By Sara Toth
"This will be a blank spot for folks to fill," Principal John Farrell said of the school's closing. "There's nothing else here in western Howard County."
The school, which currently has 185 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, needed a minimum of 160 students to continue for the 2011-2012 academic year, according to Stephanie Blake, director of enrollment and communications. When it failed to get "nearly enough" students to enroll by an April 5 deadline, Farrell said, the board of directors decided to shut down the school.
Woodmont, where tuition is $7,950 a year, will close its doors June 10, five days after the graduation of 19 eighth-graders.
"Enrollment is always a challenge, and it's been spiking and dipping for the past few years," Farrell said. He said the school had 301 students during the 2008-2009 school year.
"There are students who leave at a breaking point, at the fifth or sixth grade," Farrell said. "Sometimes families want to enroll their kids in (other parochial schools) in the sixth grade, to allow them more time to experience the system. We have some leave. That prompts others. It snowballs."
Over the past several years, Blake said, the faltering economy also dealt a blow to enrollment.
"It's been a strain," she said. "I have had the hardest conversations with families who want to send their children here. It's not their fault, it's not our fault. The numbers just don't add up."
Another factor in the school's declining enrollment, Blake said, could be its association with the Legionaries of Christ, a Catholic order of priests and lay affiliates. Woodmont operates under the guidance of the Legionaries, which owns the property.
Last year, the Vatican condemned as "immoral" the behavior of the order's founder, Father Marcial Maciel, following revelations that he had molested underage males and fathered at least one child. Maciel died in 2008.
"I think it has some degree of impact (on enrollment)," Blake said of the scandal. "I wouldn't say that this is the exclusive reason for the challenges over the last few years."
Woodmont Academy opened in Baltimore County in 1995 with 49 students. The school quickly outgrew its location and moved to Cooksville in 2003 with 246 students.
"We moved as the school was expanding," said Farrell, who has been at Woodmont for five years. "We have served a region that was largely underserved."
Blake said Woodmont's students will be "fanning out over an even wider region. Now we have people who will be going to Westminster, Olney, Frederick, Catonsville, Towson."
Farrell said he expected many families to continue sending their children to Catholic schools, and described the decision to close the school as "a blow for families and staff."
Woodmont has one main building and several modular classrooms.
Currently, Blake said, Woodmont has a two-tiered structure of governance: a board of trustees representing the Legion, and a "lay board" of trustees. Woodmont was preparing itself to begin operating under a single board of laypeople as of July 1.
Future of property uncertain
Jim Fair, communications director for the Legionaries of Christ in the United States, said he could not even speculate on what would happen to the property.
"We'll be looking at that in the months ahead," he said.
Woodmont is not a part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore's school system, though it operates under its approval.
Sean Caine, director of communications for the archdiocese, said the archdiocese had no involvement in the school's decision to close.
"We were saddened to learn of the decision and welcome the school's students at any of our outstanding Catholic schools, especially those in Howard and Carroll counties," Caine said in a statement on behalf of the archdiocese.
"Catholic schools in these areas have already begun hearing from current Woodmont Academy families and we are hopeful that the vast majority of the school's students will continue their education in a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Baltimore."
The decision to close the school is a chance for parents, teachers and administrators to teach faith by example, Blake said.
"This is an opportunity for us to model our faith for the kids," she said. "Our faith teaches us to trust in the Lord, and that will lead to the greater good. Even in uncertain times, our faith tells us to stay strong and keep moving forward."
The focus now, Farrell said, is to keep the school going without any disruptions.
"The business of the school closing is adult business, not kid business," he said. "The business of kids is to be kids, to come to school and learn."
A significant loss and sign of the ongoing difficult times.
Posted 7:58 AM, 04.21.11 | Permalink