In-Depth

After 77 Years In Greater Third Ward, St. Peter The Apostle Catholic School Will Close This Week

Students and teachers say what’s hardest about losing St. Peter’s is the service it provided to primarily African American students for decades.

Julie Cook, who teaches eight children in her pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes, said that she is encouraging her students to transfer to other Catholic schools, like St. Mary of the Purification near Texas Southern University.

Every day, at the start of school, at lunch and at dismissal, all 33 students at St. Peter the Apostle from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade pray together.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen,” a group of kindergarten students recite, as they lead the prayers over the P.A.

But at the end of the month, students will say their prayers here one last time. It won’t just be the end of the school year. It will be the end of St. Peter’s — the Catholic school is closing after 77 years.

It’s a painful goodbye for many families with ties to the school that’s nestled between the Texas Medical Center and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Norma Huger’s granddaughter, now in kindergarten, has attended St. Peter’s for two years.

“And she loves school because of this school. She loves school because of her teacher and the staff that’s here,” Huger said.

Huger herself loves St Peter’s because of traditions like the chess team and basketball games against bigger, wealthier private schools. As she describes it: “These kids almost twice the size of the kids here. And they beat the pants off of them!”

So for the Archdiocese of Houston Galveston to close St Peter’s, Huger is still coming to grips with the decision.

“I still do not understand why numbers are more important than success. I don’t understand that,” she said.

The superintendent over the archdiocese’s schools, Debra Haney, said that a lot of the decision came down to financial pressure. It’s also a reflection of the toll that charter schools have put on not just public schools, but also parochial schools like St. Peter’s.

“The decision to close St. Peter’s came through a lot of research and prayer and thought,” Haney said. “Primarily, it became a financial issue.”

She said that over the last five years, enrollment has declined by more than 70%. Tuition brings in between $1,000 and $3,000 per student. Donations and subsidies from the archdiocese help, and about a third of the parish budget supports the school. But Haney said it wasn’t enough sustain the $1 million budget.

“To continue to be able to afford to keep the school open was becoming an impossibility,” Haney said.

Students say they found St. Peter to be fun and some enjoyed having small classes.

The principal, Toni Marshall, and St. Peter’s pastor, Father Faustinus Okeyikam, tried to recruit more students. They visited other churches, put out ads in the Texas Medical Center’s magazine and even went knocking door to door in the neighborhood.

But it proved difficult. Take first and second grades: Combined, they have two students. That’s very different from when St. Peter’s was at its peak in the 1960’s with up to 600 students.

Where have all the students gone?

“I would be the first one to tell you that I believe that charter schools have impacted enrollment in Catholic schools. Without a doubt,” said Haney, the superintendent.

Today there are at least five charter schools within three miles of St Peter’s. Recently, YES Prep opened up a middle school to the south. And they’re all free since they’re public schools, funded with tax dollars.

“If people feel that they can get quality without paying, that’s that’s what people do,” said Huger. She plans to keep her granddaughter in the Catholic school system next year.

It’s hard to track how many students have left for charter schools. Still, data from the Houston Independent School District, which is dealing with its own enrollment issues, shows that nearly 400 students zoned for the neighborhood’s Cullen Middle School choose to attend charter schools instead, including KIPP, YES Prep and the Lawson Academy.

And when students at St. Peter’s are asked where they’re heading, charters come up fast.

“I’m gonna go to a charter school called Nehemiah,” said fifth grader Clara Caesar. “I feel good about that. I mean, I know mostly everybody there.”

Students and teachers say what’s hardest about losing St. Peter’s is the service it provided to primarily African American students for decades.

Students and teachers say what’s hardest about losing St. Peter’s is the service it provided to primarily African American students for decades. That’s what principal Toni Marshall heard when she posted the news on Facebook.

“One’s reaction was, ‘Oh no, you know, how sad another African-American Catholic school is closing!”

In fact, the archdiocese merged St. Peter’s with another predominantly black parochial school, St. Philip of Neri in Sunnyside, when it closed in 2009. And as early education instructor, Julie Cook, said, St. Peter’s became a close-knit community, where most families know each other.

“When you think of a lot of the African-American inner-city schools, the first one you think of is St. Peter’s, so it’s sad,” Cook said.

The principal, Marshall, hopes the closing will turn into a blessing. The archdiocese may reopen the campus as a career and technical high school. The superintendent said that idea is still in the research phase, but they are consulting with local business leaders and looking to a high school in Philadelphia that’s the only co-ed Catholic vocational high school in the country, so far.

“Although I was upset, that was the glimmer of hope,” Marshall said. “That something much better could still come back and it would be still renamed or named again St. Peter’s.”

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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