June 22, 2006
by HEIDI WALTERS
AS BRIGHT EVENING SUNSHINE STREAMED THROUGH THE WINDOWS OF ST. JOSEPH CHURCH IN EUREKA, SLICING THE congregation into segments of light and dark, Father James Trent approached the 15 graduating seniors of St. Bernard's Catholic School where they sat clustered in the front pews. It was June 8, they'd taken their last final (Theology) that morning, their high school days were over, tomorrow was graduation, and this was their baccalaureate Mass. Father Trent got up close and spoke to them conversationally, friend to friend.
"How many of you play sports?" he asked. Many hands went up. "What do you think of your coaches? When do you trust them most — when you're losing? When you're winning? When do you trust yourself most — when you're winning, or when you're losing? When do you trust your teammates most — when you're winning, or when you're losing?"
He listened to their quiet responses. Someone said, hesitantly, "Winning." Father Trent continued: "You gotta learn to trust them when you're losing. You also trust in yourself. But you trust that your teammates are going to pull you through." He paused, looking intently, kindly, at the Class of 2006. "Well, we believe we've got a coach that's Christ. He knows the game ... and getting us through is where He wants to go. You say, 'OK, pull me through,' and He'll pull you through the way He thinks is best."
On May 18, 2006, the 15 seniors at St. Bernard's Catholic School were still preparing for graduation and life outside the white-stucco walls of their cozy educational haven — all were headed for college. The lower-grades students, meanwhile, were simultaneously praying for summer and dreaming about next year at St. Bernard's. Then the school's Board of Directors announced the unthinkable: The end was near. The Pre-K-12 school would close, not for the summer but forever, at the end of this school year. That is, unless a miracle (and a serious revamp of the school's business plan) occurred to pull them through.
Right: Principal Pat Daly. Photo by Heidi Walters
The board outlined the problem: The school had lost the support of major donors, who'd been paying 40 percent of the school's yearly expenses ever since the school detached itself, in 2000, from the broke, sex-scandal-ridden Santa Rosa Diocese to become a private, independent school (the Diocese had governed the school since 1964). Now St. Bernard's was almost $600,000 short for next year. Continued low enrollment, which has stagnated at less than 200 students in the elementary and high school grades combined over the past six years, meant tuition and fees would still only cover about 60 percent of the expenses. The school hadn't been able to save any money — instead of getting free buildings, a subsidy and, for many years, free teachers in the form of nuns and priests, now St. Bernard's paid the Diocese rent, paid its teachers (granted, less than what public school teachers are paid) and got no subsidies. It also received no taxpayer money (only the District of Columbia, to date, allows tax-funded subsidies for students to attend religious schools). And now its borrowed time was spent.
The news "was anticipated by those who are business savvy," said board president Larry Henderson. "For the parents and alumni, it may have been expected but not really thought about. I think we all take things for granted."
Neither Henderson, nor others questioned at the school, express resentment toward the former major donors (identified by several as Rob and Cherie Arkley and George Schmidbauer).
"My suspicion is that, like a family situation, there comes a time when the child has to step out on its own," Henderson said.
The board set a deadline: By May 31, it would have to let its 30-some employees know if they had a job next year. There was a back-up deadline: By June 30, in order to meet next year's $1.5 million budget (57 percent of which was payroll) the school would have to have a committed enrollment of 211 domestic students for next school year — the number was hovering around 190 last week. (St. Bernard's also has an Academy for international students. Currently it boards 25 Korean students, who attend classes with the local students.) The school also would have to raise a good chunk of cash to provide the nearly $300,000 in need-based tuition assistance. Failing those two goals, the doors would shut.
May 31 came, and employees received notice that their contracts would not be renewed.
Looking on the dark side, at this point one might have despaired that those 15 seniors sitting in the pews two weeks ago would be the last class, ever, to graduate from St. Bernard's.
But St. Bernard's people tend to look on the bright side.
It's tempting to say that they donned feathered visors, clanking armor and mounted their white steeds, these Crusaders. But really they just picked up the phone. And held meetings. Made a lot of lists and set goals. Prayed, of course. Then picked up the phone again.
