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St. Mary’s Catholic School, which has operated across the street from the state Capitol since the early 1900s, will consolidate with two other Catholic schools in central Lincoln next year, a solution to ongoing financial struggles for the three schools.

The 128 students at St. Mary’s, 1434 K St., will attend school at Blessed Sacrament, 1720 Lake St., and Sacred Heart, 3128 S St., beginning next fall, the Diocese of Lincoln announced Friday. The change will not affect St. Mary’s parish.

This is the first time in memory a Catholic school in Lincoln has closed, though the Diocese of Lincoln, which covers much of Southeast Nebraska, has closed schools in Lawrence and Fairbury because so few students still attended, said Father Nicholas Kipper, director of communications for the diocese.

“While this decision was difficult, it was made to ensure that St. Mary students continue to receive an affordable Catholic education, just in a different place,” Bishop James Conley said in a prepared statement. “I pray it will bring our school communities closer together, and that it will make all of us stronger and more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.”

The schools at Sacred Heart, Blessed Sacrament and St. Mary’s — all of which serve a large percentage of low-income students — have struggled financially for some time.

The parishes have chosen to keep tuition low and have offered scholarships or waived tuition for families that want their children to attend but can’t afford it. 

St. Mary’s has struggled the longest — for more than two decades, said St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Douglas Dietrich, a function largely of changing demographics and a growing city. 

“It’s certainly no failure of the generosity of the people,” Dietrich said. “We don’t have the families or the income in the area that we used to.”

About 65 percent of St. Mary's students are eligible for the free- and reduced-lunch program, a major gauge of poverty at schools.

As Lincoln has grown, more parishes have opened on the outskirts of town, essentially land-locking those such as St. Mary’s; and many families have moved away from the central part of town, Dietrich said. Enrollment is low at all three schools, he said.

The families of nearly three-fourths of the students who attend St. Mary’s are members of Cristo Rey Parish, which serves Spanish-speaking parishioners, and Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, which both serve Vietnamese-speaking parishioners. Those parishes don’t have schools.

St. Mary's has begun some innovative programs and gotten some national attention in recent years. A math curriculum uses University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering students as mentors to coach middle-school students. And last year, St. Mary’s was one of several Nebraska schools U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited as part of a national tour.

But in recent years, St. Mary’s has kept the school open by going into debt, Dietrich said.

“This decision was not made in haste,” Conley said. “Consolidation is a decision that can only be made with a heavy heart, and after completing a great deal of research.”

That research dates back to 1995, the work of committees and task forces involving priests, educators, lay persons and paid consultants, Diocesan officials said.

The Diocese of Lincoln hired the consulting firm Meitler in 2013 to conduct a study and propose a five-year strategic plan for the diocesan schools. Meitler’s study cited five schools operating at a financial deficit: St. Mary's, Sacred Heart, Blessed Sacrament, St. Patrick’s,  and St. John the Baptist in Plattsmouth.

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The consolidation will help boost enrollment at Sacred Heart and Blessed Sacrament, and two other schools have come up with sustainability plans, Kipper said.

In recent weeks, Sacred Heart appealed to its families, saying the church needed to raise $100,000 each year for the next three years to keep the school going.

The Rev. Leo Kosch said since he made that appeal, Sacred Heart families, parents of students, alumni and donors from the wider community made pledges exceeding that goal — more than $150,000 a year, which he said school administrators will stretch to last four or five years.

The appeal stemmed from the strategic-planning process, Kosch said.

“It’s nothing we didn’t see already four years ago when we started strategic planning,” he said. “It got to the point where it became clear we needed to make a special appeal if we are going to keep functioning.”

Parishes in the Lincoln Diocese have traditionally supported their schools, but that’s been difficult in recent years, Kosch said.

More than 60 percent of Sacred Heart students are eligible for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. Because of that, tuition is $700 a year, although per-student cost is about $5,500, Kosch said. The parishes that send students to Sacred Heart contribute some money, he said, and a major benefactor has also helped keep the school afloat and will continue to do so, he said.

Diocesan officials will work with St. Mary’s school staff — more than 25 teachers and other employees — and make every effort to allow them to continue working within the Catholic school system if they want to do so, the news release said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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