Community that ‘bleeds green’ rallies to save Immaculata High School
Immaculata High School in Leavenworth knows how to fight.
Its football team proved it this year, playing a full season with just 11 players. All 11 players had to play the entire game — both offense and defense — despite exhaustion, up against bigger teams and against all odds. The “Iron Men 11,” as they were called by their community, never won a game all season, but their dedication to the sport inspired the community and spurred the hashtag #imacstrong.
Months later, facing an impending shutdown and the end of over 100 years of Catholic secondary education in Leavenworth, Immaculata students once again proved they are #imacstrong as they fought to save their school.
Immaculata High School had been struggling with a budget deficit and decreasing enrollment for years. Enrollment dropped from 122 in 2013 to 55 this spring. Xavier Elementary School, the only Catholic grade school that feeds into Immaculata, also suffered an enrollment decline in the past five years, from 266 to 168.
In response to the enrollment decline, Immaculata began operating with a deficit in 2012. Though this helped fund the school’s operational costs in the short-term, the board of directors of the Leavenworth Regional Catholic School System (LRCSS) realized earlier this year that they could no longer operate with such a deficit.
Then the stark reality hit: Immaculata needed to raise $250,000 in order to save the school for even one more year. They needed a total of $1 million to keep the school afloat for four more years.
Father David McEvoy, O.Carm., pastor of Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph in Leavenworth, is an alumnus of Immaculata, with ties to the school stretching back to 1929 when his father was a student there. When he learned of the school’s deteriorating financial situation, he was deeply moved.
“There’s just a connection with the school,” Father David said. “I graduated in 1970. And when you’re thinking of the possibility that the school might close, you realize how much it meant to generations of Catholics.”
So Father David reached out to Barbara Fitzgerald, director of development for the Leavenworth Regional Catholic School System. Fitzgerald, herself an alumna of Immaculata, immediately got to work.
“We knew we had to find some big donors and we had to do it quick,” said Fitzgerald.
But before beginning her nearly 24/7 campaign to save Immaculata, Fitzgerald started with prayer.
“We held eucharistic adoration the very first weekend because I felt that prayer — and especially prayer in the very center of Immaculata — had to be where we began,” she said.
After grounding the appeal in faith, Fitzgerald began a silent phase of raising money by reaching out to alumni as far back as the 1930s.
But the students and community of Leavenworth still didn’t yet know.
‘It was an absolutely awful feeling’
By the time the LRCSS board had come together to decide on a plan to save the school, presented it to the archdiocese and received approval, they only had 14 days to raise a quarter of a million dollars.
On April 16, the board sat in front of a crowd of hundreds in the Immaculata High School gym, preparing to deliver their options.
When she heard the news, Sherri Schwinn, who has two children at Immaculata and one in seventh grade at Xavier, felt a sinking feeling. She especially thought of her daughter EmilyAnne, who would be a senior at Immaculata this fall.
“To rip that out from her before her last year of high school would’ve been incomplete,” said Schwinn. “I know there are other schools out there, but there’s not another school like Imac.”
When Sadie Schubert, another incoming senior at Immaculata, heard the news, she began to cry.
“I grew up in this community,” Schubert said. “I grew up watching basketball games here and wanting to play on that court.”
Board members also expressed dismay at the possibility of losing the school.
“To lose Catholic education in Leavenworth would be beyond what anyone could imagine,” said Kate Varney, a board member of the Leavenworth Regional Catholic School System. “I want Catholic education for my kids in this community. I don’t have grandkids but, if I did, I would want Catholic education for them in this community.”
No one could believe that their school might close.
According to Schwinn, that sinking feeling lasted about a minute.
“Then the whole community stepped up,” she said.
Helen Schwinn, the recently retired principal of Immaculata, agreed.
“You can be devastated or you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, dig in and say, ‘What can we do?’” she said. “My reaction was a reflection of the faculty and students.”
Meredith Thompson, director of marketing for LRCSS and an alum of Immaculata, agreed. Not only did Thompson graduate from Immaculata, but so did her parents and grandparents. One of her daughters is currently a student there.
“It’s not a job to us,” Thompson said. “It’s our life. We say our blood runs green around here. Because [Immaculata is] part of what we are, and what makes our community our community. And the thought of not having that — I couldn’t even fathom.”
That very night, the whole community began to fight back.
Putting up a fight
Less than a month after the April 16 meeting with the community, there is a jubilant atmosphere at Immaculata, where the community has gathered to say goodbye to principal Helen Schwinn.
Board members, teachers, students and community members are rejoicing.
In under a month, the community raised nearly $900,000, enough to keep the school open for one more year. They are very close to reaching their $1 million goal and keeping the school operational for the next four years.
Parishioners from the region, parents of students, Immaculata alumni, and current students all rallied to fight for their school. Students at Immaculata and Xavier alone raised over $5,000 by holding a car wash on a cold spring day and spreading the word on social media. Teachers at Immaculata asked for pay cuts. Donations ranged from $20 to $200,000.
“We were just standing there with our jaws open,” Thompson said. “We just couldn’t believe how much money was flooding in our door. We couldn’t even believe it.”
Maurice Schmidling, a Leavenworth native and Immaculata alumnus whose wife, children and grandchildren all attended Immaculata, was delighted by the outcome.
“It’s just as vital to save a school of 100 kids as a school with 1,000 kids,” he said. “They’re just as important. I don’t care if it’s 10 students. They’re just as important.”
“We just placed everything in Our Lord’s hand and in the Blessed Mother because she’s the patroness of our school,” said Father David.
“Bishop Miege and St. Thomas Aquinas and St. James — these are all bigger schools,” he continued. “But we’re named after Our Blessed Mother.
“And we’re going to hope that she helps us out.”