Supporters of a small Catholic elementary school created 91 years ago to serve African-American children have been raising money and trying to generate support to keep the school open.
The group is working to save St. Francis Xavier Catholic School, and have scheduled a series of fundraisers throughout July on behalf of the south Baton Rouge school.
Fundraising alone, however, won’t solve the school’s financial predicament.
“The thing we need right now is students. We need student enrollment,” said Alvin Decuir, a graduate, a former principal and the chairman of the still-being-organized Friends of St. Francis Xavier.
To help get new families in the door, supporters say they have landed a $25,000 grant that will pay partial tuition for new students, which is in addition to a smaller, pre-existing tuition assistance program the school has long offered.
“If people are interested, they have to jump on it immediately,” said Lester Pourciau, a St. Francis graduate and school supporter.
In February, the Rev. Michael Thompson, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, held a “town hall” meeting to let the church and school community know he was thinking of closing the school.
Three years ago, St. Francis Xavier, on 12th Street, had 200 students enrolled. That number dropped to 120 students in February and about a quarter of them were not paying the $3,600 annual tuition. In most ofthose cases, the students were getting the tuition paid by outside sources.
The school needs to have between 300 to 350 students enrolled to have a viable future, the pastor said.
“We can’t continue operating the way we are,” Thompson said in February.
The group of supporters quickly got together to fight the potential closure. They point to the school’s rich history, many prominent graduates and say it remains a good school.
Natalie Jones has a daughter, entering the seventh grade who transferred to St. Francis a year ago. She said the girl is thriving because of the combination of small classes, personal attention and high standards.
“They push her,” said Jones. “That’s one of the things I love about this school. They don’t settle.”
At a second town hall meeting in March, Thompson relented, saying St. Francis will stay open another year — provided it attracts at least 150 students.
Sister Joseph Charles, the principal of St. Francis, said she’s operating under the assumption that the school will stay open — even though there are not 150 students enrolled.
“Father indicated we need to have 150 kids at least, but I believe we can have 125,” Charles said. “We did (have 125) last year and we paid the bills. We won’t have any slush funds because of that. We won’t have any fluff.”
Charles said only about 30 children have registered for the fall , but that will change.
“That is typical for us,” Charles said. “Our kids tend not to register until the end of July and the beginning of August.”
“Registration right now is not an important issue to the parents. Right now it is putting children in summer camps,” Charles said.
While acknowledging that some families have transferred their children elsewhere because of the possible closure of the school, supporters hold out hope that their fundraising and recruiting efforts will not only replace those students, but also attract more children, setting the school on a sustainable course for years to come.
Thompson, however, isn’t so sure.
Thompson said Friday he plans to sit down with Charles after July 15, which is the last official day of fall registration, and examine both the number of students enrolled versus how many students are likely to register late — at the end of July and beginning of August.
If the projection is too low, St. Francis may have to close, he said.
“You have to face the reality that if it doesn’t succeed, that we don’t have the money to keep the school open,” the pastor said.
Thompson said he’d rather not close the school, and urged families considering St. Francis to register soon.
Sister Charles, however, is confident that the school will stay open this year.
“The issue is whether we continue beyond this year,” she said.
In the meantime, Friends of St. Francis Xavier are working to raise money. Their next event is a jambalaya dinner set for July 16 at Bet-R grocery store.
The group is also focusing on the future. The new support organization, which will apply for nonprofit tax status, is planning to raise money from interested businesses and philanthropies.
For more information about the efforts of school supporters, call (225) 387–6639.