"This is really a parent-driven task, this save-the-school thing," said St. Bernard's director of development, Debi Farber-Bush. And she understood their drive — although Jewish, she sent her son to St. Bernard's for its solid, faith-based curriculum. So when the news of possible closure broke, Farber-Bush called a parent to sound the alarm. "I called this woman at 9:30 at night, and the next morning at our meeting — I thought there would be maybe 25 people there. But there were 75 to 100." They divided into groups — one group would tackle enrollment, another would organize a phone-a-thon to make alumni appeals, and so on. They also met frequently with the Board of Directors — not an elected body, but a volunteer business-type board with new members nominated by current members.
Left: Teachers, parents, students and alumni phoning for donations from the offices of Redwood Capital bank. Photo by Heidi Walters.
Meanwhile, Redwood Capital Bank set up a free account for the school to collect donations. Even Harold Lawrence, owner of Big Louie's Pizzeria — and whose only connection is that many of his customers have attended St. Bernard's — chipped in, donating his ad space in the local paper and listing himself as a contact on the "St. Bernard's Call to Action! Please don't hesitate to enroll your children today!" ad that subsequently ran.
The board, hoping for the best, developed Operation DROP — Deficit Reduction Onto Prosperity — a plan to keep the school open for next school year, as well as to begin setting it up as a proper business that could weather future vagaries. Short term, the board suggested consolidating grades K-12 onto the high school campus at 222 Dollison and closing the elementary school building next door at 115 Henderson (saving $30,000 in utilities, etc.); reducing staff by three positions ($120,000 savings); home-boarding the school's international students in local students' homes ($300,000 savings); increasing tuition by $1,000 per student (currently, elementary students pay $4,000 a year and high school students $6,000); soliciting alumni donations (with a goal of raising $50,000); and holding special events, such as a casino night (to raise at least $100,000).
The plan also suggested that, by the end of this year, contracts for 50 to 75 more international students be secured — from Korea, Japan, China. That could buy the school considerable time to work on its long-term goals, including development of consistent yearly donors and establishment of an endowment.
In those last days, students completed projects, took finals, prepared for masses and graduations. Someone taped the summer reading list for grades 9-12 onto the counter in the main office (The Color of Water, Farewell to Manzanar, Digging to America, Of Mice and Men, to name a few). Taped next to that was a sign-up sheet labeled "Alumni Appeal Phone Sign-Ups."
And most people pretty much disdained that ever-lurking question, "What if it closes?"
"It kind of makes me angry, people asking, 'Where are you going next year if your school closes?'" said Greg Meyer last week. He'll be a senior next year, he's gone to St. Bernard's since the first grade, and his two older siblings went to high school there. And they are not Catholic. "I get mad, and I say, 'I'm going to St. Bernard's.' I love St. Bernard's. I've grown up around the school forever. Everything I do is for St. Bernard's. That's why I'm doing the phone tree."
But if so few students are enrolling, why should St. Bernard's stay open?
"Have you been to a graduation?" responded Redwood Capital Bank's John Dalby last week. It was Monday night, way past closing time, and Dalby had opened the doors of his historic structure — formerly the Daly Building — to St. Bernard's parents, teachers and students so they could use all the phone lines to call up alumni for donations. Dalby's son, Nick, goes to St. Bernard's. His daughter, Meghann, was one of this year's 15 graduates.
That night, the second of five nights of alumni appeals, another reason for saving St. Bernard's became apparent. Every telephone had a kid on it, saying something like this: "I'll be a senior at St. Bernard's next year, and I want to have the same opportunity to graduate that you did. Can you help us keep our school open?" Others wrote thank-you notes and labeled envelopes. Parents, teachers and alumni milled about. For them, this wasn't just about keeping a school open. It was about preserving a family line — the family of St. Bernard's, that is. And, in many ways, a significant branch of the Humboldt County genealogical tree.
Left: Valedictorian Yong Ju "Jennifer" Cho. Below: scenes from graduation day. Photos by Kyana Taillon.
Take that girl with the long brown braid and dark brown eyes, sitting at the desk closest to the west doors in her bright green "Crusaders" sweatshirt. Shannon Falk-Carlsen will be a senior next year at St. Bernard's, and she's been at the school since Kindergarten. Her brother went to St. Bernard's and is now at U.C. Davis. Her mother, Sharon — across the room in a navy blue U.C. Davis sweatshirt — and her five sisters went to St. Bernard's. But way, way before all that, Falk-Carlsen's great-great-great-etc-great uncle, Noah Falk, founded Falk Town up there in what's now part of the Headwaters Preserve. At some point, a Falk married a Daly — of the Daly family that built the Daly Building, which is now Redwood Capital Bank. Sitting there, ear to the phone inside a former family stronghold, Falk-Carlsen seemed to exude an air of belonging that only a confidence in lineage could produce (and maybe that St. Bernard's training).
