by Moira Cullings
LEAVENWORTH — For nearly a century, Immaculata Catholic High School here has served thousands of students, providing them the guidance and opportunities only a Catholic secondary education can provide.
The unique impact the school has had on the Leavenworth community makes the reality of its current situation even harder to swallow.
Immaculata will close after this semester.
“You never want to close a school, especially when the community did work so hard [to keep it open],” said Kathy O’Hara, superintendent of archdiocesan Catholic schools.
But with enrollment at 66 students and relentless financial struggles, there was no other choice, she said.
The board of trustees of the Leavenworth Regional Catholic School System announced Jan. 4 that it will recommend to Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann to close the school, grades 9-12, effective June 2.
Xavier Catholic School, which serves preschool-sixth grade, will remain open. Seventh- and eighth-grade students currently at Immaculata will move to Xavier next year, as it will offer preschool-eighth grade.
The decision is the result of low enrollment, rising costs and aging infrastructure, Rolly Dessert, chair of the Leavenworth Regional Catholic School System, told IMAC families in a letter posted to the school’s website Jan. 4.
“We are at a crossroads with problems growing beyond our ability to solve,” Dessert wrote.
“Despite the best efforts of our current dedicated leaders, the demand for Catholic education in our region continues to decline as evidenced by a lack of growth in our enrollment, particularly at Immaculata,” he continued.
For the past few years, the IMAC community has been defined by its bold fight to keep the school alive despite its daunting challenges and continuous setbacks.
Efforts to keep the school open included setting up scholarship funds, collecting major gifts from big donors, and improving the Immaculata facility, said Dessert.
The spirit of the IMAC community was particularly showcased during its April 2015 Spring Appeal, when Immaculata faced the very real possibility of closing due to major enrollment decline and financial issues.
In two weeks, the IMAC community raised over $800,000 and enrolled 75 students, said Dessert.
But the burst of growth was only temporary, and the issues the school was experiencing were not out of the blue.
Immaculata’s struggles date back to 1980, when enrollment began its decline from 285 to 200 in 1999. It experienced another significant drop from 120 in 2012 to 66 this year.
The familiar problems of the past are ultimately forcing the school to close this time around.
“Despite our enrollment efforts and the superior academic product provided to our children every day, families made the choice to attend schools with better facilities, more sports and academic offerings, and larger circles for their students,” said Dessert.
“Furthermore, the aging demographics in Leavenworth, and an increasingly secular society, have worked completely counter to our enrollment initiatives,” he added.
In a Jan. 4 press release, Dessert applauded the families who have rallied around the school despite its problems.
“You feel terrible for the families who stayed the course regardless of what happened,” said O’Hara.
“We wish there were more families who were willing to do that,” she said.
But the influence Immaculata has had on the Leavenworth community for nearly 100 years will not go unnoticed.
“I think [Immaculata] has had a magnificent tradition and has had a key role in the community,” said O’Hara.
“It’s been a part of Leavenworth that everybody thought would be able to continue,” she added. “The people there describe it as truly being a family.”
The LRCSS board empathizes with families who are struggling with the news.
“I imagine that the closure of Immaculata will cause many people to be saddened by the loss,” said Dessert.
“Perhaps it will cause people to reflect on the value of Catholic education to families and the community,” he continued.
A bit of trust will go a long way during this experience, O’Hara believes.
“It’s difficult to see past today when you don’t know what tomorrow looks like,” she said.
But she is reminded of a passage from the Book of Isaiah:
“See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me” (49:16).
“Even though you don’t know what’s ahead,” said O’Hara, “you have to trust that God’s going to take care of you.”