By Joseph Popiolkowski
St. Leo lost more than its varsity basketball game Wednesday night.
Players’ parents, who had just learned the news hours earlier, lined the gym at St. Amelia’s in the Town of Tonawanda where St. Leo lost to Niagara Catholic, 58-31. Parents said they were still reeling from the announcement that St. Leo is closing in June and had yet to fully process it.
Kathleen Mayer, a past president of the St. Leo’s Home School Association, teared up as she recalled the education her four sons — including Michael, a seventh-grader, and Nicholas, a fifth-grader — received from St. Leo’s teachers such as their beloved science and math instructor Bernie Wdzieczny.
“Because it was a small school, everybody was a family,” she said. “If your child was sick, the kindergarten teacher would ask how they were feeling, or the eighth-grade teacher, or the music teacher. Everybody knew everybody and it was comforting to send them there every day knowing they were safe and secure.”
Several parents said they believed St. Leo’s greenspace, including a baseball diamond and soccer field, and other amenities, such as its gymnasium and cafeteria, were advantages that might help protect it from being closed. Parents said they believed St. Leo might merge with nearby Catholic elementary schools Christ the King and St. Benedict.
“We were led to believe that we had the biggest chance — that the other schools might close and we would be the one to take over,” said Pete Gozelski, whose son Luke is a seventh-grader. “I was under that assumption.”
“I was surprised they closed schools instead of merging schools,” said Bob Kirchgessner, whose sons are eighth- and sixth-graders. “Everything we read on the diocesan website was that they wanted big, strong schools. They said they wanted 400 students. They didn’t merge any schools. The schools left open may get marginally bigger in the short term but they haven’t really strengthened them.”
Ann Marie Taft, of Amherst, said she transferred her son and daughter from St. Leo to St. Amelia for the 2012-2013 school year because she saw more opportunities for them in academics and athletics at the much larger school.
“My gosh, they have chess club, two languages and they spend 45 minutes, twice a week, on art,” she said of St. Amelia. “It was academically more enriching.”
Taft said she decided to make the transition after watching St. Leo’s enrollment decline year after year and always wondering if the school’s closure was imminent.
“We did sort of anticipate that this could always be a possibility, every year it could be a possibility,” she said. “It didn’t come really as a surprise. But my heart does go out to the families that have to change.”
St. Leo basketball coach Gerald Smith, whose son, Brandon, is an eighth-grader on the team, said he tried to not let the news interfere with Wednesday night's game.
"I feel so close to these guys from coaching them from third grade all the way up to eighth," he said. "They have a special place in my heart and so does the school."