St. Helen’s School in southeast Fresno will close its doors at the end of the school year after 60 years of teaching children in the community.
The school, which has faced declining enrollment, has struggled over the last seven years to cover the cost of employee benefits, incurring about $850,000 in debt to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which has been covering the cost, said Mona Faulkner, superintendent of Catholic schools.
In December 2015, Bishop Armando Ochoa forgave $350,000 of the amount to help the school, but “they are unable to pay their benefits again and so that number has risen to almost $600,000,” Faulkner said. The school also asked for help from St. Helen’s parish, next door to the school. The parish did help for a time, but can’t any longer.
“A school has to be able to make payroll and benefits, that’s the very least it has to do,” Faulkner added. “If the school is unable again to make payroll we would have to close the school immediately. That would be so bad.”
News of the looming school closure hit the Fuentes family of Clovis hard when it was announced on Friday. Ross Fuentes’ 9-year-old twins, Matthew and Madeline, are in the fourth grade. His older son, now a sophomore at San Joaquin Memorial, also attended St. Helen’s.
“We certainly knew there was some financial struggles the school was facing coming into this school year, however, with increased fundraising efforts, we thought we would be able to stay afloat,” Fuentes said.
A school has to be able to make payroll and benefits, that’s the very least it has to do.
Mona Faulkner, superintendent of Catholic schools
The school held monthly fundraisers – a carnival, a dinner auction and a golf tournament – in the fall to help cover the portion of the school budget that tuition did not pay for. The next fundraiser was scheduled for this month.
“My daughter is taking it harder. She’s more emotional,” Fuentes said. “My son, of course, is upset too, but he’s wondering what’s next. He wants to have some assurance that there is gong to be something else…Neither wants to leave the school. This is a tight-knit family community. It’s unfortunate that something like this has to occur.”
St. Helen’s, on Belmont Avenue near Chestnut Avenue, has eight to nine classroom teachers, teacher’s aides, two office employees, a preschool director, a principal and other staff. It can accommodate 325 students, but this year’s enrollment stands at 202 students, Faulkner said.
Teachers would be given first priority to apply for open positions at other Fresno-area Catholic schools. Students will also be able to transfer to one of three remaining elementary schools: Our Lady of Victory in central Fresno, St. Anthony’s in northwest Fresno or Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Clovis.
St. Helen’s would be the area’s latest Catholic school to close as enrollment falls and neighborhoods around the old schools change. Sacred Heart closed in 2013 and Queen of the Valley Academy, a high school, closed in 1972.
“We’re really sorry. It’s very hard,” Faulkner said. “We wanted the school to succeed, but we can’t run up these debts.”
This is a tight-knit family community. It’s unfortunate that something like this has to occur.
Ross Fuentes, parent
St. Helen’s opened in September 1953 as a mission school serving children in grades one through five. It was operated by the Holy Cross Sisters for a year then by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Kindergarten and sixth grade were added in 1953 and the mission receive parish status in 1955.
The campus continued to grow in the following decades with the construction of permanent classrooms, an administration building, and the addition of eighth grade. Buildings to house kindergarten, a preschool program and a computer lab came next and a state-of-the-art building was built in 2007 with a fireplace reading area, skylights and computer system to catalog books.
Parents are asking the community for donations to help the school stay open. Donations can be made to a PayPal account through the school website.