Patrick Church at 756 Mission St. and a former pastor at St. Matthew Catholic School in San Mateo, said that enrollment is “very uneven” at Catholic schools in the greater Peninsula. St. Matthew’s, for example, is boasting an enrollment of some 600 students.
“There are more families living in the Peninsula,” said McGuire, adding that in San Francisco, “neighborhoods are changing” along with high rents and increasing costs of living – families, he said, are moving out.
Because of its location in a traditionally diverse, working class neighborhood, St. Charles served many immigrant and low-income students. Since 1982, the school has been staffed by the Dominican Sister of the Most Holy Rosary of the Philippines.
“They have had for years the Filipino sisters there – that spoke to a lot of immigrant families,” said McGuire. In an effort to serve the local community, St. Charles also offered a generous financial aid program.
“Most of the kids who come here, it’s because we get a lot financial aid,” said Reyes. “The families here, they depend on it.”
But Reyes said change swept the school about five years ago, when he noticed a sudden exodus of faculty and students.
“They changed the education curriculum and the personnel inside. We used to receive a lot of help from beneficiaries, but that stopped,” said Reyes. “My son repeated a year because of the changes. You know, how expensive it is to cover a another year of tuition?”
According to Reyes, other families left the school when their children were asked to repeat grades during that time.
“The quality of education went down dramatically. Not too many students were achieving what they wanted to achieve. A lot teachers left, and only a few of the good ones remained,” said Reyes.
Father Jimenez, the school’s pastor who also runs the parish across the street, at 713 South Van Ness Ave., worked hard to keep the school going, said Reyes, even teaching classes there himself.
“It’s a shame,” said Reyes. “It was such a good school.”
Once the students have been relocated, efforts will be made to upgrade its structure and a plan hashed out to boost enrollment and ensure future sustainability, said Brown. The property will remain in the hands of the Archdiocese, which will maintain the property’s educational purpose.
“It’s intended to be a school,” said Brown. “St. Charles will reopen once the work is done and there is a viable method to build enrollment and to make it space where quality education can take place.”