ERIE, Pennsylvania — Mother Teresa Academy wasn’t due to debut until 2018, but 188 kindergartners through eighth-graders are already wearing the new Erie Catholic school’s orange and blue colors and attending classes in the former Holy Family School.
More than 100 other children are on a waiting list.
“We probably could have enrolled 300 students if we’d had room,” Chris Hagerty said.
Hagerty is director of strategic initiatives for Cathedral Preparatory School and Villa Maria Academy. The board that oversees those Catholic high schools also governs Mother Teresa Academy. A “mission school” created by the Catholic Diocese of Erie, Mother Teresa Academy is dedicated to providing a Catholic education for inner-city Erie children. On Jan. 2, the school will move from the Holy Family building at 1153 E. Ninth St. to 160 W. 11th St., site of the former St. Peter Cathedral School, which closed in 2016.
The changes are part of a new comprehensive plan for schools in the 13-county Erie-based diocese. Holy Family School was originally to remain open and be developed from a parish school into a separately incorporated diocesan school that continued its work of serving inner-city children. However, diocesan officials announced in June that classes would begin at Holy Family in August but that over the Christmas break the school would close, move to the St. Peter site and then reopen in January as Mother Teresa Academy.
The move will still occur as planned, but the name change came early. Hagerty said that decision was made because so many new people were coming on board with the school and officials wanted to avoid confusion.
So Mother Teresa Academy opened its doors on Aug. 28 with one class each of kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the school year,” Principal Jamie Brim said. “Everybody loves to be here.”
Sixth-graders Donnell Gamble and Gaby Munoz, both 11, attended different schools the previous year but said they’re happy to be at Mother Teresa and like their new classes and friends.
“I like the faculty and staff here and how they’re nice to everybody and they treat everyone like they’re family,” Gaby said.
Patricia Spencer’s 13-year-old son, Tavion Spencer, is a seventh-grader at Mother Teresa Academy. Although the family isn’t Catholic, Spencer liked the faith aspect of sending her son first to Holy Family and now Mother Teresa. She said she wants a “good education” for Tavion and when he gets home, he tells her, “Mommy, I love that school.”
Father Scott Jabo, president of Prep, Villa and Mother Teresa, said the elementary academy is at capacity for students.
“We were very surprised that we reached it this summer without advertising,” Hagerty said.
He said plans hadn’t called for marketing the school until after the move. Officials had expected to open with existing Holy Family students, who numbered fewer than 100 last school year, and a few new children, Hagerty said.
More than 90 percent of the Holy Family students did return, but the school also attracted about an equal number of new students, the officials said.
“All of a sudden, the faucet opened,” Hagerty said.
He and Jabo attributed the interest in the school to information passed along by word of mouth as well as the faith-based aspect of Mother Teresa Academy and uncertainty over Erie’s public schools, which have been facing financial challenges.
Students weren’t the only thing flowing to the new Catholic school. Money also poured in.
Hagerty said donors have already underwritten the Mother Teresa budget for the next five years. He said that about $4.5 million in total has been raised, or a little more per year than the annual budget of about $850,000.
“The Erie philanthropic community will dictate the growth of the school,” Hagerty said.
Jabo said the philanthropic response reflects a belief in the need to provide a Catholic education for inner-city children. The priest said Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence Persico saw that need and wanted to make sure that inner-city children weren’t forgotten in the diocesan school plan. The officials said those families are welcome at other area Catholic schools but might not feel the education there is as accessible to them as at the diocese’s only inner-city school.
Although the new academy’s $5,000 tuition represents the cost per pupil at Mother Teresa, students who qualify for reduced-price lunch will only pay $500 and those who qualify for free lunch will only pay $250. Hagerty said 99 percent of current students qualify for either free or reduced-price lunch. He said the school isn’t free for students because paying some tuition provides parents with a sense of ownership.
Priorities for admission to Mother Teresa include qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Students also must live in Erie, although not necessarily in the school’s immediate neighborhood.
They don’t have to be Catholic and only 21 percent of the current students are, the officials said.
Jabo said officials would like the students to continue in Catholic education after graduating from Mother Teresa Academy. He said they will be well prepared to go to any school but also well prepared to transition to Prep, a high school for boys, or Villa, a high school for girls. The Mother Teresa Academy curriculum will be lined up with that of Prep and Villa, he said.
Mother Teresa students are already in Prep orange and Villa blue. The grade school’s boys wear orange shirts and the girls wear blue. Both wear darker blue bottoms.
Jabo said the elementary school was placed under Villa and Prep because they both have “indicators of success” and can use their records of achievement and resources to help the new school also become a success. Hagerty said the high schools already had productive branding, marketing and fundraising operations in place as well as a board that could benefit the new school.
Mother Teresa Academy’s move to the St. Peter building will put the younger children closer to the high schools, the officials said. Prep is only a couple blocks away.
The St. Peter site is also bigger and newer and has amenities including air conditioning, a separate cafeteria and gym, and a playground, the officials said. Hagerty said there wasn’t enough time to get that building ready for the start of the 2017-18 school year.
He said about $300,000 worth of renovations are being done. Jabo said they include new carpeting, painting and furniture. Quotes attributed to Mother Teresa will be put on the walls, Brim said.
She wears one of them, “Do small things with great love,” inscribed on a pendant hanging from a chain around her neck.
Hagerty said the school was named for Saint Teresa of Calcutta, the Nobel Peace Prize winner known worldwide as Mother Teresa, because of the “work she did with those who are disadvantaged.”
She died in 1997 and was canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church in 2016. Jabo said the school isn’t known as St. Teresa Academy to avoid confusion with several other St. Teresas in the Catholic Church.
“Mother Teresa, I think, is more familiar,” he said, adding that it’s also more embracing and endearing.
The school nickname, however, is the Saints.