2017-03-09 / Front Page

Navigating the Curveball of Cluny School Closing

By Betsy Sherman Walker

When it was announced last week that Cluny School in Newport would be closing its doors in June after 60 years, the news quickly ricocheted around Aquidneck Island. So quickly, in fact, that some Cluny parents saw it on social media before the news could be delivered firsthand.

Now in its 60th year, the Catholic elementary and middle school on Brenton Road surrounded by the wild scrubby meadows overlooking Ocean Drive has educated generations of Newporters—Catholic and otherwise—with unwavering devotion. The island’s parochial and independent schools typically have had their enrollment ups and downs, but how could a school as beloved, busy and high-profile as Cluny be closing?

There are no bad guys here, and no bad decisions. Cluny, more or less, has simply been swept up in the circle of life. And the challenges of remaining solvent in a mercurial economy. No matter how you look at it, it was in the numbers.

“It is with a deep sadness that we announce the closure of Cluny School,” said Sister Luke Parker, identified as the President of the Cluny School Corporation and Provincial of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, in a prepared statement. “Despite the best efforts of so many over the past few years to reverse the trend in declining enrollment,” Parker continued, “the school’s leadership reached the conclusion that we did not have sufficient resources to continue.”

In 1957, according to its website, the school began as a kindergarten, on the grounds of the former Arthur Curtiss James estate, “in response to a request made to the Sisters from military families stationed [at Fort Adams].” The land—approximately eight acres— had been deeded to the Diocese of Providence in 1941. A grade was added each year after that, until the school graduated its first eighth grade in 1965.

Times change, says Cluny parent Ann Arnold, a long-time volunteer at the school. Arnold is the unofficial historian, and de facto keeper, of the school’s megaphone. “In the early 60s,” she says,”the population of Newport was twice what it is now. Back then, every neighborhood had a church, and a church school.” According to statistics from the Rhode Island census website, between 1960 and 1970 there was an almost 25 percent drop in Newport’s population. Since then the numbers have steadily declined.

By 2010 it had dipped— from 47,049 to 24,672.

Arnold points to other trends: a shrinking middle class, a slow housing turnover, and the fact that young families are being priced out of settling in Newport. In recent years Cluny has been losing a lot of families to the Portsmouth public schools. “It doesn’t take much,” Arnold adds, “to make this happen.”

So much depends upon what attracts people: referring to a pie-slice graphic based on a survey of prospective Cluny parents, Arnold estimates that 50 percent wanted strong academics, 25 wanted a Catholic education for their children, and the remaining 25, she said, were looking for a good sports program.

The school is now in the process of paying down a debt, based on a bond it took out 10 years ago in order to finance a major renovation and expansion project. “Everything needed fixing,” she explained. There was talk of closing, but instead there was “a decision by the leadership to bring all the middle school under one roof.”

While “they have never missed a payment” on that bond, it has proven to be a financial strain. In a twist of cash poor-land rich economics, selling the land—a seven- to eight-acre parcel of prime real estate that would surely attract the attention of developers—would easily wipe out their debt. But it would have also wiped out their school.

In the statement, Board Chair Richard Smith referred to the Cluny sisters, who not only taught at the school with their donations of “time, talent and treasure,” but who “provided significant financial support, including increased assistance in recent years as the declining enrollment placed added financial pressure on the school.”

In essence, says Arnold, in the culture of giving that defined their lives, “the sisters were robbing their own piggy banks.”

If there were to be “a path ahead,” she adds, “It would be to have an angel come forward to pay off the bond.” But the challenges would remain: there simply aren’t the families and students coming into the enrollment funnel. With its “bare bones staff and parents who are incredibly involved and responsible,” parents are clearly trying to figure out where to go from here. Among other gestures, Arnold has noticed that a Cluny School Newport Alumni page has just appeared on Facebook.

“When you start [your child] at a school like Cluny, warm and fuzzies mean a lot. And then the years go on.” Arnold has a son who is in the eighth grade. Having been there since pre-K, she said that the fact that he will be able to graduate makes her “glad for me, but I still feel lousy.”

There are other private school options for next fall: All Saints Academy in Middletown, and Pennfield and St. Philomena’s in Portsmouth. Earlier this week, Cluny’s Facebook page posted a letter from St. Michael’s Country Day School in Newport (now approaching its 80th year) announcing an open house for Cluny families. “You may want to resolve your child’s new school home as quickly as possible,” the letter reads. “Toward that goal, St. Michael’s has arranged for an expedited admissions process . . . and has committed significant financial resources to help Cluny families make a St. Michael’s education affordable, should they need that assistance.”

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