"The school, it's just such a great environment," she said. "It gives us the opportunity to fill leadership roles, because there aren't that many of us and we need those roles filled. It prepares kids well for college, and we need more kids that have good experiences here with school, that want to go away to college and then come back."
She repeated the familiar mantra: "It won't close." It's too important, she said. "My friends are there, my life's there, and I've devoted everything to it. And I wouldn't be who I am without it."
On the other end of the room, Paul Vallee (Class of 1978), mingled with other alumni. He and his 10 siblings, all raised Catholic, went to St. Bernard's. His daughter, Alexandra Vallee, graduated this year. Vallee, his short graying hair covered by a ball cap, said he and his wife sent their three kids to public grammar school, and then gave them a choice to go to St. Bernard's for high school. They all chose St. Bernard's, drawn to its small size. "I think it's important for them to be able to experience both educational environments," Vallee said.
Vallee's oldest siblings had up to 80 kids in their classes. His graduating class was bigger than today's, too, at 46 kids. "And I can remember going to football games when I was a child and seeing the nuns and priests there. Everything was more" — he searched for the right word — "solemn. The school is more customer-driven now, more parent-driven. The school really now is focused on generating just good people, good citizens. The curriculum is pretty heavily college prep."
Cathy (Cahill) Maher (Class of 1962, long-time St. Bernard's math teacher) walked up — she was Vallee's teacher. With her blond hair and smooth skin, she looked too young to have taught nearly everyone in this room. Sharon Falk-Carlsen — Shannon's mom — wandered over, too, and the three of them embarked on a tangled reminiscence.
"She used to call me Chris, at first,"said Vallee, teasingly, about Maher.
"You know what interests me?" said Maher. "You can see the family traits. The Vallees are good at math, and they usually become accountants."
Vallee: "Five of us are to varying degrees in the accounting profession."
Maher: "See, I went to school with his oldest brother."
Vallee: "I was at my daughter's graduation, and my mom said, 'Cathy Cahill?!'"
Maher: "If you look around this room, almost all the adults here are alumni."
Falk-Carlsen: "My mom's name was Annette Daly. She was born in Eureka in 1919. She, her sisters and brothers and five cousins went to the Nazareth Academy [the first incarnation of St. Bernard's]."
Maher: "I was in the very first Kindergarten class at St. Bernard's, in 1949."
Falk-Carlsen: "That was the year I was born. Your brother [Maher's] taught me."
Maher: "My brother was in the first graduating [high school] class of St. Bernard's, in 1957."
Falk-Carlsen: "And then her [Maher's] sister, Sally, was in my class — 1967. We were the largest graduating class, 87 to 90 students."
They also remembered two other times the school almost closed. In 1972, the Diocese cited low enrollment and a lack of funds. In 2000, same thing, only darker.
"My daughter was going to be a senior that year," said Maher.
"My son was going to be a freshman," said Falk-Carlsen.
"My niece was going to be a freshman," said Vallee.
"And they both went on to become Crusaders of the year!" said Falk-Carlsen.
"And Paul was Crusader of the year when he was a senior," added Maher. (Crusader of the Year, Maher explained, is someone who gives of himself, who "does the unheralded jobs.")
These conversations seem infinite. It's doubtful you could walk down a Humboldt town's street without bumping into a St. Bernie's alum. You might say St. Bernard's has produced practically a Who's Who of Humboldt County: Mark Carter of Carter House Inns. Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager. Retired Eureka High School biology teacher Dennis Cahill. Loleta Union School District principal and superintendent Jim Malloy. Eureka City Councilman Chris Kerrigan. Eureka policeman Ron Harpham. Eureka City Schools Assistant Superintendent Bob Munther. Eureka attorney Bill Bertain. Political agitator Rex Bohn.
Stepping outside of Humboldt, St. Bernard's alums in the world include: MacGregor Scott, U.S. District Attorney (best known for the terrorism trial his office prosecuted). Tim Waters, co-managing partner of perhaps the world's largest law firm, McDermott Will & Emery LLP. Former Portland city commissioner Jim Francesconi, who ran for mayor of Portland in 2004 (and lost). Tim Flynn, co-founder of the promising but ill-fated ValuJet. And Robert Ogden Barnum, now an indie film producer living in San Francisco.
Well, heck — from there it's just a hop, skip and a jump to Kevin Bacon. You know, that silly game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? But instead of connecting another actor to Bacon in as few steps as possible, we can easily connect St. Bernard's Catholic School to the guy most fondly known for his unholy fancydancing in the movie Footloose:
Seriously, though. The school is in trouble. Principal Patrick Daly (not related to the long-time Humboldt Dalys) sat in his office a couple weeks ago fielding phone calls and questions. He's been St. Bernard's principal since 2000. Blue eyed, impeccably dressed in a sharp suit and tie, and with a buzz cut and a serious gaze, Daly is quick to compliment others if they happen to be sporting a nifty pair of shoes, or a nice blazer. He seems just the sort of person to say that there needs to be a "rebranding of the school" to counter demographic, financial and social trends.
"We are not the St. Bernard's of the 1960s," Daly said. "The 1960s was the heyday of the school. You had large families that were committed to their Catholic faith, and committed to their Catholic education. Today, parents have different priorities. [St. Bernard's] is counterculture, today. So you have to focus on your faith, your strong academic curriculum, and high standards."
Nationwide, according to a report by the National Catholic Educational Association, Catholic school enrollment dropped 2.4 percent in the 2005-2006 school year — and has dropped 9.7 percent over the past 11 years, with the greatest decreases in the elementary school population. Brian Gray, with the NCEA, said last week from his D.C. office that large urban areas have suffered the greatest declines, especially in the rust belt. "And actually there has been some growth in the Far West and Southeast," Gray said. "So, it's a demographic shift." The NCEA attributes this trend to the flight to the suburbs. Overall, within the last year, 38 new Catholic schools have opened in the nation, while 223 have closed.
Schools in rural areas like Humboldt County, regardless of region, also are hurting. Humboldt County has seen a 6.5 percent annual decline in the overall population of school-age children over the past five years, said Daly. Humboldt County's overall population only grows by about 1 percent a year. "It's sad to see Eureka City Schools lose three schools," Daly said. Meanwhile, local charter schools in the county have gone from an enrollment of 17 students in 2000 to 1,400 students in 2005. Home schooling also is capturing more students.
The theme of the NCEA's National Summit, underway this week, says it all: "Endangered Species: Rural and Urban Catholic Schools." Gray said private schools really do need to focus on creating endowments, something St. Bernard's is working on. "We're well beyond Bingo and bake sales," he said.
Daly said the county also has to change. "If this county could grow by another 25,000 people" St. Bernard's would thrive, Daly said. That, in turn, would draw more companies — and prospective students — to the area because of the option in schooling. "I feel that politicians in this county really need to wake up. If you want to promote a livable wage and competitive salaries, you have to cut the red tape. Industry and the environmentalists, the conservationists, need to first agree to disagree. And, second, there needs to be compromise. Projects cannot be held up. This is a beautiful area, but you can have smart growth."
Last Monday, with graduation over, just faculty and administrators kicked around the echoey halls of St. Bernard's. Inside the multipurpose room, campus minister Craig Brown, in a jean jacket with a stars-and-stripes hand making the peace sign stitched to it, was sweeping the remains of Temperance off the hardwood floor below an empty bulletin board. He dumped the debris — staples, paper scraps — into a trash can. Throughout the school year, Brown posts the Virtue of the Month on that board. "I'm behind in my virtues," he admitted. But Temperance, from a couple months back, seems a good one to linger on. "Temperance is the virtue of the wise use of faculties and gifts we've been given by God," Brown said. "It's known as the queen of the virtues. It guides you."
Brown, a secular Franciscan who is married and has two kids, has taught at St. Bernard's since 1996. It took him awhile to find his way to St. Bernard's. For years, armed with a journalism degree, he drove a forklift and hefted two-by-fours in Fortuna. Then he returned to Humboldt State for a teaching credential. He student taught at St. Bernard's, did odd jobs, and eventually got a substitute position that became full time.
Like Principal Daly, Brown believes that Humboldt County needs to undergo some kind of metamorphosis — and that St. Bernard's is key. "I believe, in my own spirituality, that this place needs to be here," Brown said. "It's an important spiritual center for the North Coast, and I think God wants it to be here."
That isn't just a platitude. Brown calls Humboldt County "a spiritual battlefield."
