Pledges pour in to help Sterling school, enrollment still an issue
By Jean Torkelson
The future remains uncertain and the way ahead is filled with challenges, but Father Robert Wedow, pastor of the struggling St. Anthony’s School in Sterling, still wants to call it “St. Anthony’s miracle.”
As of this week, he said, $1.06 million in money and pledges has flowed in as a response to a last ditch, emergency appeal to save the “last Catholic school on the plains” from certain closure this fall. That amount is almost double what supporters had hoped for when they launched the desperate campaign six weeks ago.
“In a word, we are overwhelmed,” said Father Wedow, who had marshaled his faith and rallied the community to pray, originally, for $600,000. That’s the amount needed to just open the 95-year-old school this fall.
Since the story ran in the Denver Catholic Register on Jan. 16, Father Wedow said the money and pledges have been rolling in from Sterling and the surrounding plains, across the Front Range and the Rocky Mountain region and from around the country.
“We even received money from Alaska,” school principal Joe Skerjanec said.
In early January the parish began a door-to-door and telephone campaign and called on parishioners and business leaders to help save the school.
So far, 27 percent of the donations are in cash, about $289,000, Skerjanec said. Donors have until June 28 to make good on their pledges.
Father Wedow said that he and St. Anthony’s team are confident that the pledges, which come from both individuals and corporate and business entities, all represent serious commitments.
Serious issues remain
But St. Anthony’s is not out of the woods yet. To stay viable, all involved in saving the school agree that there are serious ongoing problems that must be addressed. Among them are the need for a stabilizing roster of at least 145 students—the school currently has 107—and a long-range development plan to provide endowment support well into the future.
Late last year, as the school’s options dwindled, Father Wedow recalled leaving a somber meeting of school and archdiocesan officials with a heavy heart.
“Many times I poured out my anxiety to God in prayer and tears,” Father Wedow wrote in a chronicle of the events. “At this point all I could see was my doubt—I don’t know how to raise that kind of dollars.”
The reality is, without a long-range plan, chances are virtually nil for sustaining, over the long-term, a tiny rural Catholic school, beset with rising costs, changing demographics and uncertain enrollment. Not even an infusion of $1.7 million from the Archdiocese of Denver since 2003 has been able to staunch the continual drain of money.
The first week in March, officials from the Archdiocese of Denver will join Father Wedow and school officials for an initial meeting with a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in developing long-range sustainability plans for schools, said Richard Thompson, superintendant of the Denver Archdiocese’s Catholic schools.
The meeting is at Father Wedow’s suggestion, Thompson said, and exploratory only. What is clear, Thompson said, is that the school can’t continue every year in a state of continual crisis and emergency appeals.
“We need to have a serious dialogue to create a development plan that will improve the school’s long-term sustainability so that these emergency fundraising efforts are not necessary,” Thompson said.
Father Wedow said he became interested in the Chicago firm when he learned it had recently developed a long-range plan that had saved a small rural school in Kansas, similar to St. Anthony’s.
However, the economics of sustaining the school are daunting.
Tuition is $4,200 a year, Skerjanec said. Seventy percent of students are receiving some kind of scholarship or grant help and “30 percent are paying full freight.”
Without a development plan, the numbers don’t spell long-term sustainability. A higher number of students naturally leads to more school revenue. As of now, “145 students is a nice number, a realistic number, but to break even, 200 students would be ideal,” Skerjanec said.
If parents’ enthusiasm and the school’s reputation were the only factors that counted, enrollment wouldn’t be such a long stretch. Drawn by consistently high test scoring and commitment to Catholic values, some students come from considerable distances to attend St. Anthony’s. One student makes a 70-mile round trip every day. But in a rural area, it’s unclear whether the pool of possible students can ever be large enough to make a difference.
However, encouraged by the donor outpouring, Father Wedow said the school may be able to mull transportation options to pick up far-flung students.
Internet and online learning is also being explored, he said.
An immediate milestone is Feb. 11, which is St. Anthony’s “enrollment night,” Skerjanec said. Ten students will graduate in May. The hope is to get parents motivated to register early and to attract a net gain of students, Skerjanic said.
Father Wedow is confident the corner has been turned.
“I know 100 percent,” he said, “that God has brought this about, through the hands of so many people.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3262; www.twitter.com/DCRegister