Chris Catropa  /  NBC NEWS 
Olivia Smith, 14, and Shadrick Lester, 13, both 8th graders, pick up debris in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx on Community Service Day. 
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NBC News
updated 10/25/2006 3:25:39 PM ET 2006-10-25T19:25:39

THE BRONX, NY — On a recent afternoon, all 178 students at St. Anthony School in the Wakefield section of this northernmost New York City borough participated in a day of community service complete with weeding and planting, as well as painting cards for local police and fire officials.

It was a miracle of sorts, because the school is not even supposed to be in existence.

Last March, the Archdiocese of New York designated St. Anthony’s as one of 16 schools slated to close its doors at the end of the year. The future looked dim, given dwindling enrollment and St. Anthony’s large operating budget.

“When I first started here in 1973, our enrollment was over 1,000 students,” said teacher Audrey Marutollo. “But through the decades poverty and crime seeped into the community and enrollment declined.  Many families seeking a Catholic education had moved out of the neighborhood.”

By 2004, enrollment at the school — which serves students ranging from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade — had dipped to a meager 162.

But through the efforts of teachers, parents, and community leaders, the school underwent a massive capital campaign — and a final decision to keep St. Anthony’s doors open for another school year was made in April.

A community touchstone
The impending closure of the school was especially devastating to the large number of Guyanese immigrants who live in the area, many of whom have strong ties to Catholic education from their native country.

“The Guyanese residents in Wakefield greatly appreciated the dedication of a faculty committed to academic success and the development of sound moral principals,” said Brentnold F.R. Evans, the local Guyanese Consul General, who wrote a letter of support. “It would be a grave mistake to take away from the children of the St. Anthony School.”

To alleviate the funding problems, the faculty pledged to donate $2,000 each, and came up with an additional $20,000 through fundraising. Parents and community organizers also banded together to raise an additional $22,000.

Key to community
Hilario Flauta, a Bronx resident with three children in St. Anthony’s who emigrated from the Philippines two years ago, said he even considered moving back to his native country if the school closed. 

“We chose this school because it has the same values that my children were getting in their education in the Philippines,” said Flauta, who testified before the archdiocese’s Realignment Committee in an attempt to halt the closure. “I told them I would prefer to move back to the Philippines, because I do not think I could find another school in the area that would provide a good education and transition.” 

After the capital campaign and some help from influential political leaders, the budget was entirely revamped in an effort to trim expenses.

And that's when the good news came. All the community's inititiatives were presented to the archdiocese, and a final decision to let St. Anthony’s remain open was handed down in April. 

Pleasant surprise
A spokesperson from the archdiocese said that one of the main criteria for keeping schools open was a study that looked at the social and demographic populations in the neighborhoods where the schools were located and seeing where the archdiocese could help the Catholic spiritual and educational needs the most.

“St. Anthony’s School gave such a strong presentation, that the sum total of it went a long way in their fight,” said Jackie Lofaro, an archdiocese spokesperson.  “We had to close nine schools in the end, but the way the parents and teachers of St. Anthony’s came together to make their case helped their cause more than anything.”

Students were pleasantly surprised by the reversal. “I really thought that we were going to be closed down forever, and I would not get to see all of my friends anymore,” said Trevor Dawson, an eighth grader at St. Anthony’s. “I’m glad we got to stay.”  Dawson, who said he wants to enter the military, partially attributes this desire to serve his country to the education he received at St. Anthony’s.

Chris Catropa  /  NBC News
Dominique Mirabile, a 4-year-old pre-K student, plants bulbs in her Wakefield neighborhood. 
Meanwhile, eighth-grader Daihana Frias, who said she was "in shock' when told that the school would be closed, said she was impressed by the community effort to keep the school open. "When everyone helped to keep our school open, I was really happy," she said. "At St. Anthony’s I love my teachers, and I feel prepared to go to high school.  I don’t know what I would have done if they closed.”

All of the attention the school has received from the community has helped boost enrollment for the 2006-2007 school year — to 178— and school officials are hopeful that the combination of community involvement and a good education will keep numbers up. 

The Archdiocese of New York, however, has been noncommittal about the future of St. Anthony’s. “We will continue to monitor the progress of the school,” said Lofaro. “There is no time frame. We will try to be helpful if we can, and we appreciate all of the support from the parents and teachers, but we cannot give any sort of time frame with the matter.”

Lesson for students: overcoming obstacles
Teachers and parents are already gearing up for future fights, and remain optimistic that they will continue to meet the demands of an archdiocese that is constantly under financial pressure. 

“The economic and social disadvantages that we must overcome within the student body are great,” said Marutollo. “But, we have been helping young people overcome these obstacles to attain success in their lives for many years, and we will continue to do so, no matter what the future holds.”

Meanwhile, the students will continue their efforts with such events as the Community Service Day, trying to make their section of the Bronx a little brighter with cleaned up sidewalks and flower-lined streets. The mood within the school is hopeful, and everyone is looking forward to at least one more school year.

Chris Catropa is a Researcher on the NBC News Assignment Desk.

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