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Community angry over planned closing of St. Raymond School in East Rockaway

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Anne Petraro’s mother painted the murals inside St. Raymond School in East Rockaway. Her grandparents ran an annual carnival there. She attended school there, as did her aunts and uncles, and her son, Joseph, 7, is in second grade there.

For 42 years, the building has played an integral part in Petraro’s life and provided the backdrop for many memories she still cherishes. But the tradition will soon end: The Diocese of Rockville Centre announced that the school will close in June.

“I’m devastated,” Petraro said, noting that she graduated from eighth grade there in 1992. “It was my whole childhood. All my best friends were from St. Raymond. It’s such a strong foundation.”

She added that she was upset because if members of the school community knew how dire the situation was before the announcement of the closure, they would have done all they could to keep the school open.

On March 16, the diocese released a letter announcing the planned closures of St. Raymond and St. Thomas the Apostle School, in West Hempstead, citing financial issues and declining enrollment. The letter noted that enrollment was decreasing before the coronavirus pandemic, but the health crisis exacerbated the problem.

“We are deeply saddened by the closing of these two elementary schools,” said Sean Dolan, the diocese’s director of communications. “The Diocese of Rockville Centre thanks the dedicated and committed principals and teachers . . . who have taught in these schools.”

Students from both schools will be welcomed into any Catholic elementary school in the diocese, but many parents said they were not prepared to have their children switch schools. According to the letter, school leaders and the team at the State Department of Education will assist parents and students in selecting, and transferring to, a new school.

St. Raymond was founded in 1927 and became a fixture in East Rockaway for decades, but the school experienced a 49 percent decline in enrollment. The parish provided more than $1 million to sustain operations and keep the school running, but the parish could no longer support the school, which had 130 students enrolled for 2020-21.

But long-time supporters like Petraro said they would have done all they could to help if they knew the school was set to close, and she also expressed uncertainty over what would come of the building. She added that many youth organizations rely on St. Raymond to house their activities.

“We’re all trying to brainstorm on if we can raise money, but we also were like what do we do?” she said. “We’ve gotten no answers. If we do raise money, where does it go? We have so many great ideas, but we’re kind of blindsided because we don’t know what’s happening.”

In search of answers, a group of parents and students attended Mass on Sunday at St. Agnes Catholic Cathedral in Rockville Centre in the hope of speaking with Bishop John Barres, but he was not there.

Dolan declined to comment further on behalf of the diocese in response to community outcry, while calls to the school were not returned at press time.

John Gaffney Jr., a St. Raymond seventh-grader, wrote a letter to the diocese, urging officials to save the school and adding that he had one year left in his education there.

“Before Covid-19, you used to have a Mass before Catholic Schools Week,” he wrote. “You had everyone stand up from previous generations who went to our school. That won’t happen anymore, and I won’t be able to stand up when my kids should be sitting on that altar.”

Frank Boccio, who also graduated in 1992, said that his heartache is two-fold, as it would hurt him as an alumnus to see the school shutter, but also as a parent of a student enrolled there. His daughter, Julia, 6, is a first-grader at the school.

“It played a very instrumental role in my life and in laying a core foundation of morals and ethics, so much so that I decided to send my daughter there,” he said. “. .. We didn’t really have a chance to help out the school.”

Boccio said he wished the administration had contacted parents in previous years so that they could support the school, and called the letter about the closure a “slap in the face” to  residents.

Jean Warner said two of her sons, Patrick, 16, and Thomas, 14, graduated from St. Raymond and now attend Chaminade High School, and her son, Francis, 9, is in fourth grade at the school.

“We were really surprised and devastated, and then upset,” Warner said. “We weren’t given an opportunity to reverse course and try to save things or change it. Enrollment has been steadily declining, and a lot of suggestions and appeals from parents to try to improve things fell on deaf ears.”

School parents also wrote a letter to the diocese on March 17, expressing their disappointment with the closure and requesting that they merge with Our Lady of Peace in Lynbrook or Our Lady of Lourdes in Malverne, writing that they “don’t want to see the children suffer for the mistakes of others and would like an opportunity to save the school.”

Though many community members said they hope to reverse the decision before it is too late, they also realize that it may be impossible.

“There are about 130 kids in St. Raymond,” Petraro said. “That’s a lot of families affected. You just can’t do that to a community.”