Difficult end of an era

Categories: Around the Diocese

Closing of Waite Park campus of All Saints Academy blends sadness with hopes for a stronger school system

June 6, 2014, edition
By Nikki Rajala

When faculty, staff and 75 children in the St. Joseph, Waite Park, campus of All Saints Academy gathered May 30 for their end-of-year prayer service, the private closing ceremony and blessing ended an era. That campus will not be used next year.

In a nearly unanimous decision earlier this spring, the All Saints board voted to recommend the closing of the Waite Park campus.


Students at All Saints Academy in Waite Park receive a blessing from their teachers and staff during a final send-off May 30. The Waite Park building of All Saints will not be used next fall; All Saints’ remaining campuses are in St. Cloud and St. Joseph. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt for The Visitor

The decision wasn’t taken lightly, Chris Schellinger said. Schellinger, president of All Saints, added, “We asked our priests to bring Bishop Donald Kettler into this discussion. His unique perspective and experience from working on consolidation in South Dakota gave me confidence in our board’s recommendation and his approval of the decision.”

Schellinger’s position was tasked to foster growth at All Saints Academy, he said, and to increasingly work toward becoming one school. To do that, All Saints needed to make significant steps for greater stability and strength in programmatic and financial areas.

“During late winter while working on next year’s budget, we realized the enrollment needed to maintain the status quo wasn’t there — and started considering what changes would keep all three buildings open. However, using three buildings meant limiting progress in other critical areas — curriculum, compensation, professional development, technology, aspects of instruction in content areas. To grow, we needed to consolidate to two remaining campuses, in the towns of St. Joseph and St. Cloud.

Difficult decisions

“An orderly transition was difficult,” Schellinger said, “and there were no easy decisions. All were difficult. Several people chose to retire or take a sabbatical. Two of those retiring were with us for more than 40 years! We regret the upheaval in their lives. We approached decisions on staffing as objectively, as consistently and as comprehensively as possible.”

Next year, All Saints will have about 30 teachers, 15 support staff and three administrative positions. The two remaining campuses plan summer social events so children and families from the Waite Park campus can visit their new classrooms, to make their first time in the buildings easier before open house.

“All students must have access to the best curriculum,” he said. “We need to do a better job in foundational work, like identifying special needs students early, helping them in their school years and throughout their entire lives.

“Having children attend Catholic schools is a choice families make, so we have to be excellent. If the buildings and programs aren’t full, we have to ask why.”

A long tradition

Father Mark Innocenti, in his second year as pastor of the twinned parishes of St. Joseph in Waite Park and St. Michael in St. Cloud, serves as a board member of All Saints.

“Change is difficult,” Father Innocenti said, “but we want to provide for everyone as best we can, and are doing the best we can for our children, our families, our teachers and support staff. The longevity of our teachers and staff — not all are parishioners — speaks admirably.


Teacher Kelly Peltz holds back the tears surrounded by her third grade students May 30, the last day for the Waite Park campus of All Saints Academy. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt for The Visitor

“Our parishioners, even those without children in the school, appreciate the school and support it with their contributions. Generations of parishioners attended there. We’ve watched declining enrollment — in the 1970s, we had over 300 students, and sometimes 40 kids per class, in grades 1 through 8. It’s hard to let this beautiful tradition go, but we have to use resources as best we can.”

The St. Joseph School building dates back to 1920, with current additions and renovations completed in 1954 and 1959.

Financially, Father Innocenti explained, a parish takes care of its school in subsidies, so 34 percent was needed from each participating parish to support it. A parish with a school on its premises has to maintain the property and building themselves, another significant part of their responsibility.

A daycare and preschool occupy part of the first floor and continue to operate. They are licensed for twice as many as they currently serve.

How might the rest of the building be used?

“One never knows” Father Innocenti said. “We are praying about it, talking it through.”

David Eickhoff has served on the board as a representative of St. Michael’s for three years. Along with six older siblings, he attended St. Joseph School, recalling particularly his fifth and sixth grade teachers — Kathy Cziok, who later became principal, and Hugh Skaja.

“The hardest part is that not all people will come back next year,” Eickhoff said. “People who’ve had a job, next year don’t have one. The change in livelihoods is an especially hard process.”

That the decision happened quickly, he said, caused sadness or anger. Though he knew closing had been discussed since about 2007 and many realized it might eventually happen, the topic wasn’t part of any plan or conversation until very recently.

“The board and the bishop must work together to make the best area-wide plan,” Eickhoff said. “Our hope is that we will end up stronger.”

Amanda Gjerde, who served as principal at the Waite Park campus and director of curriculum, is on maternity leave. Next year she’ll be principal of the St. Cloud campus and director of curriculum.

In an email interview, she noted that classroom teachers shared news of the closing with students and offered them opportunities to ask questions and grieve.

“Experiencing a school closing is sad,” Gjerde wrote. “Over this past year I’ve worked with wonderful people. The sense of community and family I’ve experienced has been amazing. When you’ve been part of a school community like this, losing your second family is difficult.”

Terry Elliot, music and technology instructor at the Waite Park campus for 15 years, will transition into a fulltime technology instructor at both All Saints Academy campuses next year.

“My own child went here and we have close relationships with former parents, current parents, parishioners, grandparents — worshiping together creates a special time.”

Uncertainty was hardest for students, he said, wondering where their friends or teachers were going.

“Change is never easy,” he said, “especially when you’ve driven to the same place for the better part of two decades. But schools and churches are more than bricks and mortar — they’re about relationships with teachers, staff, leaders and students. We’ll continue what we do, just at a different location.

“That some people aren’t going along,” Elliot said, “is like leaving a couple of soldiers behind. We’re sad about closing and the piece of Waite Park left behind, but All Saints still offers a wonderful education. We look forward to the move ahead to build All Saints Academy.”

School president Schellinger is understandably excited about All Saints’ future.

“Over 70 percent of the students who were registered to return this next year have decided to enroll at one of our remaining two campuses!” he said. “We will keep many of our families —and we are grateful for that.”