By Celine Klosterman
Following a recommendation from the Davenport Diocese, classes for middle-school students will end at Keokuk Catholic School after this academic year. The school has 10 students in grades six to eight this year, including one student who enrolled last month and one eighth-grader.
“There may be resources spent on maintaining the middle school while sacrificing the potential of a quality preschool through fifth-grade elementary school,” wrote Father Robert Lathrop in a letter to the school board, noting also the economy’s sluggishness and the need for fiscal responsibility. As pastor of Church of All Saints in Keokuk, he said he was “assuming the responsibility of accepting the bishop’s recommendations, which by no means is an easy decision.”
Fr. Lathrop said he felt school board members would have been split if they’d voted on the matter. “If you vote for pre-K-8, others will say that ‘you are not looking at the economic facts,’” he wrote. “If you vote for pre-K-5, others will say that you are turning your backs on our middle school students.”
The decision comes four years after Cardinal Stritch High School in Keokuk merged with the Holy Trinity Catholic school system, which has a high school in Fort Madison. Then, the Keokuk Catholic School Board members “decided they had four years to build up the middle school,” Fr. Lathrop told The Catholic Messenger. “For whatever reason, that has not happened.”
Enrollment in middle-school classes has slowly declined in recent years. Keokuk Catholic School included 15 sixth- to eighth-graders in the 2006-07 academic year, 14 in 2007-08, 13 in 2008-09, and 10 currently, according to the school. Enrollment in kindergarten to eighth grade is 71.
Principal Laurie Mendenhall asked parents of the 16 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders whether the children would attend next year, if possible. Parents of seven students said yes, Mendenhall said. Two said no, and others were either uncertain or waiting to see how many other middle-school students would attend, she said.
Erica Thayer told the Messenger she and her husband, Philip Thayer, wanted their seventh-grader, Kevin, to continue a Catholic education and graduate with his class. “They’re all loyal there, his friends and teachers, and he feels really comfortable there. It’s like a small family.” It’s hard for students his age to integrate into a new school, she added.
But Julie Love said she and her husband weren’t sure whether they would’ve sent their sixth-grader, Justin Wright, to Keokuk Catholic School next year. "His dad and I were concerned because of the small class sizes," she said, and because few extracurricular opportunities are available with few students.
Love said she regrets that others won’t have the opportunity to attend a Catholic school in Keokuk, but suggested the decision to end middle-school classes wasn’t made by Bishop Martin Amos or Fr. Lathrop. It was the community’s decision, she said, for choosing not to send students to Keokuk Catholic School.
The future of the three faculty members who teach middle-school students isn’t clear, Mendenhall said. Teaching certification and budget issues come into play, she added.
“The last thing I wanted to do in my first year here was close the middle school,” Fr. Lathrop told the Messenger. “This was extremely difficult.”
But he suggested in his letter reason to be proud of the Keokuk community. “It is a testament to our belief in and support of Catholic education that we have been able to sustain a K-12 and then K-8 grade configuration for as long as we have, when no other community of this size in the diocese has been able to do so,” he wrote. “But in the end, for similar reasons such as ours, they have all had to transition to a pre-K-5 configuration and with great success. I believe that we can do the same.”
In the Davenport Diocese, the Catholic junior-high school closest to Keokuk is located about 20 miles north at Holy Trinity Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Fort Madison. Sixth-graders would need to attend Holy Trinity Catholic Elementary in West Point.