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Brooklyn Diocese pulls plug on Catherine Laboure special-needs school

See you never: The Brooklyn Diocese is closing Catherine Laboure, a school with a special education program, on Aug. 11. A charter school will open on the site, affecting a dozen staff members and 29 students.
Brooklyn Daily
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It’s a bitter farewell.

The Brooklyn Diocese is shuttering a special-needs school in Canarsie and replacing it with a charter school, outraging longtime parishioners, teachers, and parents who supported the Catherine Laboure School. The impending closure will displace the more than two dozen students, which is a slap in the face to the vulnerable children currently enrolled, said an advocate of the school.

“The closure is a horrendous situation and so is the diocese’s decision,” said Jim Bisciello, whose wife and relatives have worked at the school for more than 15 years.

Bisciello says that the children, already dealing with challenges, face an even greater one finding a new school to attend once they’re kicked out of Catherine Laboure on Aug. 11.

“Most of the students are minority and all of them have a special needs, and these kids have no place to go now,” he said.

The state-funded school serves students suffering Down syndrome, severe developmental difficulties, and other learning or physical disabilities. After relocating from Bensonhurst to Canarsie, enrollment dropped over the years and currently there are 29 students registered — down from 69 students five years ago, according to a spokeswoman for the Brooklyn Diocese. The reduced enrollment eventually fell below the threshold needed to keep it open, she said.

“Dwindling enrollment in Catherine Laboure has made it impossible for the school to survive financially, and a minimum of 50 students are needed in order to sustain the school financially,” said Carolyn Erstad.

The school has been losing money for several years, and the mounting tab became too much for the school’s board to sustain, said Erstad.

“The school has been running under an annual deficit of at least $200,000 per year for the past five years — the board of directors could no longer carry the accumulating debt,” she said.

The community held fund-raisers and received donations totalling $300,000 to keep the school open in recent years, plus $100,000 personally raised by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, according to Erstad. But Bisciello still complained that the bishop did not do enough.

“I have a major issue with the diocese of Brooklyn — and he’s a zero, I call him ‘Bishop Zero,’ ” he said.

He said the bishop and priests have ignored his letters and calls, and are instead prioritizing lavish church decorations and hush money for abuse victims over the diocese’s most vulnerable children.

“It’s not just a school — it’s a family — and the people work there tirelessly for the betterment of the children,” said Bisciello. “I see what’s going on all around and the diocese is spending millions of dollars renovating churches that don’t need repairs, and paying off lawsuits for pervert priests.”

The school will officially close on Aug. 11 and the students will be transferred to the HeartShare program, which will replace the school and special education program. But the new program will not offer what Catherine Laboure provides, said Biscielleo, and its closure will leave a painful void.

“The teachers are broken hearted and the parents are panicked,” he said. “They come from minority homes, these children require a lot of attention. It’s a space safe where they’re given amazing nurturing.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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