St. Joseph Academy, the oldest private school in Lakeland, will close permanently this week, according to a letter to parents. The school, which was begun in 1938 under the auspices of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lakeland, appears to be another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Friday announcement stunned families of the school’s approximately 185 students in grades K-8 and has sparked a movement to reverse the decision.

“The teachers are so loving to the students. The church has taken that away,” said Anna McNeill, who is leading the Save St. Joseph Academy effort. “There was no warning. We were completely blindsided.”

St. Joseph Academy, 310 Frank Lloyd Wright Way

According to the letter sent to students’ families, the pandemic caused “a serious impact” on next fall’s enrollment. (Read the full letter.)

“In collaboration with the leadership of the (Diocese of Orlando) Office of Catholic Schools, I have made the decision to merge St. Joseph Academy with our existing elementary schools in Polk County: Resurrection Catholic School in Lakeland, St. Anthony Catholic School in Lakeland, St. Joseph Catholic School in Winter Haven, and the Neumann Early Learning Academy in Lakeland,” said the letter, which was signed by the Very Rev. Timothy LaBo, pastor of St. Joseph Church and dean of the diocese’s Western Deanery. “This decision did not occur without serious study and consideration of all other alternatives.”

McNeill, whose 6-year-old son, Clyde, is a first-grader at St. Joseph, has created a Facebook page with more than 260 followers and started a petition drive through that has 500 signatures. She said parents had no idea the school was in difficulty.

Anna and Clyde McNeill

“We had zero communication from Father Tim, the diocese or the school that the school was struggling,” she said. “Everyone has been left hanging. The main problem is not having any answers.”

McNeill, a member of St. Joseph Catholic Church, said at mass on Sunday there was no mention of the letter or the school’s closing.

Henry Fortier, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Orlando, said the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw for the struggling academy, which has a $5.5 million mortgage on the property of the former Southside Baptist Church on Frank Lloyd Wright Way, where the school moved in 2009.

“I’ve been superintendent for nine years, and when I arrived, there was concern about St. Joseph Academy,” he said by phone on Monday.

There were plans to resolve the school’s financial problems, including returning it to the grounds of St. Joseph Church, he said.

“The goal was to move to an older building on Lemon Street where the parish is. We hired a new principal for next year. But nobody knew how bad the pandemic would be.”

Fortier said the school’s enrollment had already dipped in the past two years, and the uncertainty created by the pandemic caused parents to wait before registering their children for next fall. A large mortgage payment is due in October, and $1.5 million would be needed for renovation of the building on Lemon Street, he said.

“There was no way out unless someone gave us three or four million dollars,” he said.

A sign outside the school office congratulates this year’s graduates.

Fortier acknowledged the announcement had caught people off guard.

“There wasn’t a lot of time. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t even hold a town hall meeting,” he said, adding that further information would be sent to families soon.

McNeill said the explanation that the decision was based on lack of enrollment “does not make sense” because most families would have tuition covered through the State of Florida’s Step Up for Students scholarship program. But Fortier said that while Step Up scholarships cover a child’s tuition of about $7,000 per year, it does not cover all costs, which run about $13,000 per child and are subsidized by the parish.

“The goal is to continue Catholic education for our families in a strong way but don’t bankrupt the parish in the process,” he said.

McNeill said part of the confusion parents face is trying to find another school for their children.

“Resurrection (Catholic School) is the closest for us, but there have been rumors that it is full and can’t accept any students next year,” she said.

Fortier said that is not true.

“I did an analysis before we made this decision to make sure the other schools could accommodate the families,” he said.

According to its website, St. Joseph Academy was started in 1938, making it the oldest private school still operating in Lakeland. It was administered and run by Franciscan nuns until 1987, when it was turned over to lay leadership. Fortier said its closure would mark the first time the Diocese of Orlando has had to close any of its 42 schools.

If St. Joseph Academy does not reopen, it would join a number of Catholic schools around the country that have been hit hard by decades of financial difficulty compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. Within the past few weeks, dioceses have announced permanent closures of schools, some of them historic.

The Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore, founded more than 170 years ago and the alma mater of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, announced its closure this month. The Diocese of Newark, N.J., said it would close 10 schools, and dioceses from New York to California also have announced closures.

As many as 100 Catholic schools nationwide may close their doors, according to a recent report in the Huffington Post.

McNeill and her allies are determined that St. Joseph Academy doesn’t meet the same fate, directing a letter and email campaign to Fortier and Diocese of Orlando Bishop John Noonan.

“I have hopes. I can’t explain why I feel that way. I feel like I’m being guided by God,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “A lot of people are praying for a miracle.”

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