Advocates for Wildwood Catholic Hopeful for Second Save

Sophomore Kimmy Casiello is not ready to consider other options, even as the Camden Diocese announced that Wildwood Catholic High School would close in June. She hopes community efforts will keep the school open.

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NORTH WILDWOOD – A decade ago, Chrissy Casiello was a senior at Wildwood Catholic High School, facing the stress, euphoria and pressures that come with graduation.

There also was an additional problem. Officials with the Diocese of Camden announced plans to close her school.

A large-scale community campaign, in 2010, raised enough money to keep the school afloat. Now, her younger sister, a sophomore at the school, is facing the same worry.

The Diocese of Camden announced that Wildwood Catholic High School and Cape Trinity Catholic Elementary School, which share a building, were two of the five schools that would close at the end of the term June 30. In an official statement, the diocese cited declining enrollments and a lack of local fundraising.

“I went through this 10 years ago. We went through the same thing,” said Casiello, who owns a local business.

At that time, community members raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the school open. With her sister, Kimmy Casiello, two years away from graduating, she’s counting on the community to come through again.

Pushing to Raise $1M

According to Carole Pantalone, one of the organizers of the previous Save Wildwood Catholic effort, there is reason to be hopeful. She is on the school board and is again working to keep her beloved school in the Wildwoods.

She graduated from the school, in 1966, and has seen multiple nieces and nephews graduate since then. In a recent interview, she described the school community as being like a family, saying alumni and friends have come through for the school again.

“We have raised a significant amount of money,” she said.

The goal is $1 million, a number Pantalone said officials with the diocese have mentioned during discussions.

“They said they’d like to see us with $1 million and they’ll talk. We’re close to that, but I’m not going to give you specifics,” she said. “The whole community has rallied behind us. We’re very close to our goal.”

In some cases, the donations have been small, she said, calling that understandable in the current economic situation. Her group is a registered non-profit, therefore donations are tax-deductible, and Pantalone said they will be returned if they fall short of their goal. The group is also selling T-shirts and has other fundraising efforts underway.

However, money is only part of the story.

“We’re rounding the bend with the money, but what we need is more enrollment. What we need is more students,” she said.

Wildwood Academy

Taken together, Wildwood Catholic High School and Cape Trinity Catholic School have seen a 12% drop in enrollment since 2015, according to numbers released by the diocese. This is smaller than the decrease in the other schools set to close, including Good Shepherd Regional School, St. Joseph Elementary School and St. Joseph High School (Hammonton).

According to a statement from the diocese, the high school has seen a more precipitous drop, and the two schools can only function together.

The kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school is a combination of three former Catholic schools - St. Ann, in Wildwood, St. Raymond, in Villas, and Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in Cape May - brought together under one roof a decade ago when enrollment slipped. The schools have launched a rebranding effort, combining the kindergarten through 12th grade classes under the name Wildwood Catholic Academy “based on Gospel values and the promotion of academic excellence.”

A New Reality

The younger Casiello sister faces another challenge. Her school has been closed for months due to the restriction enacted because of COVID-19. Kimmy Casiello, 15, says she misses her friends and her school.

Classes continue through virtual platforms, but she said it is difficult to master some concepts with remote learning. She plays soccer and basketball for the Crusaders. She does not know where she wants to go to college, but she has an idea of the career she wants – medical engineering.

“I saw a commercial with someone building a prosthetic leg for a dog.  It got me interested in that field, but for human beings,” Casiello said.

Like students around the country, Casiello had to adjust to the idea that she won’t be back in her school this year. Right now, there is also a possibility her school will close before the next semester begins.

“I think the final nail was COVID-19,” Pantalone said. “There is such uncertainty with jobs, people are struggling just to put food on the table.”

The statement from the diocese also cited COVID-19 and the financial effect of the pandemic, expected to compound the existing financial trouble. Years ago, the diocese sought to make its parochial schools self-sufficient, weening them from support raised by parishioner donations, but the diocese also wanted to keep tuition as low as possible. The diocese has put $3.8 million into the elementary schools, and Wildwood Catholic got $750,000 in support, according to the statement.

“The decision to close these schools is sobering and painful. It has not been made lightly. It has been made with great deliberation, including insight from regional pastors, school advisory boards, the College of Consultors, the Diocesan Finance Council, the Office of Catholic Schools and the Diocesan Finance Office,” the statement reads.

Wildwood Catholic High School Principal Joseph Cray did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokesman for the Diocese of Camden declined to be interviewed for this story, saying there was nothing to add to what was already said.

No Bad Guys

Stories like this are often told as David-vs.-Goliath tales.

According to Pantalone, that narrative does not fit in this case. Officials with the diocese have been responsive and willing to listen, she said.

“The diocese has been more than accommodating with us. Very kind,” she said. “There are no bad guys here. We’re all good guys trying for the greater good.”

Chrissy Casiello described her time in Wildwood Catholic High School as some of the best in her life, saying her time at the school, and at St. Ann before it, helped lay the foundation for her faith.

“I’m just hoping that we can come around again and we can keep the school open,” she said. “It’s more than just a school. This is our entire community. We’re a family here. You really know everyone who is affected.”

Not Ready to Think About Options

“All affected students will have the opportunity to continue their Catholic education at nearby regional Catholic elementary and high school,” reads the statement from the diocese.

For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Bishop McHugh is in Cape May County, but for high school students, "nearby" may be a relative term.

The closest Catholic high school is Holy Spirit High School, in Absecon, about a 40-minute ride north on the Garden State Parkway from the Wildwood Catholic building, without traffic. The drive to the all-boys St. Augustine Preparatory School, in Richland, is almost an hour’s drive from Wildwood, while Our Lady of Mercy Academy, in Newfield, an all-girls option, is also an hour each way.

Cape Christian Academy, a small, non-denominational religious school, in Court House, includes a high school.

There are public options, as well.

Wildwood High School, at 4300 Pacific Ave., in Wildwood, accepts students from the communities of Five-Mile Beach, who also have an option of Cape May County Technical High School, and there are high schools in Ocean City, Middle Township and Lower Cape May Regional High School. Each participates in the state’s public school choice program, and there is Charter Tech, a performing arts-focused charter high school, in Somers Point.

Kimmy Casiello is not ready to consider other options, though.

“Right now, I haven’t even thought about that,” she said. “I have faith in our community, and I really believe in our lovely school.”

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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