St. Mary School: Milford's last of 3 Catholic schools is 'here to stay'

When St. Mary School opened its doors for the new school year this week, it did so as the last remaining Catholic K-8 school in Milford.

Not long ago there were three Catholic K-8 schools here: St. Gabriel School, St. Mary School and St. Ann School. St. Ann School closed in 2010 after 54 years due to “internal strife and declining enrollment.” St. Gabriel School, which was open for 51 years, closed at the end of last school year due to declining enrollment and financial struggles: Some former St. Gabriel School students could be found this week starting their new year at St. Mary’s.

Despite the fact that the other parochial schools have closed their doors, and across the diocese several Catholic schools have closed or merged, Frank Lacerenza, the St. Mary School principal, said St. Mary’s is in good shape in terms of money and enrollment. He expects the school to be around a long time.

“St. Mary’s is here to stay, you bet,” Lacerenza said.

St. Mary School has been educating local children for 55 years: It opened in 1961 with 252 students enrolled in grades 1-3. Each succeeding year saw the addition of an advanced grade until 1966, when the school was a fully functioning grade 1 through 8 school that graduated its first class in June, 1967, according to the school’s website. Later, the school added a kindergarten class.

Today there are 346 students enrolled, including 85 students in the St. Mary preschool program.

Students started back to school Wednesday, with kindergarteners starting on Thursday. Of those students, about 30 are former St. Gabriel School students.

Enrollment is up at St. Mary’s School this year by 52 students, which is a little more than a 17% increase, a fact that school officials said is another indicator that St. Mary School is here to stay.

Explaining the enrollment increase, April Bryant, director of advancement and marketing at St. Mary School, said, “I think it’s a combination of things.”

In addition to the closing of Gabriel School that brought more students here this year, the school is doing more marketing, Bryant said. Also, controversy over excessive testing doesn’t apply here: Bryant said standardized testing at St. Mary School is limited to Iowa testing, so students are not overwhelmed by tests.

She thinks the religious aspect plays a part too, even though not all of the students here are Catholic.

Students pray, they talk about God, and they celebrate the holidays.

“We’re still allowed to do that here,” Bryant said.

Lacerenza added, “Demographics suggest there are fewer children, but this is our biggest preschool year ever.”

Since tuition is key to funding a Catholic school’s budget, a solid enrollment is vital.

“While it’s based on numbers, we try to keep tuition at an affordable rate,” Lacerenza said. Tuition here is about $6,000 a year.

The parish is supportive, too, funding endeavors and purchases. “Father Aidan [Donahue] is a presence here,” Bryant said, pointing out that the priest regularly visits the school, often bringing his dog, a Basset hound who is very popular with the students.

Around the state, more than 12,000 students in Connecticut started school this year in one of the parochial schools within the Archdiocese of Hartford, according to the Archdiocese’s website.

“The 2016-17 school year promises to be one of continued achievement as we guide our students in their academic, moral and spiritual development,” Supt. of Catholic Schools Dr. Michael S. Griffin said in his opening remark on the diocese website. “Our Catholic schools are committed to providing an academic experience characterized by high expectations, faith, values, respect for self and others, and personalized attention to students.”

At St. Mary School in Milford, students smiled as they colored first-day-of-school pictures or looked at information being shared on the classroom Smartboards — today’s version of the chalkboard: computerized and interactive.

There are Smartboards in each of the classrooms, and this year there are 60 new Ipads, which students share as they tap into some curriculum and course material that can be found online. Bryant said the school sports, after-school programs and fundraisers, like the upcoming carnival that unites the school community, are also factors in making St. Mary’s strong.