In September of 1953, the doors to Good Shepherd Catholic School in Camp Hill opened for the first time. Through the more than 65 years since then, the school has seen thousands of students pass through its doors. As was announced this week, Good Shepherd Catholic School will permanently suspend grades first through eighth this month. After a time of transition, an early learning academy for pre-K and kindergarten students will open in 2021.
Father Neil S. Sullivan, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, said this decision was made after considerable effort, discussion and prayer. Decreasing enrollment and the financial stress it brings, along with the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, left the parish with little choice.
“This is not something we planned to do or wanted to do,” said Father Sullivan. “However, it is something we need to do given our current situation and challenges beyond our control. This decision affects us all in many ways. I share the disappointment it brings. Our immediate priority is to assist our students in transitioning to other schools and support our faculty and staff in finding new positions.”
Father Sullivan explained that the school has been faced with declining enrollment and increasing operating deficits for several years. The school has experienced a 43% decline in enrollment since 2016. In March of this year, 152 students were enrolled for the 2020/21 school year. As of May 28, this number had declined to just 82.
“In fairness to families, students, teachers, staff, and parishioners, our responsibility to make sure the entire parish is strong and secure for the future, and after final consultation with the Diocese and our parish advisory groups, we have had to come to a decision at this juncture so that plans can be made for the future,” added Father Sullivan.
Parish and school leadership have worked with a taskforce during the past several months to develop a plan to prevent the suspension. Unfortunately, the decline in enrollment left the parish with no other options, explained Father Sullivan. Making the difficult decision to suspend the school’s operation will better position the parish to provide for the spiritual, physical and educational needs of its families moving forward.
Looking to the Future
“Good Shepherd Catholic School has changed the lives of countless people in the Harrisburg Region since its founding in 1953. We can’t forget the rich history of this school, and the thousands of children who have passed through its doors,” said Michael Pietropola, school principal.
Pietropola has been working with Father Sullivan and other members of the parish and school to transition Good Shepherd Catholic School into an early learning facility.
“We have our eye on January 2021 and the launching of the Early Learning Academy at Good Shepherd School. It will offer programs for three and four year olds as well as Kindergarten in a Catholic environment with exceptional opportunities and resources,” said Father Sullivan. “Mr. Mike Pietropola is already exploring how we can serve our parishioners as well as those from other parishes and the local community with an engaging, empowering and creative environment for young learners.”
Father Sullivan added that based on enrollment numbers for next school year, 26 of the 82 registrations are in the pre-K and kindergarten grades.
“We will take the next six months to plan and prepare for what we see as the next step in the mission of Catholic education at Good Shepherd based on our history and the current needs of the parish and local community,” said Father Sullivan.
“I was sad to see the news of the 1-8 grades ceasing to operate,” said Marty Kearney, a parishioner of Good Shepherd. “A phrase from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 9:17, comes to mind when I think of the school. Jesus said, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” This speaks to the unique opportunity our parish and school faces – that the school facility can be transformed into not only the early learning academy, but to also be a center for religious education of the parish at large. It can be a great place for youth activities, for adult education, and for families. I know that Good Shepherd is up to this challenge.”
As preparations are made to suspend the school’s operation, parish and school leadership will work closely with the Diocesan Office of Catholic Schools to support staff members and to assist families who wish to continue their Catholic education at neighboring Catholic schools.
“I am grateful to everyone who is part of our school. Our parishioners provide an incredible building for God’s children to learn and share yearly support for its mission and operation. Our faculty and staff give their all. Our parents sacrifice and partner with us. Our students not only learn, but they teach us. This next chapter will continue Good Shepherd’s amazing legacy of Catholic education and faith formation by focusing on God’s littlest ones,” said Father Sullivan.
Good Shepherd Parish was founded on May 28, 1951, by Bishop George L. Leech. Two years later, on September 1, 1953, the school opened its doors for the first time. Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were the first teachers at the school. Four Sisters taught more than 130 students in four classrooms. In 1957, five more classrooms were added to the school. Just five years later in 1962, an additional six classrooms were added to the school and enrolment had grown to 627 students.
The school and parish continued to grow and in 2003, Bishop Nicholas Dattilo gave permission for Good Shepherd to construct a parish hall and a new education center. The groundbreaking for the education center took place on May 20, 2006. The current Good Shepherd Parish Education Center was blessed by Bishop Kevin Rhoades on August 12, 2007.
To learn more about Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, including its future plans for the school program, please visit www.thegoodshep.org.
(Witness file photos by Chris Heisey.)
By Rachel Bryson, M.S., The Catholic Witness