A 120-year-old historically Black Catholic school in Mobile, AL, was on the verge of closing its doors for good until an online fundraiser and a pledge of support from the school community made it possible for the school to stay open.
Heart of Mary Catholic School was facing the same budget challenges that many parochial schools around the country are grappling with. And the school faced the possibility of closing at the end of the 2022 school year. That is until an online fundraising campaign brought in more than $450,000 to help keep the doors open. According to a statement released by the Archdiocese of Mobile, “A new corporation and a new governing board are in the process of being formed independent of the Archdiocese of Mobile. This new board will take responsibility for the continued operation and administration of the school.”
Heart of Mary Catholic School was established in 1901. During a time when Alabama’s constitution disenfranchised Black people, the school provided quality education for Black children. It also became a place of refuge and a critical meeting site for people of color. In the Civil Rights Era, many Heart of Mary nuns and priests worked side by side with civil rights advocates, participating in demonstrations throughout the community.
Today, the school offers classes for children in PreK-3 through eighth grade, and it provides scholarships for students in need. According to the school’s website, Heart of Mary requires that students maintain a C average or better and avoid issues with conduct to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
In addition to being a long-standing fixture in the community, the school also has some notable alumni, including former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and retired Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper the first Black person to command a Marine combat infantry company in Vietnam. It is this rich history that compelled school parents and alumni to pledge to take on a more active role in helping Heart of Mary remain a positive school option in the community.
Across the country, many Catholic schools are struggling with decreased enrollment, a challenge that has been made worse by the pandemic. As unemployment numbers rise, many families are left unable to afford their school’s tuition costs. Lower student enrollment leaves Catholic schools without a big chunk of the money they need to operate. On average, nearly 80 percent of a Catholic school budget comes from tuition revenue. The rest comes from fundraisers and donations, according to Mary Pat Donoghue, director of the Secretariat for Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholic schools in low-income communities have suffered the most during the economic downturn. And low-income parents and families of color are feeling the pain. Students of color make up nearly 20% of the enrollment in Catholic schools across the country, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. When their Catholic schools are forced to close, families are left with fewer choices to serve their children’s educational and social-emotional needs.
“[These schools] don’t just serve the students’ academic needs,” says Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of the Partnership Schools, a network of urban Catholic schools in Harlem, the South Bronx and Cleveland. “They’re often providing a social safety net. They’re helping support families. The closing of these schools, particularly those that serve marginalized or disadvantaged communities, is devastating.”