St. Ferdinand to welcome all-girls school

Notre Dame High School for Girls next fall will relocate to St. Ferdinand School, a move that has upset some alumni but will save the institutions a combined $200,000 per year, officials say.

Financial considerations were the primary factor in encouraging the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to move the school, which enrolls 200 high school girls, from its 1930s building.

Beginning next fall, the Notre Dame students will attend a campus carved out of a building that houses the coed, kindergarten to eighth grade St. Ferdinand.

Though administrators heard about the decision from the Chicago Archdiocese Oct. 31, parents and students were just recently notified, says St. Ferdinand principal Lucine Mastalerz.

The idea took form earlier this year when administrators from both schools discussing a joint grant project that had nothing to do with moving Notre Dame girls to St. Ferdinand, she says.

At the meeting, principals and school presidents began talking about how they could save money, Mastalerz says.

“After employment, the biggest expenses (to the schools) are heat, gas and maintenance,” Mastalerz says. “You can’t neglect the building. It’s constant upkeep.”

St. Ferdinand has seen enrollment fall form about 1,100 in the 1980s to less than 300 today. So it had extra space.

Officials began considering a combined campus at that point, and found it made sense in other ways, too.

Situated near the bustling corner of Belmont and Austin avenues, St. Ferdinand provides easy drop off for buses. Notre Dame, tucked away on Mango Avenue, isn't as easy to reach.

In 2000, St. Ferdinand received a $2 million anonymous donation, which funded a three-story addition and technological retrofitting of its building.

A phone was put in every class room and the building was rewired for Internet access. The school added a chemistry room, four air-conditioned classrooms and a new cafeteria. It also updated its older cafeteria on the lower level.

The move will be quite a benefit for Notre Dame, says Kelly Jones, Notre Dame’s president.

The Notre Dame building, while visually striking with its stained glass windows and marble stone masonry, lacks St. Ferdinand’s major renovations and technology updates, she says.

Also, fundraising took up a lot of time for administrators, who had a technology wish list that remains unfulfilled.

“It’s hard to focus on academics when you have to focus on how you’re going to get the money to hire teachers or bring in new programs,” Jones says.

She added that St. Patrick’s High School, Chicago’s oldest Catholic high school for boys, located across the street from St. Ferdinand, which could be a recruiting aid.

While parents may see the advantages of an all-girls school, the students are usually enthused about boys.

The Notre Dame students will study on St. Ferdinand’s fourth floor and use the cafeteria on the lower level. St. Ferdinand's students will be taught on the other floors and use another cafeteria on the first floor.

To accommodate the girls, St. Ferdinand will remodel some classrooms at a cost of between $40,000 and $50,000. An anonymous donor has covered those expenses, Mastalerz says.

There will also be some administrative changes. Mastalerz will take on a new title – head of schools, presiding over both schools.

St. Ferdinand’s assistant principal, Sue Betzolt, will handle day-to-day activities at the elementary school. Notre Dame principal Kathryn Piper and president Kelly Jones will retain their positions at the high school.

The proposal didn’t initally go over well with Tim Bork, president of the Notre Dame Parents’ Club, whose niece, Theresa, goes to the school. He'd characterized the endeavor as “odd” since elementary and high school kids usually don’t share a building.

But he says he changed his mind when he learned how Notre Dame students would benefit from the renovations, including classroom Internet access,  at St. Ferdinand.

He was also relieved the boys would not be high school aged, he says. Although smaller class sizes and strong academics account mostly for why parents send their girls to Notre Dame, another draw is the lack of teenaged boys, who’d distract the girls from their studies.

“I would’ve been more worried if they had moved into St. Patrick’s High School, but they are moving into a grade school,” he says.

Tiffany Wdowiak, whose daughter, Kaitlin, goes to Notre Dame is dubious about the move. A 1992 graduate of Notre Dame, Wdowiak says her daughter isn’t keen about moving into a school with younger kids.

“When you leave grade school to high school, you feel like you’ve really moved up a level," Wdowiak, says. "But now she feels like she’s taken two steps back,” because her campus will include grade-schoolers.

But closing the school due to lack of funds would've been worse, she says, and the St. Ferdinand’s computer technology is a plus, so she’ll wait and see how it goes.

Jones says she received calls from other Notre Dame alums, many of them angry about the plan.

After she explained the cost of staying and the benefits of leaving, they were placated, she says.

The Notre Dame building will likely be sold by the sisters, Jones says. With an average age nearing 80, the sisters need money for retirement and health care, Jones said.

The sisters have been talking to real estate developers, who’d like to turn it into condominium, but no deal has been struck, she says.

Discuss

PATRICK KISSANE, 12-20-2008

Two things occur as I read this, first that people are complaining, but will they put their money where their mouth is? Probably not. People complain about the death of local hardware stores and continue to support big box hardware stores. It's the same here. Talk is cheap. Action requires sacrifice.

Second, the top of the real estate market has passed-- too bad for the religious order attempting to sell the Notre Dame campus.

GEOFF DOUGHERTY, 12-20-2008

Good points all around, Patrick. That building would have fetched a pretty penny in 2006.