Saving ‘the last Catholic school on the plains’
By Jean Torkelson
St. Anthony School in Sterling
As emergencies go, the situation could not be more dire for St. Anthony School in Sterling.
How serious is it? The principal, parish pastor and supporters are mounting a campaign, calling on Catholics in the Denver Archdiocese and all points beyond to help them raise $600,000 by Jan. 30.
Otherwise, the school, which serves pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, will not reopen for the 2013-2014 school year. And with its closure would go the last presence of Catholic education on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
“There is no other rural agricultural (Catholic) school on the plains,” said Joe Skerjanec, the school’s principal. “We are doing everything we can to keep that presence here. Our philosophy is, if anyone wants a Catholic education—whether they are on the Front Range or in Edwards—they should have that opportunity.”
Now, a perfect storm of rising costs and changing local demographics have caused a dramatic shortfall in the school’s annual $1 million budget, which has put that opportunity in jeopardy.
Recently, Skerjanec and St. Anthony pastor, Father Robert Wedow, spoke with the Denver Catholic Register about the school’s crisis and what they are doing about it. (See accompanying box for information on the emergency plans and how to donate.)
Emergency support has come from the archdiocese, which since 2003 has supplied an extra $1.7 million in assistance, plus an array of support services. But it’s been a losing battle.
In a heartbreaking irony, even under a financial burden, St. Anthony’s students are thriving. In a national academic assessment testing, St. Anthony’s seventh- and eighth-graders “blow the socks off the scoring,” Skerjanec said.
The small school on the plains, which currently has 107 students, has produced college graduates, a diocesan priest, and a nationally recognized musician. Some students travel 70 miles roundtrip, every weekday, to attend the school.
Then there is the faith formation component.
“One of the great things about Catholic schools is the discipline involved in the students’ education,” Father Wedow said. “Not discipline in the sense of imposing discipline for doing something wrong, but discipline in the sense that students learn they are disciples of Christ. That changes the way they approach and look at the world … and it’s something no public school can do.”
HOW TO HELP ST. ANTHONY CATHOLIC SCHOOL
To Donate: Make check payable to: St. Anthony Catholic School. (On memo line write: School Capital Campaign) Mail to: 326 S. Third St., Sterling, CO 80751
Pledge cards available online at: www.saintanthonysschool.org
Parish office: call 970-522-6422
To contact Father Wedow directly: call 970-520-2427
Other campaign outreach: Parents and supporters are mounting door to door and telephone outreaches; business people are contacting colleagues, priests from other parishes are asking their parishioners to help; families are appealing to out of state friends and family to donate. To join in any aspect of the campaign, call the parish office or contact Father Wedow directly at the numbers above.
Why the hurry?
At the end of the last school year in June 2012, when it became clear that the 2013-2014 school year was in jeopardy, a process began to alert the school’s advisory boards of its dire financial situation.
Once that was done, the Jan. 30 deadline became critical because in February, contracts begin to be finalized with teachers, staff and support services.
“If we wait … it seriously impacts employees’ ability to get a job next year,” Father Wedow said. “Parents might want to explore homeschooling, if we can’t open next year. There are so many things that impact a school that must be decided now.”
If the campaign to save the school is successful, St. Anthony’s has a five-year plan under development that would seek to ensure the school’s long-term future. Its key component is a development office to attract a stable flow of donations to the schools’ existing endowment fund with the Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado.
But first, St. Anthony’s must be saved, within the next three weeks.
Both pastor and principal see it as saving not just a school, but a legacy entrusted to them by generations of parents, parishioners and families on the plains. During the height of the Depression in the 1930s, farmers used their trucks to haul bricks from miles away in order to build a much-needed new school building. As late as 1999, the school was expanded to include seventh- and eighth-grades, “a labor of love by the parishioners,” Skerjanec said.
“So it’s so important for people to know we’re trying to build for our future,” he continued. “We have such wonderful families, children and teachers … it’s difficult to try to share what’s important; there are so many treasures to choose from.”
Said Father Wedow: “It isn’t just about academics or good behavioral conduct, or being a good citizen. It’s about living one’s life for Christ and his Church.”
“I hear it from other teachers all the time—‘I know your St. Anthony students,’ they say. ‘They are kind and courteous, always eager to learn.’
The pastor added, “No (other) school can do what a Catholic school can do.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister