There will be no pitter-patter of tiny feet at St. Joseph the Worker School this fall. No giggles or hushed whispers along its long winding corridors.
The 28 students who would have returned to the school’s hallowed portals to witness the very last bit of the Catholic school’s 130-year-old-history will not do so anymore.
The school, which was scheduled to close next June due to financial constraints, announced its premature closure last week and cited an abysmal drop in student enrollment.
“We just couldn’t keep up with the dwindling numbers anymore,” said Fr. Stephan Kappler, parochial administrator of the parish, as he walked down the school’s silent parish hall Wednesday.
“Over the last six or seven years, enrollment has been consistently low. Last year it was 128, the year before 112. The school building holds 350 students. We had to pull the plug when we saw that only 28 students were returning in the fall.”
Since the majority of the students were attending classes at a reduced tuition rate, the school was running at a huge deficit.
“Last year the Diocese of Oakland contributed $100,000 to make up this deficit, and we poured in $50,000,” said Fr. Stephan.
“We were losing $169,000 dollars every year. We thought that we would keep the school open one final year to find alternative schools for our students and employment for our staff. That was our hope, but it was not to be.”
Adriana Betti, a former Berkeley High teacher who directs an after-school native dancing program at St Joseph’s school during summer, said that the closure meant a big blow to the Latino community.
“Most of my students either graduated from here or are here right now,” she said, practicing Aztec dance steps in the school’s parish hall.
“I remember celebrating the Day of the Virgin with them every year on December 12. The church is a very big part of the families I work with. They either work here or send their kids to school here. To have the school taken away from them is a big piece.”
Some parents have enrolled their children in the Berkeley public schools, leading to an increase in student enrollment in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) this year.
“A new kindergarten class has been created to make room for more students,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. “I am assuming the increase is due to the St. Joseph’s students coming to our schools.”
There are some like St Joseph’s sixth-grader Kevin Gorrostieta who have no clue as to where he will land up after summer break.
“My parents said they would talk to me about it,” he told the Planet Thursday. “I don’t know anything else.”
Founded by the Presentation Sisters in 1878, the school was established at 2125 Jefferson St. to provide K-8 Catholic elementary school education.
A convent was built across the street for students who wanted to enroll in high school, and that initiated the golden age of catholic education in Berkeley.
“It was blooming back then,” said Fr. Stephan. “The schools were full of students. But then the sisters moved to San Francisco and the convent was turned into UC Berkeley housing about twenty years ago.”
With the high school gone, families were less eager to send their kids to the elementary school.
“Before the church and the school were like one unit,” said Fr. Stephan, who took over as pastor since last year.
“People were proud to send their children to St. Joseph’s. That has changed. Only a third of the students left in the school were Catholic. Most were from outside the parish.”
The cost of tuition, Fr. Stephan explained, was something else which kept the predominantly Latino community who attended church at St Joseph from sending their kids to its school.
Without financial aid, the cost of tuition came to approximately $5000 every year.
“I never thought of putting my daughter there because of the money,” said Angelica Hernandez, who had her communion at St Joseph’s church.
Angelica, who works as a care provider in Berkeley, sends her daughter to a public school.
“Public schools have a lot more programs. My daughter is traveling with Barbara Lee in Washington D.C. right now, talking about the problems of the Latino community. That would not have been possible at St. Joseph.”
“We called but it was the cost,” said Alicia Contreras, who wants to enroll her 3-year-old daughter in Cragmont Elementary School because of its Spanish program.
“We heard good things about St. Joseph so we compared it with another religious school in Albany. This one was cheaper but it was still far too expensive. It’s like $100 every month with the waiver and I couldn’t afford it.”
Memories of happier times appear on the school’s orange walls, its cabinets filled with trophies won in regional and local competitions from a not so distant past.
The class of 2005 St. John’s Christmas Tournament champions rub shoulders with the 1996 West Contra Costa League winners, their surfaces dusty yet reflecting the glory of bygone days.
Murals created painstakingly by small hands adorn the second floor stairway with vibrant colors evoking special dates, festivals and people.
Lily, class of ’05, remembers Mrs. Soria with red and yellow hearts while Damajeria Dubose cheers the school mascot, the mustang.
As Fr. Stephan donned his collar for evening mass, he added that there was still hope for St. Joseph in the near future.
“It may not reopen as a Catholic school in 2008, but it might reopen as a charter school,” he said. He added that his experience as a pastor with the Aspire Charter School at St Louis Bertrand in East Oakland had been good.
The parish is currently in negotiation with the Aspire Charter School to lease out the school site starting next year.
“It’s sad to close 130 years of Catholic education, but at least we are not turning it into an apartment complex,” he said, looking at the rows of university housing that had replaced the convent decades ago. “We’re just turning it into a charter school.”
Photograph: Riya Bhattacharjee
Father Stephan locks the doors of St. Joseph the Worker School Wednesday. The 130-year-old Catholic school closed this month after citing financial crunches and abysmal enrollment rates.