The news of Guardian Angel’s closing, announced in February by the Archdiocese of New York, came as a surprise to parents. In a letter, Michael Deegan, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, gave two reasons for the decision. First, that the Covid pandemic and changing demographics had diminished enrollment. Second, that the school was now facing a projected annual deficit of about $550,000. “The factors leading to the closure of Guardian Angel,” he concluded, “are beyond anyone’s control.”
Might Guardian Angel still be saved? Over the past few months, parents and alumni like Ms. Serrano sought to meet with archdiocese officials to propose a fund-raising campaign. In his letter, Mr. Deegan did not respond to requests to meet with them, noting instead that “we simply cannot fund-raise out of this situation.” But why not? The projected deficit of $550,000 — about $3,000 per student — is not a small number, but in the broader context it is a pittance, especially given the economic value of good teachers and a good education over a student’s lifetime. (I reached out to Mr. Deegan for more detail but his office referred me back to the letter he sent to parents.)
I don’t want to suggest that there are easy answers for Guardian Angel — or for other affordable private religious schools. The Archdiocese of New York, like Catholic institutions across the country, is struggling financially; Guardian Angel is one of 12 schools it is closing this year. But the High Line, which the school abuts, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund its innovative landscaping and its cultural programs. A little farther north, in Hell’s Kitchen, the Irish Arts Center, which celebrates one of the immigrant populations that originally attended Guardian Angel, recently raised $60 million. My employer, Columbia University, raised more than $5 billion during its last capital campaign.
Fund-raising is not a zero-sum game and donors are not wrong to support well-funded institutions like Columbia, but schools like Guardian Angel need the money more. American’s elite educational establishments are already strong. We need to provide support where we are weak: the institutions that give working- and middle-class people a step up to a more economically secure existence. Some of those institutions are public schools, some private, some religious, some not. What matters is the economic role they play.
There’s an affecting documentary from 2015 called “Class Divide” that explores hyper-gentrification in Chelsea. It features a Guardian Angel student named Rosa De Santiago, who was eight at the time. She is the kind of kid who embodies New York at its best — energetic and ambitious, eager to make it in life. She aspired to make it to Columbia University, but she knew she faced obstacles. “I hate money,” she says in the movie. “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate money.” She adds, “Money was made by the Devil, I think, because God didn’t say, ‘Oh, you have to pay for this.’”