Sharp drop in enrollment forces cutbacks at Inner Richmond Catholic school

Exodus of students follows several years of controversy over decisions by church leadership

A sharp decline in student enrollment is forcing an Inner Richmond Catholic elementary school to downsize and tap into parish funds after church leadership moved to push the curriculum in a more traditional direction.

Star of the Sea School, a Catholic elementary and preschool program, is cutting staff and reevaluating its class offerings to survive a sharp decline in enrollment that follows a move to implement a ‘Integrated Classical Program,’ which will bring the school more in line with traditional church teachings. The cutbacks were first reported by the Richmond SF Blog.

So far only 40 to 50 students have committed to re-enrolling for the 2019-2020 school year, less than a quarter of the 220 students that were enrolled for the 2017-2018 school year, according to a school representative.

The school, which was founded in 1909 as an extension of the parish of the same name, is now considering combining grades, reducing its staff size and relocating teachers to other Catholic schools in their network, according to Mike Brown, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Furthermore, the pastor of Star of the Sea Parish, Joseph Illos, will utilize existing scholarship funds along with $250,000 from his parish’s funds as a subsidy for the school to mitigate the loss of income from the student’s tuition, according to a letter sent to student’s parents.

According to the letter, Illo aims to reach a balanced budget by 2022.

“We believe that a classic Catholic program will bring enrollment back and appeal to many other families in the neighborhood,” said Brown.

When asked to comment on the cause of the sudden decline, Brown said “It would be impossible to know unless you ask every single parent who left, and I don’t want to speculate.”

However, some parents have attributed the exodus of students to decisions by Illo, who has a history of polarizing the school community by making clear distinctions between Catholic and non-Catholic students and boys and girls.

Conflict between Illo and the community began in January of 2015 when he made a controversial decision to stop the parish’s practice of allowing girls to work as ‘altar servers,according to local news reports.

Two months later, Illo reportedly created controversy again by distributing pamphlets that contained sexual topics to students as young as eight.

Illo went on to ban non-Catholic students from receiving blessings at communion and reading at school Mass in November of 2015.

While some of these practices were eventually revoked, Illo continued to push for greater distinctions between Catholics and non-Catholics that attended the school, according to parents interviewed by the National Catholic Reporter.

More recently a coalition of anonymous parents sent a formal complaint against Illo, following a combative meeting between school officials, parents on March 7, 2019.

“His methods have been unnecessarily destructive, abusive and hostile; and [he] has decimated the student population at the school in the last two years,” the letter states. “Fr. Illo does not possess the leadership ability to control his temperament under pressure.”

These claims mirror the findings of a 2003 Canonical Investigation into allegations of harassment raised against Illo during his time in a Stockton, California diocese.

“Fr. Illo on occasion can exhibit two opposite facts of a personality, on the one hand kind and helpful and sensitive and on the other hand dictatorial, manipulative and insensitive,” the report states.

In an essay published by the National Catholic Reporter in 2015, Illo’s described the “anomalies” in his parish he wishes to address.

“For years the school has operated somewhat independently of the parish….It has been many years since parish priests or nuns have taught children at my school. Only 42 percent of its families are Catholic, many are not attending Mass regularly, and a number of faculty are not Catholic.” He continues, “I know and love my school principal and faculty, and I am coming to know and love the parents and students, but these are the unfortunate facts.”

Father Illo did not respond to a call requesting comment.

vtence@sfexaminer.com

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