In the wake of a Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh directive, four South Hills parochial schools have about six-and-a-half months to reorganize as a single school with a pair of campuses.
The merger of Our Lady of Grace in Scott Township, St. Anne in Castle Shannon, St. Bernard in Mt. Lebanon and St. Thomas More in Bethel Park is to be accomplished by the time students report in August. The campuses for students in preschool through eighth grade will be at the latter two locations, according to the diocese.
“It’s not as bad is it might seem,” said the Rev. David Poecking, a member of the diocese’s South Regional Catholic Elementary Schools Advisory Board.
As pastor of Archangel Gabriel Parish in Robinson Township, Poecking and his staff were confronted last year with a similar situation, merging two schools into one by the start of the 2019-20 academic year.
“We didn’t get that announcement until the end of February, so we had to scramble,” he said. “The process was painful, but the results were fine. We ended up with a school here that has good enrollment. We wound up keeping a pretty decent portion of the student population. We had some incoming new students.
“So even though there was a lot of anxiety in those first few months,” he added, “once we got it going, it was OK. And I think that can certainly be the case in the South Hills, as well.”
The advisory board on which he serves provided information to the diocese about which South Hills schools to keep as campuses.
“The main factors for making that recommendation were traffic routes and the preservation of something near the city neighborhoods, to continue to serve those communities,” he said, with the choice in that regard between St. Anne and St. Bernard.
Regarding the other two, St. Thomas More’s location near Route 19 worked in its favor.
“The board felt that the north-south axis would give people a little bit easier traffic routes in and out of the two campuses we’re retaining,” Poecking said.
The first major step in the South Hills merger is to hire a principal to oversee both campuses.
“That can take time,” Poecking said. “Meanwhile, everybody has to kind of wait. There’s a little bit you that you can do, but there’s not a whole lot in terms of faculty decisions or anything else that can be done until the new principal is in place.”
By contract with the Federation of Pittsburgh Diocesan Teachers, they can be hired only by the incoming principal.
“It is quite possible that the vast majority of teachers who want to stay will be retained,” Poecking said.
The diocese has been working on moving away from the practice of one parish supporting one school and taking a regional approach to education. In 2017 came the launch of North Hills Regional Elementary Schools, with five campuses serving 32 parishes.
“We could, of course, just ignore the declining number of school-age children in the population at large and let each school sink or swim. You can imagine the result of that is the wealthiest communities will wind up with schools, and those who have tighter budgets will lose them,” Poecking said.
“Our goal is to try to make Catholic education more accessible than only in the wealthy communities, and that’s why it’s being managed as a regional process and not simply as a local process.”