"There is a darkness in Humboldt County, a spiritual darkness. It can be seen in a lot of social forces — in the high rates of substance abuse, elder abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse. And because of that, [St. Bernard's] needs to be here as a positive force. Evil is a real thing, it exists. If you believe in God, you have to believe in evil. These are very real-world things: The idea that things can be overused, that people can be so greedy and grasping that resources can be overused. That's a sign of darkness."
But if the school does close — and he doesn't think it will — he'll be there, he said. "I tell the students, if they ever lock that door, I'll be out there on the sidewalk to teach them." He paused, and laughed. "My wife will probably make me get a job."
Change doesn't come without upset. Just a few months ago, word hit the community that Daly's position had been terminated. A save-our-principal cry went up. In the end, Daly was re-instated — he said it was just a mix-up on how to go about renegotiating his contract. But there seems to be more behind that story that nobody seems willing to talk about. In the past several months, many old board members have resigned, and new ones have been chosen. "There were personality clashes," Daly said, vaguely.
And, he said, "some people don't like change. But if you look at the history of our nation, even of our world, institutions adapt to change to stay ahead of the curve. And they are always driven by their mission. And our mission is as a Roman Catholic School, loyal to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. First and foremost is faith; living by the Golden Rule; recognizing that each individual child is a gift from God; developing the quality of education; building self-esteem — especially in girls. And if we cease that mission, then we shouldn't exist."
Daly said the school's religious focus strayed over the past 30 years (ironically, under the Diocese's rule). "I think we began to move back to it in 2000," he said.
Philosophical and societal changes don't come quickly. For the near future, Daly and the Board are counting on the international student body.
"We have to become an international boarding school," Daly said, sitting at his desk on which a decorative box from Korea (a gift from a student) sat next to a white figurine of the Pieta. "It'll benefit locals by generating money for scholarships for local students. It'll provide cultural diversity to this community. It'll create more jobs — right now, we have 12 full or part-time positions associated with running the dormitory." The foreign students, meanwhile, learn American ways and values, he said.
As St. Bernard's parent Darroll Meyer, who coordinates the international student program, put it last week, "It's a world market, and they want their kids educated in English. And what better way than in a small community?"
Left, top: Korean students and tutors share a meal in St. Bernard's International Academy. Far left: Kiho kim. Left: Bo Ram "Kristine" Lee. Photos by Heidi Walters.
At noon inside the Academy on campus — in what used to be the convent — on the last day of school, several of the Korean students sat at a big table eating home-cooked Korean food. Three of them would graduate in a couple of days — a first for the young Academy. The Class of 2006's valedictorian, Yong Ju "Jennifer" Cho — who, despite being the shyest kid in the class, was talked into going to the senior prom — rushed off to prepare her speech. The other two graduating seniors talked about why their parents sent them to America, and specifically to Eureka. Bo Ram "Kristine" Lee's family first sent her to a private, non-Catholic school in San Diego. It closed down. Her father chose St. Bernard's for her new school — he knew someone whose kid went there. "I think he thinks that this county is pretty small, and he thought I could concentrate better," Lee said. "I really like it here. I like the kids here, and the teachers at school, because they pay close attention. We know each other so closely, like one family."
Kiho Kim said he would have preferred a big city, but his dad figured he'd do better in a small setting. "There are a lot of Korean people in the big city, and he kind of worried I might play too much," Kim said. Kim said he was fearful at first that he'd encounter racism in Humboldt County. "But there is nothing to worry about." Kim plans to go to UC Riverside. "I want to be a sports agent. My father is a sports fan of the L.A. Lakers, and ever since I was young I always think about that."
Lee is going to Syracuse University. Her younger brother plans to go to St. Bernard's next year. For his, and her sake, she hopes the school stays open. "I feel so sad, because my first school closed down," she said (she wore a sweatshirt that day emblazoned with that first school's name, "Fairbanks"). "So I won't have a school to go visit in the future with my kids."
Back inside St. Joseph Church, on June 8, the baccalaureate mass for the Class of 2006 drew to a close. The solemn songs, rites, lessons, presenting of the gifts and prayers were over. It was time for the concluding rites, and the Class of 2006 had a request: That everyone sing a song they had learned way back in grammar school, "All God's Creatures (Got a Place in the Choir)," by Bill Staines. The lyrics, Father Trent said, could be found at the end of each pew. And with that, the guitarist standing in the balcony behind the congregation struck up the tune.
Above: Campus minister Craig Brown. Photo by Heidi Walters.
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