Falling enrollment means the end for Coleman Catholic high school

After serving the community for over 50 years, John A. Coleman Catholic High School will close its doors at the end of the month. The closure was announced in an Aug. 1 letter from Bryan Smith, president of the school’s board of trustees.

“Dear Coleman Families,” read the letter. “It is with deep regret that the Board of Trustees of John A. Coleman Catholic High School announces that our beloved school will complete its mission and close its doors on August 30, 2019.”

Coleman Catholic opened in 1966, and while it thrived through the next two decades, enrollment issues began long before the decision was made to shutter the school. From a mid-’70s peak of nearly 600 students, enrollment was nearly halved by the end of the ’80s. In 2001, with a student enrollment of 188, the Archdiocese of New York pegged Coleman for closure. A community fundraising initiative saved the school at the time, though Coleman was technically an independent school leasing the campus space at 430 Hurley Ave. in the Town of Ulster from the Archdiocese.

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Since then, Coleman has continued to struggle with enrollment, which dipped into the double-digit mark last year and which school officials confirmed this week would not have been aided by the planned enrollment of just nine freshmen this fall.

Coleman’s 20 full- and part-time faculty members often wore numerous hats to keep the school functioning for its students. According to some, teachers were notified of the impending closure by e-mail. 

Kelly Culver, an English teacher at Coleman since the fall of 2007, said the faculty had signed contracts for the 2019-20 school year and were ready to teach when the news broke of the school’s closure. Though Culver didn’t attend Coleman herself, she knew of the school before taking on a teaching job over a decade ago.

“My husband was a graduate of Coleman, and his brothers went there as well, and his uncles,” said Culver. “So the family had some history. I heard it was a magical place, so I thought I would try and find out for myself.”

Culver said she was less surprised by the school’s closure than by the timing, coming around a month before the beginning of the new school year.

“You can’t help but notice that the number of students is dropping,” she said. “And we all knew that there were financial concerns. But I don’t think that we expected it quite so soon. I thought that we had another year to try and turn things around.”

Instead of preparing their classrooms for the fall, Culver and other Coleman educators are faced with having to find other jobs during time of year when few vacancies are still available. 

“Unfortunately the timing of this is a little sticky coming so late in the summer,” Culver said. “I’m applying for TA jobs, and if something doesn’t present itself I’ll sub, and I’ll make it work.” 

Fundraiser started

Three Coleman alumni are hoping to alleviate some of the burden of unemployment faced by the school’s faculty, with a fundraiser on the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe surpassing the halfway mark of its $10,000 goal just five days after it was announced. Anna Jankowski and Luke Messina of Coleman’s Class of 2013, and Marisa Hagerty of the Class of 2014 organized the fundraiser after learning of the school’s closure on social media.

“It’s really just to make sure that our teachers who inspired us so much, who were there for us and for whom so much of the success in our adult life can be credited to are OK,” said Jankowski. “We don’t want them to fall behind on mortgage payments or have to rely on payday loans. We’d love to think they’ll automatically get a new job, but it’s not that easy. We’re trying to do whatever we can to ease the burden.”

As of press time, the GoFundMe fundraiser has $6,000 of pledges from 78 different donors, with a target of $10,000. The campaign will run through Thursday, Aug. 22, one week after Coleman faculty will receive their final paycheck.

“When we were setting it up we wanted to be ambitious, but we didn’t want it to be so large that it seemed unattainable,” said Jankowski. “What we would love is to get it closer to $18,000, because after fees it would probably amount to about $1,000 per teacher … We have a longstanding group chat and we were talking about what our teachers are going to do. They got almost no notice. They already signed their contracts for the next school year. This came out of nowhere.”

A great place to learn

Jankowski went to public school in the Kingston City School District at Harry L. Edson Elementary, moving on to the since-shuttered St. Joseph’s for middle school.

“Coleman was really, really great with not only academics but extracurricular activities,” said Jankowski. “I was able to try a lot of different things that I would not have been able to try at a larger school. I played volleyball for two years, and I had never played it before. I did different theater productions, I did chorus. I did track & field, tennis. Just a lot of things that in a larger school I may not have had the opportunity to try, or it may have been intimidating. I felt like I got an excellent education. I got two merit-based scholarships [to Hunter College] during my time there, and I think that was due to my time at Coleman. I took AP classes, and I credit a lot of my Spanish-speaking skills to the teachers there at the time.

“The teachers all knew who we were,” said Jankowski. “They were caring.”

Wide impact

In the e-mail to parents announcing the closure, Smith acknowledged that the move will affect many different people.

“Words cannot express our appreciation for the generosity and support our students, parents, alumni and school community members have so freely given,” Smith wrote. “We ask for your prayers for those especially impacted by this sad news and we will help with this transition.”

For Culver, the fundraising efforts by former students are a humbling reminder that Coleman made a difference in their lives.

“It is true that there is no greater reward than seeing my kids giving back, just as we taught them,” she said. “There is, however, the cold reality that my income has suddenly dried up. So, what does this effort mean to me? Potentially, one more month that I can make my mortgage payment. Or feed my kids. Or keep the lights on. … And the fact that our students recognized that need, is a testament to the kind of learning community Coleman was. We taught good kids, with great hearts.”

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