March 30, 2015
After years of falling enrollment and growing deficits, the School of the Good Shepherd in Decherd will close at the end of the current academic year.
“Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, we see little realistic hope that these trends will reverse,” Good Shepherd Pastor Father Jean-Baptiste Kyabuta wrote in a letter to parishioners. “After consultation with Bishop (David) Choby, who is the ultimate decision-maker on critical school issues, we have reached the painful decision to close the school at the end of the current academic year.”
Enrollment at the school had dwindled to 35 students, including 12 in pre-kindergarten and 23 in kindergarten through eighth grade. About 60 percent of the student body is not Catholic.
Despite a marketing campaign and an outreach in the community, the school was unable to attract more students, said Kelly Doyle, Good Shepherd’s principal.
“I’ve lost sleep over what else we could have done,” Doyle said, but the school was fighting a shift in demographics in the parish that it could not overcome.
Most of the parishioners at Good Shepherd are retirees,” Doyle said. “We just don’t have the families with a lot of young children anymore.”
Enrollment in the school’s pre-school program has fallen almost 75 percent in the last five years, Father Kyabuta said in his letter to parishioners.
Since 2010, revenue at the school has declined from about $450,000 a year to $189,000. “Our parish has nonetheless funded almost $200,000 in deficits over this period by drawing largely from savings and foundation grants, sources of funding that have now been depleted,” Father Kyabuta wrote.
The school has relied on help from parishioner volunteers to keep going, Doyle said. “It’s volunteers that have kept this school open,” she said, noting that the parish Knights of Columbus do all the maintenance work on the building; volunteers staff the school office, the physical education teacher is a volunteer, and another volunteer serves as the school librarian and science lab teacher.
The parishioners have also helped with the annual Mardi Gras gala, the school’s major fundraiser each year. “The community really supports that,” Doyle said.
When she came out of retirement to take the principal’s job six years ago, Doyle said, she made a point to let parishioners know they were welcome in the school anytime.
She started giving regular updates on the school at the weekend Mass. At one of her first ones, Doyle gave the parishioners an assignment, she said, asking them to donate trash bags and tennis balls needed for an art project the students were working on.
“That set a tone that no matter how small it is we appreciate it,” Doyle said.
But the financial drain was too much to overcome, Doyle said.
Parish officials met with teachers last week to inform them of the decision to close the school.
“I’m so proud of them,” Doyle said. “I’m proud of how professional they were.”
In some ways, the news came as a relief, Doyle said. “They’re not sitting on pins and needles waiting for what’s going to happen.”
She was planning to meet with parents on Friday, March 27, and with the students when they return from spring break after Easter.
“I’m just sad for the students, especially for those who have been here for awhile,” Doyle said.
The parish has operated a school since 1903. The last day of classes will be May 28, but the schedule for the remaining months will include several special field trips and events for the students and their families, Doyle said.
“We want to go out in a blaze of glory,” she said.
Among the events planned are:
• The school’s annual Poetry Café in April.
• A field trip to the Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Elementary School in nearby South Pittsburg on April 10.
• A field trip to Father Ryan High School in Nashville to see a production of the musical “Guys and Dolls.”
• A field trip to the Hands-on Science Center in Tullahoma.
• A performance by the school band for the Franklin County celebration of National Prayer Day.
• A Mother’s Day tea for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, with the theme Muffins with Mother, on May 8.
• The school’s annual Fine Arts Festival at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 8, which will include performances by the school’s beginning band and jazz band, followed by an exhibit of all the students’ art work through the school year.
“We’re going to make this the best ending it can be for the kids,” Doyle said.