2009-10-30 / Top Stories

Controversy, Mystery As Rumors Swirl In Stella Maris Closing

By Howard Schwach

Stella Maris High School will soon be closing its doors. Stella Maris High School will soon be closing its doors. The announced closing of Stella Maris High School has touched off a spate of rumors and recriminations over the future of the beachfront building, the closing itself and the way it was handled by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the order that owns the building and sponsors the school that has existed there for the past 66 years.

Stunned parents were told at a meeting in the school's auditorium on Monday night that the school would be closing due to declining enrollment. Officials said that the enrollment had declined over the past few years to 300 from more than 800 students.

This year's incoming freshman class, they said, has less than 100 students.

The students were told the same at a noontime meeting on Tuesday.

One parent, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation against her daughter, said that the entire incident was handled badly by the school.

"First of all, they didn't even provide any counseling for the girls," the parent said. "They just told them the school was closing and walked away. The teachers tried to console the girls, but they also had to console themselves because they no longer had jobs."

She added that nobody saw the closing coming when they entered the Monday night meeting.

"We were told the meeting was about finances and enrollment," she said. "We thought that they would talk about increasing tuition or ask for help in getting more students. Instead, we got a statement saying the school would close and there was nothing that could be done about it."

One student told The Wave on Tuesday that she and her friends were shattered because they expected to spend their school years together.

"We are going to all look for the same school to go to," she said. "We don't know whether or not that is even possible. It's very sad."

She added that school officials had warned students not to talk to the press about the school closing, and on Tuesday the students were dismissed from the back door to avoid the press waiting in the front of the building.

Ever since the announcement, rumors about the future of the building have swirled around Rockaway.

Those rumors include the "fact" that the building has already been sold to developers who will build high-rise condominium buildings on the beach- front site.

Other rumors include a takeover by St. John's Residence for Boys, a facility on the next block, to use as a halfway house for incarcerated boys; and takeover by the Department of Edu - cation to use as a school for residents of Arverne by the Sea.

Jonathan Gaska, district manager for Community Board 14, says that the area is zoned R-5, and can be used for townhouses, but not high-rise buildings. He said that there are no present permits to build on that tract of land.

The city's Department of Finance, which is the traditional source to find out about ownership, is mum on just who owns the land because it is not currently on the city's tax roles.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told The Wave that there are no current plans for a public school on that property.

School officials did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Neither did spokespersons for the Sisters of St. Joseph on Long Island.

Geri Martinez, the school's principal, did issue an email statement late last week.

"For a number of years, we have unsuccessfully battled the enrollment issue that is the foundation of all we do," she wrote. "Faculty, curriculum, special programs, athletic programs and technology were all dependent on enrollment. Low enrollment forced us to have to evaluate the sustainability of our school."

"[The decision to close the school] is heartbreaking," she added. "I truly believe that the closing of Stella Maris HS is a great loss to education and to young women."

One parent said that there is a plan to allow juniors to take senior courses so that they can graduate at the end of this year with the senior class.

Parents of freshman and sophomore students, however, are scrambling to find slots at the two other Catholic high schools for girls in Queens - Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica and St. Agnes in College Point.

"This has been disconcerting and sad," a parent said. "I went to Stella and so did most of my relatives. I looked forward to my daughter graduating from the school, but now that is not going to happen.

Local Student Becomes Resident Assistant

Meghan T. Wheeler of Rockaway Park was selected by Albright College to join their Housing and Residential Learning staff as a resident assistant. Wheeler, a sophomore, is a psychology major at Albright in Reading, Penn - sylvania. She graduated from Stella Maris High School.

The objective of resident assistants is to help create an atmosphere that is conducive to individual and group development by facilitating programming in areas that enrich the overall experience of Albright students. These programs are varied and include spiritual, physical, intellectual, health, career/life planning, emotional, relational community service, and multicultural topics.

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