NILES - Community members and former administrators are reeling from the announcement that St. Stephen's School is in its last year.
The last remaining Catholic school in Niles will close its doors for good at the end of the current school year, Bishop George Murry announced Wednesday morning.
Citing "financial stress" on St. Stephen Parish as a result of decreasing enrollment and the inability of the parish to subsidize the school without going into further debt, administrators said there simply was no way around it.
"Only so much of it could be passed on as tuition. It's gotten to a level that is not possible for the parish to continue," principal Christine Vince said. "I share the sentiment that we're all saddened by this decision. If there were anything we could do to change it, we would."
Until recently, the parish had contributed around $190,000 per year to subsidize the school's budget. When the subsidy was reduced by $100,000 for the parish to fulfill other financial obligations, the school was unable to raise the difference.
Current enrollment at St. Stephen is 88 students. The number of students has dropped by more than 65 percent over the past 15 years.
The school opened in 1868.
Rachel Nader of Cortland grew up in a home across the street from the school. She, her siblings, her father and her daughters all attended, and she said it was an integral part of their lives.
"It's playground was my playground. It's a very dear part of our lives," she said.
Nader also ran the enrichment program for 10 years, and prior to that, her father taught there.
"I'm completely heartbroken. It was a special place. It was a place where kids could be kids. It provided the best of all learning environments, and it's a great loss to the community," she said.
Judy Conti, a former principal and teacher of the school for more than 30 years, said although news of the closing is sad, the spirit of the school will remain.
"It sort of breaks my heart but it doesn't break my spirit as far as the history that St. Stephen School had of being a strong family school. The family was the biggest part of what made the heart of St. Stephen School beat," she said.
Stacey Walters-Emch of Niles said she had planned to enroll her daughter in kindergarten next year, but now will have to explore other options. She said she was pleased with the pricing, which was $250 a month for 10 months and a $50 registration fee.
"So super inexpensive for a Catholic school. It's sad," she said.
Although the number of Catholic schools has dwindled in recent years, Vince said there are still options. Among them are John F. Kennedy in Warren, St. Rose in Girard and St. Patrick in Hubbard.
Vince said to make the transition easier for parents, St. Stephen will invite area schools to meet with them so they can see which one best suits their needs.
"We want to take care of our parents and make sure they have the opportunity to contact Catholic educators for their children," Vince said.
Although the news is bittersweet, Vince said everyone can look forward to celebrations of the school's history in the coming months.
"I do think the spirit will remain and the positive attitude about the school, toward the school, I hope is going to remain alive and well," Conti said.