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Teachers Heartbroken As Century-Old St. Elizabeth Academy Prepares To Close

St. Elizabeth Academy

After 130 years, St. Elizabeth Academy, a private Catholic all-girls high school in St. Louis City will close this month.

As St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports, dedicated long-time teachers are in tears, while some alumni are racing against the clock in their pursuit to continue the school’s legacy.

Don’t Step On the Seal

When I think about St. Elizabeth Academy I think of the SEA seal stamped on the floor outside the chapel. And I picture a rush of girls scurrying to class, all avoiding the black and white logo. It’s common knowledge. No matter how late you are for class, you walk around the seal: simply out of reverence.

I graduated from St. Elizabeth Academy in 1997 and often smile when thinking about the humble school at the corner of Arsenal and Louisiana. As they prepare to close the doors for good, students and teachers are sad.  

Long-time Spanish teacher Elisa Waugh is one of them.

Credit St. Elizabeth Academy
The SEA seal outside the chapel at St. Elizabeth Academy. The all-girl Catholic high school will close in May 2013 because of low enrollment. It opened in 1882.

“You know it’s like seeing your best friend go away,” Waugh said with a smile. “Because it’s been like coming home; working here at St. Elizabeth has been like coming home.”

Waugh has worked at St. Elizabeth for three and a half decades. She’s witnessed the highs and lows.  

“In 1977 we were about 450 students, enrollment was really high. You almost had to wait to get into the school at the time. Now, I think our biggest class is 39, which is the Senior class.”

A “Heartbreaking” Decision

The reasons St. Elizabeth Academy is closing are many, and none are surprising. When the decision was announced in January, Principal Sr. Susan Borgel cited the declining enrollment and the increasing deficit. She called the decision “heartbreaking.”

Sr. Rosemary Oellermann could possibly be the most “heartbroken.”

“It’s been very sad and difficult,” said Sr. Rosemary through tears. “I try to put it out of my mind, but it’s there. It’s real.”

Sr. Rosemary came to St. Elizabeth nearly forty years ago. She says many of the students attending today come from single parent homes, or live with their grandparents or a guardian. It became hard for them to pay the tuition because of the economy.

“People losing jobs in the past 4 or 5 years, they still have to put food on the table and a roof over their head and they can’t afford Catholic education.”

Service Ethics Academy

St. Elizabeth was founded in 1882 by the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. They wanted to help girls with a wide range of abilities, from diverse backgrounds achieve academic success. Some alumni want to continue that mission.

Becky Baum is a school social worker and 1993 graduate of the school. When she heard about the closing, she, like many other alumni, were shocked. So, a group of alumni who work in education started thinking.

“[We] came together with alumni and community leaders and said ‘hey do we have to let go of this altogether’?, Baum said during a phone conversation.

The group decided to open a charter school in the same building, but they missed the deadline to apply for a charter for the 2013/2014 school. So, they’re trying to keep the school open for one year as a private-independent school with a low tuition commitment and then open as a charter in the 2014/2015 school year with no tuition commitment. Baum says they plan to call it Service Ethics Academy or S.E.A Academy.

“There are a lot of Charter schools in the city and this would be the first single-gender high school, which is exciting.”

The group is trying to raise $750,000 by June 1 to make the plan happen. So, it’s not a done deal.

‘I Will Miss The Diversity’

What is for certain is that St. Elizabeth will close this month. Students will move on and so will teachers.

Sr. Rosemary Oellermann is going to a school in Perryville, Mo. which has a large all-white Catholic population. She says she will miss the diversity of students at St. Elizabeth.

“I have a calculus class of 5 students,” Sr. Rosemary said with a smile. “One is Caucasian and is American. I have a girl who’s adopted, she’s from India. I have a girl from Egypt. And I have two African American students. I will miss that greatly.”

Though St. Elizabeth Academy will soon be no more, I guess you could say its legacy will continue, at the very least, in the memory of thousands of women who politely walked around that SEA seal on their way to class.

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