Memories of 80th and Belmont, and Lessons to be Learned
With the recent closing of St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, this event has resurrected my memories of the closing of my high school, Holy Cross High School, in River Grove, Illinois, in June, 2004, and the consolidation of the remaining student body and some of its traditions and alum with the sister school on the same property, Mother Theodore Guerin, ultimately being renamed Guerin Prep, and sadly closing at the end of the school year in 2020.
For those not familiar with Holy Cross High School it was an all-boys, Roman Catholic high school in River Grove, Illinois, United States that operated from August 1961 until June 2004. In December, 2003, the school announced that they no longer had enough funding or interest in enrollment to continue. Only 79 students took the entrance exam for the 2004-2005 school year, and at least 125 were necessary to keep the school open. In June, 2004, the neighboring all-girls high school Mother Theodore Guerin High School accepted all Holy Cross students, becoming coed and changing their name to Guerin College Preparatory High School. Students from Mother Guerin and Holy Cross had already been sharing each other’s facilities for certain classes, such as drama, music, and foreign languages.
At one point, Holy Cross’s enrollment was as high as 1,556 students. The school expanded its facilities in 1969 with the construction of a humanities learning center.
The Holy Cross had a close connection to the Chicago Cubs baseball team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Third-baseman Ron Santo ran a baseball academy on the Holy Cross grounds, and the Cubs helped fund equipment for the school’s baseball team. The Cubs even held their workouts at the school in spring 1972, in the midst of a strike which had shut down all of the major league training camps
Notable Alumni of Holy Cross High School
- Yashar Ali, American freelance journalist
- Val Belmonte, former college hockey coach and college athletic director, winner of the 1987 CCHA Coach of the Year Award
- John Carpino (1977), current President of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
- Tony Fiore (1990), pitcher drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1992 MLB Draft (28th round)
- Joseph Grendys, billionaire meat processor, Owner Koch Foods
- Joe Principe, bass guitarist of Rise Against
- Mike Rizzo (1979), current President/General Manager of the Washington Nationals
- Bobby Stevens (2005), shortstop drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2008 MLB Draft (16th round)
- Garrett Wolfe (2002), All-American running back at NIU, 2006 NCAA leading rusher, drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 2007 NFL Draft (3rd round)
If it was not for the superior educational and athletic faculty of Holy Cross High School, these notable alum, and many others not mentioned. would not be here to make the world a better place today.
We should never forget the Holy Cross High School Glory Days:
As Holy Cross, Mother Guerin and Guerin Prep alum, it was not about the “brick and mortar” but the classmates and instructors that we connected with during our journey at 80th and Belmont. That is what we should never forget. We can be sad that the institution is “never more”, but the memories, friendships and lessons learned live on.
It has become a recurring theme with the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago’s school system: mounting concern over declining enrollment and rising costs; parish leaders devising a strategy to address the problems; parents mobilizing to prevent their children’s schools from shutting their doors. And in the end, another round of school closings.
This bleak reality has become familiar for many of the nation’s Catholic school systems: hit with rising expenses and shrinking enrollment, many are fighting for survival.
The Archdiocese of Chicago, has been beset with similar troubles, with total enrollment dropping to about 65,000 this year from more than 95,000 nine years ago.
What will the next decade bring for Catholic education in Chicago and the rest of our country ?
First, we all who enjoyed that education in our lives, need to step forward and support efforts to reverse this trend and preserve such a system for tomorrow’s youth.
Despite its dwindling size, Chicago’s Catholic school system remains one of the largest private school systems in the country. And its schools have received more Blue Ribbon Awards, a distinction given by the U.S. Department of Education to school for academic excellence, than any other school system in the country.
Since 2009, the number of Catholic schools in the United States declined by more than 1,200, and there are roughly 400,000 fewer students attending Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
The archdiocese’s school system does outpace Chicago Public Schools in many academic standards, although critics point out private schools are able to be selective about their students.
More than 98% of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools’ students graduate from high school, compared to 77% of Chicago Public Schools students, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. And more than 96% of Catholic school students go on to attend a four-year college, according to the archdiocese.
According to the National Catholic Education Association‘s Annual Statistical Report on Schools, Enrollment and Staffing., “U. S. Catholic school enrollment reached its peak during the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost thirteen thousand schools across the nation. The 1970s and 1980s saw a steep decline in both the number of schools and students. By 1990, there were approximately 2.5 million students in 8,719 schools. From the mid 1990s though 2000, there was a steady enrollment increase (1.3%) despite continued closings of schools. Between the 2000 and the 2011 school years, 1,755 schools were reported closed or consolidated (21.5%). The number of students declined by 587,166 (22.1 %). The most seriously impacted have been elementary schools”
Personally, it saddens me to see any private school in decline. It is even worse to discover that schools have closed. But the sheer magnitude of these numbers is just plain scary. Let’s examine some of the reasons why Catholic education finds itself in this state across the country.
The economy has been a major factor in the decline in the number of Catholic schools. The Great Recession of 2008 cost millions of people their jobs. As a result, when parents have to struggle just to make ends meet, then a private school education becomes unaffordable and out of the question. Historically, Roman Catholic parochial and high school educations have been some of the most affordable private school educations available. Fewer students mean more seats available. More seats available means less tuition income. It is a vicious cycle not easily broken. Once the cycle starts, it becomes very difficult to turn around.
Back in the 1950s nuns staffed Catholic schools. These wonderful teachers were also paid very little. Consequently, schools could keep their tuition low. Unfortunately, as the number of nuns declined, schools had to hire lay teachers whose compensation was more than the religious they replaced.
Changing Social Customs
Church membership nationwide in just about every denomination has been on a decline for decades. The Catholic Church has been particularly hard hit as it faced changing demographics in thousands of parishes. Whereas 50 years ago, Sunday masses were well-attended and parishes seemed to flourish, nowadays the neighborhoods have changed, leaving small, aging congregations struggling to keep the doors of their beloved old church open. Soaring energy and maintenance costs, as well as a lack of priests, have further exacerbated the problem.
The Child Abuse Settlements
The scandals which have rocked the American Catholic Church from 2000-2018 effectively drained the coffers of dozens of Catholic dioceses, requiring enormous settlements to bring a conclusion to the legal process. Church property and other tangible assets were sold to raise money to fund the settlements. Hundreds of schools which had been kept afloat with diocesan support had their financial lifeline cut off. The diocesan and archdiocesan authorities had no other choice.
The Way Forward
I know that Catholic education will survive long term. But what will in look like in the next decade. In my opinion, what we have seen is a winnowing process in which schools which already had financial and enrollment issues have been forced to face up to those issues. If those schools found answers to their problems, they survived. If they didn’t, they closed their doors. In many cases, diocesan authorities consolidated several schools which had low student populations into one larger school. The schools which are left are the ones which have weathered all the economic and cultural onslaughts which have been thrown at them over the past decade. They will probably continue to survive and find new ways to thrive. Many catholic schools are proactively reaching out to their communities.
There are lessons to be learned from the closing of Holy Cross High School and Guerin Prep High Schools in River Grove, Illinois. But will we take it to heart and preserve Catholic educational institutions over the next decade. We as alum of Holy Cross, Mother Guerin and Guerin Prep know the value of catholic education, but does the world really understand it. We do know that the world is a better place because of those that chose to attend high school at 80th and Belmont in River Grove, Illinois.