Laurie Montplaisir knew her daughter's Catholic elementary school, Old St. Mary's, had crossed a milestone when parents at her parish began asking her what they could possibly do to get their preschool children enrolled.
Ten years ago, Montplaisir's daughter was recruited to be among the new school's founding class of 18 preschoolers, meeting in one room of an old brick furniture warehouse under the care of one teacher and one janitor. On Thursday, her daughter, Delaney Martin Hybl, will be one of the first five eighth-graders to graduate from the school, which recently moved to a new building and now boasts more than 350 students.
"Thank God I didn't know getting into it what I was getting myself into, although it turned out wonderfully," Montplaisir said. "Almost everything we did was new. Every class was new. Every club they started was new. It was always like a first experience, but Delaney always embraced that and enjoyed it and rose to the occasion."
The young South Loop school and its five pioneering graduates interrupt the gloomy narrative of school closings and significantly lower enrollment in Catholic schools nationally and in the Archdiocese of Chicago since its peak in the 1960s. Only recently has enrollment in Chicago seen a slight upswing.
Old St. Mary's expanding enrollment — slated to be around 400 next year — reflects its location in the South Loop, a neighborhood that since the early 1980s has been transformed. From a swath of abandoned warehouses and factories, the neighborhood has grown into a storefront- and park-filled community where young, professional parents could live a convenient bus or Red Line stop away from the Loop.
Montplaisir was a young, single attorney in the early 1990s when she recognized what she thought would be a prime location for growth, at a time when Roosevelt Road on the south end of Grant Park was considered the end of the line. On her way to one of the only town home developments in the area at the time, she said the bus driver often thought she had missed her stop. After she and others like her married and had kids but wanted to remain in the city, there became more need for neighborhood schools, something Old St. Mary's Parish and the archdiocese recognized, according to Old St. Mary's principal, Julie Kadrich.
"The South Loop had not really quite become what it is today, but there were enough families that the parish felt confident it was going to grow," Montplaisir said.
The archdiocese has seen similar growth in gentrifying neighborhoods across the city, according to the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Sister Mary Paul McCaughey. Catholic schools in Chinatown, Bucktown, Logan Square, Wrigleyville and the north side of Lincoln Park are growing or full, McCaughey said.
"There's that element of young people wanting to stay in the city, and so they're choosing Catholic schools," McCaughey said.
The largest diocesan school system in the country is far from its peak enrollment of 366,171 students in 1964, but last fall, for the first time since 1965, enrollment numbers in elementary schools increased by more than 1,300 students to 60,700 out of the district's roughly 85,000 total students. Like Old St. Mary's, where about 100 of its students are preschoolers, many of the city's growing schools are early-grade heavy.
Old St. Mary's is one of eight Catholic schools in Lake and Cook counties that have opened or reopened in the past 20 years, according to information from the archdiocese. Old St. Mary's traces its roots to the first Catholic grammar school in the city, founded around 1846 a few blocks north of its current location, which closed after burning down in the Great Fire of 1871.
Being the new school's first enrollees had its challenges. Parents of the first students at Old St. Mary's anxiously awaited state testing scores to see how the school would compare with others academically, and the first class often did not have enough students to form sports teams or clubs. Out of the original 18 preschoolers, a total of five remain in the seventh and eighth grades. (Three of the graduating eight-graders arrived later.) Some in the original class moved, according to Montplaisir, but some in the older grades switched to other Catholic schools in the city with more sports teams.
When the first teacher and founding principal, Barbara Spaniol-Smith, died unexpectedly in 2007, teachers and students were devastated and some feared the school would not continue.
At the same time, a close-knit community protected the first five from the bullying and cattiness that can tarnish a middle school experience. The first year that Old St. Mary's had a track team in 2012, Montplaisir recalled that one teammate dragged miles behind everyone before the small team of five or six kids spontaneously ran back to her to cross the finish line together.
"I remember thinking, 'That's what I'm paying the Catholic tuition for,'" Montplaisir said.
Felicia Fuller gets emotional when she thinks about how administrators at another school wanted to put her son, Brycen Pitre, who will also graduate Thursday, in a special-needs classroom for dyslexia. Under the care of a small class at Old St. Mary's, he was on high honor roll and involved in every extracurricular activity the school offered. He is not only close to the four other graduates and the seventh-grade class of 10 students that they share a homeroom with, Fuller said, he is also looked up to by the school's preschoolers.
"He even had a solo in the choir, and nobody knew he could sing," Fuller said. "It just makes me think about all the kids who don't have that kind of support that drop out of school."
Pitre will attend De La Salle Institute on the South Side, along with three other graduates — Devin Torres, Hans Stroger and Isabella Castelaz. Delaney tested into Jones College Prep, a selective-enrollment public high school in the Printers Row neighborhood. The entire school is anxiously looking to these five to represent them, Principal Kadrich said. Their success will be the school's success.
"They are going to be great. I know they are," Kadrich said.
At this point, Old St. Mary's five graduates are more concerned about what they are leaving behind. Last week during finals, they sat around a table together, teasing each other and trying to articulate their feelings on the cusp of their graduation.
"I'm nervous. I've been here so long," said Castelaz, 14, one of the graduates. "To me, it's like I'm leaving my family."
The school which Pitre and three other graduates will attend was incorrectly identified in earlier versions of this story and has been corrected.