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St. Paul community mourns 'heartbreaking' changes to Catholic grade school

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An empty classroom at St. Mark's Catholic School.
An empty classroom at St. Mark's Catholic School on Saturday. The church plans to close its K-8 school.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

Gene Thill cleans his old classrooms inside St. Mark's Catholic School. 

He returned to work as a custodian at the century-old grade school in St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood a couple years ago. He loves the place.

Gene Thill is a custodian and former student of Saint Mark's
Gene Thill is a custodian and former student of St. Mark's Catholic School.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

"This was my sixth grade classroom," Thill said while giving a tour of the school. "We learned breaking down sentences, verbs and adverbs."

But starting next year, most of that learning will stop at St. Mark's. Declining enrollment forced the school to close kindergarten through eighth grade, leaving only the preschool. Seventeen staff and faculty members will lose their jobs. 

The news over the weekend set off a period of mourning for many in the school community. 

"I started actually in third grade here and it's been my life, the school and the parish," said Patricia Hartshorn, 78, who grew up across the street. "So it's just heartbreaking to me that they're closing it."

  Hartshorn's four children, plus a niece who lived with her, all attended St. Mark's.

Patricia Hartshorn poses for a portrait in Saint Mark's Catholic School
Patricia Hartshorn poses for a portrait in St. Mark's Catholic School on Saturday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

"When I went, the classrooms were just full," Hartshorn said. "You might have even, in some classes, 45 kids. And when my kids went here that was totally different. They didn't have that many kids."

The school says 425 students were enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade in 1998. Enrollment continued dropping over the next two decades. 

This year, the school has 90 students. Thirty-two students were signed up for next year's classes. 

Drew Nowak, a parish trustee, said church finances got to the point where offering kindergarten through eighth grade wasn't possible. 

"We just couldn't make the numbers work with 30-some students," he said, noting that interest in the preschool program is increasing. 

School leaders say they see the $5,000 to $6,000 tuition, shrinking family sizes and higher housing costs  as factors behind the declining enrollment.

"Young families can't afford it," Hartshorn said. "They look for houses here and they say they just can't afford it because they've got kids to raise and the houses just are big."

Thill said the school's shrinking takes something away from the neighborhood, and the city. 

"I think it loses its heart a bit, you know," he said. "It just don't seem the same."