BERKLEY — After 70 years of educating students in the local Catholic community, Our Lady of La Salette School will close down at the end of the 2012-13 school year, due to declining enrollment.
For principal Dan Terbrack and many others with close ties to the school, this loss hits very close to home. La Salette has a large number of families in which two or three generations of students have made their way through the school, but that long-standing tradition will come to an end June 6. Terbrack, himself, attended the school as a child, along with his three siblings, while his father and seven siblings are also La Salette alumni.
“This is very sad and disappointing news for our school and for the entire Berkley community,” he said. “It really feels like losing a loved one. Our Lady of La Salette has been a huge part of this community for 70 years, so it’s hard to imagine that it will no longer be around anymore.”
Founded in 1943, La Salette had a peak enrollment of more than 1,000 students in the 1960s. However, like many Catholic schools, the K-eight facility has seen a steady decline during the ensuing decades. The school currently has only 73 students after experiencing an enrollment decrease of 47 percent since the 2008-09 school year.
Claudia Saliba, president of the Our Lady of La Salette Parent-Teacher Organization, pointed out that the school’s population has remained fairly diverse. Only about 35 percent of its students live in Berkley, as it includes students from 15 different zip codes, and many La Salette students are not even Catholic. More than anything, Saliba will miss the feeling of solidarity with families from all over the region coming together under one roof.
“Our Lady of La Salette is such a little gem in this area,” she said. “When you walk in there, it’s extremely welcoming, and it really feels like a family community. Everyone at Our Lady of La Salette knows each other, so we’re willing to go out on a limb for one another and give people the help that they need.”
The Archdiocese of Detroit officially announced the school’s closure March 21. According to Joe Kohn, director of public relations for the archdiocese, the problems at La Salette “are certainly not unique to that particular school or parish. It’s no secret that we have been struggling financially for the last few years.”
Including Our Lady of La Salette, there are currently 96 Catholic schools within the Archdiocese of Detroit — 72 grade schools and 24 high schools — with a total enrollment of more than 30,000 students. Still, a number of factors have led to fewer and fewer children attending Catholic schools since the 1930s and 1940s. Kohn pointed to the elimination of public funding for private schools, a smaller number of people attending church, a decrease in the percentage of Catholics within the overall population, Catholic families having fewer children than in the past, the cost of tuition increasing as college graduates replaced nuns as teachers, and the recent economic recession.
Kohn added that the closure of Our Lady of La Salette School will not affect the ongoing plans to merge the church with a pair of neighboring parishes. In December 2011, the archdiocese announced its Together in Faith recommendations to consolidate resources at Catholic churches throughout metro Detroit, which included merging La Salette with St. James in Ferndale and Our Lady of Fatima in Oak Park into a single “cluster” of parishes. Those changes are still moving ahead as planned, Kohn said.
Although he is only in his third year as principal at Our Lady of La Salette, Terbrack said that he feels responsible for the closure of the school. He had hoped for his two daughters to graduate from La Salette just as he and his father did before them. He feels grateful, though, that his oldest daughter has been able to attend preschool there this year.
“I took this position knowing that there would be some challenges involved, but this still really hurts,” Terbrack said. “By far, the hardest part for me is knowing that I was the one in charge when the school went under. I feel like I let the entire community down, along with my family and everyone at the school.”
But Saliba dismissed any notion that Terbrack was at fault and applauded him for his creativity and forward-thinking approach. She cited his decision to switch to a multi-age education model in the fall of 2011 — a change that was funded by a $20,000 grant from the archdiocese — as an example of his willingness to employ nontraditional strategies in order to cope with declining resources.
“Dan walked into a very difficult situation, but he really made the most out of it and did a phenomenal job,” she said. “He’s not a miracle worker, but he absolutely did everything in his power to keep the school alive.”
Kohn applauded the entire La Salette community for its determination and perseverance. “There were a lot of efforts made to save Our Lady of La Salette,” he said, “but unfortunately, their student enrollment just kept dropping. We certainly have to give the parish staff and the families a lot of credit for keeping the school going as long as they have.”
Terbrack and others will be spending the coming months helping La Salette students find a new school for next year, as well as helping its employees find new jobs. Kohn noted that there are five other Catholic schools within a five-mile radius of La Salette. However, Saliba — who has two daughters currently enrolled at the school and another who already graduated — is worried that students will not be able to find the same “family spirit” at another school.
In the meantime, though, Terbrack wants to ensure that these last two months of school live up to La Salette’s high standards of excellence.
“My main concern right now is making sure is that we finish off this school year the right way,” he said. “La Salette has always been an outstanding school, and so we will definitely be going out with a bang.”
Part of that “bang” will be an event at the end of the school year to celebrate La Salette’s 70-year history. Details are scarce right now, but Saliba expects that it will be akin to a giant family reunion.
While she is sad to see La Salette go, Saliba is looking ahead to the future with a sense of optimism. She takes comfort in one of the school’s favorite mottos — “Learn. Love. Lead. Live on.” — as a way to keep the memory of La Salette alive even after the final bell has rung.
“Wherever our kids move on to next, we can help them remember where they came from,” she said. “Change comes all the time in life, so you just have to deal with it and move forward. We can take all these positive things that we’ve learned at Our Lady of La Salette and help them live on.”
For more information, call (248) 541-3762 or go to www.lasalette-school.org.
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