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Two Million Dollar Donation Answers Prayers At St. Augustine


October 02, 2011

HARTFORD —— Older generations remember when nearly a thousand children attended St. Augustine School in the city's South End, a brick capsule of Catholic memories since its founding on Clifford Street in 1927.

That heyday lasted through the 1960s. By 2009, after a decline that school officials say accelerated with the recent recession and the rise of magnet schools, enrollment at St. Augustine dropped to 185 students.

Early this year came a breaking point: Only 80 or so children were enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"I was concerned," Archbishop Henry J. Mansell said, "because I know the great work that goes on."

Some worried that the school was a goner. Mansell prayed. And in March, a "highly unusual" offer was presented to him. A man wanted to bestow a large sum to the Hartford Archdiocese, but sought the archbishop's guidance on where it should go.

"He wanted to see what could be done," Mansell said. The man listened. A day later, the gift was final.

Mansell called Superintendent Dale R. Hoyt, who oversees the archdiocese's 63 schools in Hartford, New Haven and Litchfield counties. "I told him to sit down, wherever he was," Mansell said. "We had very good news."

Mansell also phoned St. Augustine's principal, Cynthia Niedbala, and told her that an anonymous person had made a "substantial" donation specifically for the school.

Niedbala eventually learned the amount: $2 million.

"Just unbelievable," Niedbala said. "Unbelievable. We were speechless. It was shocking and wonderful."

When Niedbala came to St. Augustine in 2009, Mansell assured her that the school would stay open. Alumni still contribute tens of thousands of dollars for improvements, such as a recent push to replace the building's aged windows. The archdiocese also provides a subsidy to parish schools, but funding is limited.

Without the mega-donation, Niedbala said, delicately, "I think some serious decisions would've had to be made."

David Larson, a retired Middletown school superintendent who is vice chairman of the archdiocese's board of education, said the declining enrollment pointed to Hartford being left with only one Catholic school instead of two. The other is Sts.Cyril and Methodius on Groton St.

"For a parochial school, you have to have around 200 students to be a viable operation," Larson said. St. Augustine "had become a school in danger of being closed."

Larson called the gift no less than a "godsend. It's a miracle."

What has unfolded at St. Augustine is being called The Renaissance Project.

In a matter of months, enrollment has more than doubled to 202 students, many of whom receive tuition assistance.

The school day lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., an extension of more than two hours. A pre-kindergarten program was reinstated and includes 30 children who are age 4. The kindergarten expanded from 15 to 30 students, and this year, there are enough children to have a first-grade class again.

For the first time since the 1970s, St. Augustine has a music program and is waiting to start a 60-member band — now a required activity for students in fourth grade and up — once more instruments arrive, Niedbala said.

A new Spanish program with Rosetta Stone software is also in the works to teach students, many of whom are Hispanic, not only to speak the language but to read and write.

The instruction of Latin ended this year, Niedbala said. "The goal is to create literate, bilingual children… We are moving forward with the Spanish."

Most parishioners at St. Augustine Church in the city's Barry Square are Spanish-speaking — the Hispanic Mass on Sundays is always standing-room only. And so when the church and school made a push for outreach and recruiting with the donated money, they hired Carmen E. Rodriguez, a parishioner whose 30-year-old daughter attended the school as a child.

Rodriguez became the school's bilingual admissions coordinator in the spring and soon began a campaign that marketed St. Augustine School on Spanish-language radio, newspapers and 30-second spots on the TV networks Telemundo and Univision. Lawn signs were staked throughout Hartford, as far as the West Hartford and Windsor town lines.

Rodriguez went to local parishes, giving a brief presentation during services and setting up a table to talk to families after Mass. In Latin America, sending a child to a private Catholic school can be considered prestigious.

Parents knew about St. Augustine School, Rodriguez said, "but they thought it was totally out of their reach, financially."

There were those who realized they could afford the annual tuition, which is $3,400 for parishioners and an extra $100 for those who are not. Many others receive financial aid, although all pay at least a token amount to enroll at the school.

The new students include those from families originally from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia and Peru, Niedbala said. Most live in Hartford, but the school also has students from New Britain, East Hartford, Manchester, Windsor, Bloomfield and West Hartford, plus non-Catholics.

"We are hoping that through this grant, we'll see some sustainability," Hoyt said of the $2 million. School officials said a next step is to form partnerships with businesses and seek other outside funding to keep the school revived beyond five years.

Already, they said, the Renaissance Project has had an extra impact: Parents revisiting their own faith.

"Perhaps they've been away from the Catholic Church for some time," Niedbala said. "Now that their children are coming into a Catholic school, they want… to know more strongly of what the Catholic faith is about so they can share in the education of their child. They can participate in the sacraments of the Catholic Church. They can participate in the church itself."

This weekend, Rodriguez said, one family planned to baptize three young children, one of whom is a student.

Mansell said he picked St. Augustine for this "real blessing" because it is an inner-city school that needed the most help. The archbishop has kept the donor, whose identity is being kept secret, updated on the school's progress.

"We're just delighted that the children can benefit from this," Mansell said. "And the families and the whole neighborhood. It makes a big difference."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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