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The Catholic New World
New schools growing up

By Michelle Martin

News of Catholic schools closing seems to have dominated the news in recent years, but that's not the whole story.

Several schools have opened in the Archdiocese of Chicago, serving students from the Northwest suburbs to the South Side of the City, most starting at the youngest grades and adding a year as their oldest classes get older.

The leaders of those schools have advice for anyone wanting to start a Catholic school: dream big, and believe in what you are doing.

"The possibilities are endless," said Catherine C. Sullivan-Wallenfang, principal at Immaculate Conception School (North Park). "There is a real need for quality Catholic education."

The school was one of four that opened in the fall of 2002, including Immaculate Conception (S. Exchange), San Miguel School-Gary Comer Campus and Holy Family Catholic Academy in Inverness. When it opened, it offered preschool and kindergarten classes. It now enrolls 206 children in preschool through fourth grade, Sullivan-Wallenfang said.

The school, a ministry of Immaculate Conception (North Park) and St. Joseph (Orleans), already has opened one addition and has another planned, Sullivan-Wallenfang said. In 2010, when the school's enrollment warrants, the plan is to move the middle school grades to the St. Joseph School building, which is now leased out.

"We have grown at a more rapid pace than we have expected," she said. "We do see several new families a year, primarily at the kindergarten levels."

On a practical level, Sullivan-Wallenfang suggested that educational leaders look to parents and parishioners for support.

Old St. Mary School serves a diverse community in the rapidly redeveloping South Loop area, and it does look to its community for support, said Barbara Spaniol-Smith, the school's principal.

"They really have to demonstrate a commitment," she said.

The school started in 2004 at the behest of parents with 18 preschool students. This year, it has 49 students in preschool through first grade.

The classes are housed in a building adjacent to the church, a building once used as a charter school, Spaniol-Smith said. It has room for classes up to fourth grade, so the parish will need more space in four years. "We're certainly faith-based," said Spaniol-Smith, "and we're small, so there's lots of opportunity for one-on-one interaction."

Old St. Mary's is the last elementary school to open. It started the same year as St. Martin de Porres, a Cristo Rey-model high school in Waukegan, which will graduate its first class this year.


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