Local private school wins families, not funding

NOW: Local private school wins families, not funding

NILES, Mich. - Funding has been an issue for schools all over Michiana, but some get more federal assistance than others.

That’s why our Learning Curve team headed to Niles to see how St. Mary’s Catholic School, a private institution, is taking on those extra challenges.

“When we first started out because we originally thought it was just going to be the two weeks up to spring break, we thought paper packets will pull us through little did we know what was coming down the pike. So we ended up turning to virtual," Leslie Conyers, the school's principal said.

Like many Michiana schools, St. Mary’s in Niles was forced to close its doors this spring, but the choice to reopen wasn’t a hard one.

“In-person is the best option. In my opinion. The kids need that relationship with the teacher. They need that relationship with their peers, and the socialization just getting out of the house getting out from behind the computer screen and you know, talking and hands-on and just being in the classroom," she said.

“The kids are happy. You know some will occasionally say, I want to be at home so I can play video games, but most of them would definitely rather be here. And they don't want to go to online learning. They would rather see their friends and be in the classroom," Katee Landgraf, a 2nd and 3rd-grade teacher said.

And that choice to reopen in-person was made easier because the k-through-8 building only has 54 students total, making it easy for staff to ensure safety guidelines

“So we're able to keep our kids spaced out six feet and keep them safe. And whereas other schools that have a larger population, I could only imagine the difficulties they're facing right now," Conyers said.

However unlike most area schools St. Mary’s has to deal with many unique challenges just from being a private catholic school.

Things like tuition costs...

“Last year, the concern was brought up because we went virtual that parents were they have to pay tuition for their children to attend. And with it being online, they felt that you know, they could receive similar from our area schools that are not private," Conyers said.

And funding problems...

“It is hard to get all the funding we need," Landgraf said. "But my parents have been really great, especially about donating things this year, we've gotten a lot more donations this year. But it does make it hard, since we do have to provide cleaning supplies and all the extra things, um, that we don't have funding for other stuff. Like new technology or things like that stuff that we would normally spend during the year, we've had to kind of pull back on some of that so that we can make sure that we have you know, masks on hand, and cleaning supplies on hand and all those things."

“We had originally planned on spending and getting Chromebooks that we would have one on one devices for our students. However, because of the additional funding that are the additional funds, we're spending on covid related items, that money that we had set aside is gone toward that," Conyers said.

But does that limit children's success? School staff say not really.

“It would it be easier if we had new computers, absolutely. But at the same time, I still think that teachers are creative. And we can work around any hurdles that we come up against, you know if we don't get new computers this year, but we can wait. And we'll figure out how to do it without it," Landgraf said.

The COVID costs keep piling up.

"We're really close to spending $1,000 so far," Conyers said.

And the federal government’s payouts don’t always include private institutions.

“A lot of the money comes from donors. I know my husband and I have purchased quite a few things for the school," she said. "We also didn't receive as much as we originally thought we were going to from the cares act.”

The school received about $1,900 via the CARES act but the school staff was expecting much more.

“I was originally told around the six grand," she said.

But again, that smaller number of students might be the key to success for this school.

“We can also set a few more rules that some of the public schools can't do like the temperature taking. And that helps us monitor things a little better I think," Landgraf said.

That includes additional recruitment.

“We're consistent on our enrollment. And actually, we've actually gained a few public school families because they were concerned about larger class sizes and being able to keep the kids safely distanced," Conyers said.

“It's definitely been a lot different. A lot of the kids are used to spending a lot more time in groups and being able to work together. And so we've had to take some of that away this year, there have been lots of reminders about masks, that's definitely a huge difference," Landgraf said. “You know, I have my own kids at home too. And so that's a lot of people going a lot of different places. And so it is a little nerve-racking. At first, I was nervous about it but then once it became routine, it got a lot easier.”

Besides trying to find money elsewhere, St. Mary’s staff members also take on their own cleaning duties.

Hear that side of the story coming up this Thursday at 6.

As always if you have a question or concern regarding your school district email us! At learningcurve@abc57.com

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