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Parents saddened by news of St. Leo closing

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."

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

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Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

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Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

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