Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Andrew Letellier just started his teaching career as seventh-grade teacher at St. Mary Star of the Sea School in Astoria.
Clarice KeatingASTORIA — For the coastal community here, St. Mary Star of the Sea School has always been around to provide a Catholic education. For 115 years the school has been filled with students. Admittedly there have been tough financial times in the past, but the doors have stayed open.
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However, in winter 2009, it was announced that more than $40,000 in parish funds had been mishandled. This loss, paired with the economic downturn and high unemployment rates in the coastal town, had newspapers reporting that the school was perilously close to closing.
That was the climate when Principal Tom Rogozinski and Father Ken Sampson arrived at the parish in July 2009. They had never met. They showed up on the same day, with a tough road ahead.
“In the past 12 months, 175 Catholic schools have closed, a significant number of them in rural communities,” Father Sampson said.
For this parish, support for the school has become the No. 1 priority, he said. Star of the Sea is the only Catholic school on the coast from the state of Washington all the way south to Northern California. Students travel from nearby coastal towns and farther inland to seek out the program, which Father Sampson said balances on three pillars: Catholic identity, community service and academic excellence.
“We are on the precipice, and we are trying to make the most of our opportunity,” he said. “We need the support of people who recognize the value of a Catholic education.”
Rogozinksi came from an administrator post at a Catholic school in Gallup, N.M., where he’d also needed to use creative, resourceful strategies to approach education.
As soon as he arrived, it was clear Rogozinski would have to cut staff.
“They were people I’d never met in my life and I had to decide who was essential,” he said.
Since that rocky start, the principal has spent the past year compiling information and coming up with a strategy to find a long-term sustainable plan to professionalize the school and provide optimum stability.
“We’re in the perfect storm,” Father Sampson said. “Running rural Catholic schools even in the best of economies is a challenge. Combining the national economy and recent troubles, it’s a load, but we’re walking by faith. I believe everybody’s got the most positive foot forward.”
Father Sampson and Rogozinksi share core values in running a parish and school with transparency and accountability, the principal said.
“How you turn these things around is to try to get the best people on board and give them the resources they need to do their job exceptionally well,” he said. “And keep reminding them how magical this profession can be.”
One step was to reopen a pre-kindergarten, or early childhood education program, which opened this year at full capacity with 16 students.
Another new development was the assignment of a seminarian, Mark Bentz, to the parish. He will divide his time between the church and the school.
“I’ve only been here a few days, but I can tell this is a community that does everything they can to support the school,” Bentz said. “You can see it in the people who come to the daily Mass; the school is a vital part of the community.”
Finally, Rogozinski arranged for the school to collaborate with the University of Portland’s Pacific Alliance for Catholic Education program, which assigns enthusiastic young teachers to underserved Catholic schools in the Pacific Northwest.
Three teachers, who are provided UP’s professional development as they work toward master’s degrees, will spend two school years at Star of the Sea.
Rogozinski said the excitement over the changes is palpable.
“We think we have maintained enrollment in the face of inertia going the other way,” he said.
The principal and the priest are also teaming up to poll Catholics in the nearby coastal towns and Astoria whose children attend public schools. They want to know what the barriers are toward giving these children a Star of the Sea education.
Development will also be a new focus. The parish is creating a program called the Star 100 Club, with a goal to find 100 benefactors who can donate $1,000 per year for 10 years. It’s a critical to get a stable financial operating base, so tuition doesn’t have to be increased, said Father Sampson. Particularly in Clatsop County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
The current leadership is hopeful for the school’s future in the community.
“The future of the Church is right inside the school walls,” Rogozinski said.