With enrollment trending downward in both public and private schools throughout Western New York, private school closings and district consolidations have become common. However, St. Peter School in Lewiston was able to buck this trend by increasing enrollment from a population in the 70s four years ago to a total of 198 students in the 2016-17 year, necessitating renovations to the school building.
In order to ensure St. Peter's is able to meet the needs of its Niagara County community and keep class sizes small in 2017-18, the parish's leadership team has remained hard at work, forming a strategic planning board that has brought heads together to brainstorm ideas for development of both the parish and school. Pastor Msgr. David LiPuma and Principal Maureen Ingham have collectively led these efforts.
Msgr. LiPuma credited Ingham, who was hired before he was pastor, with the turnaround. "Maureen, in the two years that she was here before I came, increased the enrollment from 72 kids to 154," Msgr. LiPuma added. "When I came on board, I made it very clear that I'm a strong proponent of Catholic education, that I wanted to see our school continue to grow, that it's an integral part of our community and that I was in full support of Maureen and our faculty. Word got out in the community that we're united in our effort to make St. Peter's a strong Catholic school."
For the start of the 2016-17 year, Msgr. LiPuma recalled how substantial additions needed to be made to St. Peter's over the summer, including construction of more classrooms, a new library and media center, updated bathrooms and cafeteria, and increased access for people with disabilities. "We did interior renovations to add two classrooms and some additional space for small group meetings," he recalled.
"The parish is growing as well, and the parish is very supportive of the school through the capital funds of Upon This Rock. We were able to fund this much-needed renovation to our school," Ingham said. "Until Upon This Rock came into play, the finances weren't there. People have certainly, in our Lewiston community, rallied around Msgr. LiPuma and his leadership, and are just supporting the church and the school in a way that hasn't happened in a lot of years. We're able to do things we need to make it better for everyone."
In addition to Ingham's work, the support of the community was what helped St. Peter's to success. As he begins his fourth year as pastor of the parish, Msgr. LiPuma is working with Ingham to ensure it continues. While larger enrollment tends to cause larger class sizes, Msgr. LiPuma said the school does not plan to have two classes for each grade. Class sizes are currently around 25 students, and the parish and school have assembled a team of leaders in order to evaluate how it would be best to proceed.
"We're told that's a good, solid class size. You get too big, you need to have another aide in the room," Msgr LiPuma said of the school's current status. "(Superintendent of Catholic Schools) Sister Carol Cimino, SSJ, asked all of the schools, now, to have school boards of limited jurisdiction. We took her advice and they asked us to find community leaders, people outside, and not just parents. We put together a wonderful board of about 14 (people) in public relations, human resources ... They're all different expertise."
At the beginning of spring 2017, the board put together a strategic plan as one of its first actions. As of May, it was planning another meeting to finalize plans for growth and where the parish and school want to be over the next three years, with input from all of the men and women on the leadership team.
As the school continues to grow, LiPuma said Ingham has been dedicated, setting up open houses and encouraging parents and children to tour the school. He felt word of mouth also contributed to its success. "Everybody talks here. They all kind of know each other," said Msgr. LiPuma. "That's really been the impetus, and we've got some outstanding teachers that people have had great faith in over the years, who are still here, and we've also got new teachers who have come in, who have brought new energy."
In an interview the Western New York Catholic conducted last August, Ingham noted how parishioners of all ages were "so excited for the school and us," including those with adult children who had already graduated from the school or those with grandchildren currently enrolled there. "We're one. We are not a separate school and a separate church. We are one, unified community, and it's awesome," Ingham commented. "I think that's why our population in the school is growing. People are feeling that feeling."