St. Bartholomew community rallies to keep Bethesda school open
Jan 14, 2020
Praising the support of the school and parish community, Father Mark Knestout, the pastor of St. Bartholomew in Bethesda, Maryland, announced on Jan. 14 that St. Bartholomew School would remain open for the upcoming school year, after exceeding or making key progress toward benchmarks set to determine its sustainability.
“A real sense of unity and community developed as people came together to make St. Bart’s strong,” the pastor said in a letter to parishioners, teachers, staff, parents, guardians and other supporters of the school.
To address a significant financial shortfall and declining enrollment faced by St. Bartholomew School in recent years, a consultation was held there in October for the school community, as required by the Archdiocese of Washington for schools facing those challenges.
In his letter, the priest noted that three benchmarks were set, with a deadline of Jan. 10, 2020, to reduce the school’s anticipated deficit for the 2019-20 school year and to ensure its future operational viability for the 2020-21 academic year and for years to follow. The benchmarks involved raising funds, retaining current student enrollment, and drawing additional students to the school.
“A steering committee of parents, faculty and concerned parishioners joined together to embark on a plan to meet these goals,” Father Knestout said, expressing gratitude “for everyone’s efforts and demonstrated commitment to our beloved school.”
One of the benchmarks was to raise $750,000 by that date, and Father Knestout noted that the school and parish community had surpassed that, raising more than $872,000. He thanked those who had worked to solicit donations, which he said came from “a very large new donor base as well as some existing faithful supporters as well.”
Frank English, the principal of St. Bartholomew School, also praised how the community rallied in support of the parish school. “I think it says they believe in what we’re doing,” he said.
Bill Ryan, the superintendent and secretary of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, noted, “I am so pleased for the St. Bartholomew community! Congratulations for the hard work and dedication to meet the necessary financial and enrollment goals to keep the school open.”
The superintendent added, “It is an incredible thing to watch a school community come together to share in the mission of the school’s future and success.”
In his letter, Father Knestout noted that another benchmark for St. Bartholomew School involved retaining 100 percent of students, and he noted that the steering committee has achieved an 89 percent rate, with families registering 118 students so far for the next school year. Calling that response “excellent and very close to the archdiocesan goal for all schools of 92 percent,” the priest said, “I considered this benchmark well met and quite good.”
St. Bartholomew’s pastor did point out that “the most important benchmark of increased enrollment has not yet been met,” but he added that “there are promises to add students in a new Pre-K3 program and our current Pre-K4 program as well as add students in other grades.” He said the school, which has a current enrollment of 137 students in pre-K through the eighth grades, hopes to enroll 160 students for the next school to meet a break-even point for its draft budget.
The priest pointed out that the parish has provided a $250,000 subsidy to the school in recent years and covered mounting deficits and made significant capital improvements to its facilities, but he hopes to slowly phase that parish subsidy out in upcoming years. In his letter, the priest pointed out how some families promised to increase their future tuition payments to support the school.
Father Knestout also noted that the steering committee garnered suggestions for a new governance structure for the school and “has developed a strong strategic plan for fundraising, financial assistance and scholarships for families that need it.”
In an interview, St. Bartholomew’s pastor said the consultation process for the school “really galvanized the community and got them to work as one… Basically, it was a wake-up call for everyone, and they really responded with a great deal of energy and ideas.”
He noted that a challenge that St. Bartholomew School faces in drawing students is that there are many parish elementary schools, independent Catholic schools, private schools and public schools in that part of Montgomery County.
St. Bartholomew School, which is located at 6900 River Road, opened in 1962, and in 2011, it was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, a designation given to the nation’s most outstanding public and private schools.
The school’s website notes how St. Bartholomew School offers small class sizes, with an 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio.
“We try to provide a niche for children who will thrive in a small setting,” Father Knestout said.
St. Bartholomew School’s website also emphasizes the school’s Catholic identity, noting students attend weekly Mass at the adjoining parish church, have daily religious instruction and pray together in their classrooms, and participate in community service, which includes visits by students and graduates to senior citizens who live a short walk away at the Bartholomew House for the frail elderly operated by the archdiocese’s Victory Housing.
The school is also known for its diversity and inclusion, serving students of varied backgrounds and different religious faiths. According to the schools’ website, 47 percent of students at St. Bartholomew identify as persons of color or are of international heritage. The website also notes that the school accommodates students with learning differences.
The principal, Frank English, praised the dedication of St. Bartholomew School’s teachers, noting how they get to know their students and care for them, a point echoed by Father Knestout, who said, “With my principal and teachers, we care for every child where they are, whatever situation they’re in.”
In the school’s fall newsletter, English praised the school community for their support.
“This is the year of #StBartsStrong, and I am grateful for the outpouring of heartfelt support and contagious energy demonstrated by each and every member of the steering committee, a parent-organized movement to meet the viability benchmarks before us,” English wrote. “This is a community of engaged and active parents, a supportive network of parish and alumni families, a campus full of caring students and teachers, and a rich source of information, expertise and Christ’s love of which we are blessed to share.”
The school and parish community plans to celebrate the good news about its remaining open with an ice cream social at 2:15 p.m. Jan. 16 in the parish hall.
“Everybody worked hard together to show their school was worth keeping alive,” Father Knestout said.
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