Philo school restructuring next year to meet challenges

PHILO — Though summer break is still three months away, the community of St. Thomas School is looking ahead to important changes next fall that will address the challenges of rising costs and declining student enrollment.

The changes are part of a new strategic plan that includes a restructuring of classrooms, reducing the number of school staff and adding a preschool program.

“The need for the changes is basically a lack of students,” said Msgr. James Ramer, pastor of St. Thomas Parish.

Student enrollment at St. Thomas has declined in recent years. Last year the school had 88 students. This year it has 79.

Tuition covers less than half the cost per student. That created a $125,000 hole in this year’s school budget that fundraisers and the parish’s Sunday collection are not able to fill, Msgr. Ramer said.

In response to these challenges, Msgr. Ramer and Anita Crain, principal of St. Thomas School, developed a strategic plan with the advice and assistance of the parish’s finance council and education commission.

Also assisting were Brother William Dygert, CSC, diocesan superintendent of schools, Jerry Sanderson, assistant diocesan superintendent, Msgr. Mark Merdian, pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish in Champaign, and former St. Thomas pastors Father Stephen Willard and Father David Heinz.

The plan finds a place in the draft of the long-range plan for Catholic schools unveiled by the Diocese of Peoria on Feb. 7. That draft recommends that the school needs aggressive marketing to increase enrollment, must improve retention of students from sixth to seventh grades, and should implement its strategic plan.

Three teaching positions will be eliminated under the plan. The first and second grades will be consolidated under a single teacher, as will the third and fourth grades and the seventh and eighth grades. The fifth and sixth grades are already combined.

The restructured classes will have a maximum of 19 students. St. Thomas will employ a physical education teacher, a music teacher, a math teacher and a resource teacher as part-time staff. The school does not plan to increase its tuition.

After restructuring classes, St. Thomas will have space to offer a preschool program this fall for children ages 3 and 4.

The next step in the strategic plan, Msgr. Ramer said, is for the parish’s education commission to explore ways to encourage Catholic families in the Philo area to choose Catholic education.

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