St. Ann School, the oldest Catholic school in Hawaii, persevered through some of the most turbulent chapters of Hawaii’s history, including the 1853 smallpox epidemic and the 1918 flu pandemic. But it couldn’t beat COVID-19.

The Windward Oahu parochial K-8 school, attached to an eponymous church that was founded by Catholic missionaries from the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1841, has been a fixture in Kaneohe since before the overthrow and has taught many generations of families.

It also reflected the changing demographics of both the community that lines Kaneohe Bay on the eastern edge of Honolulu, and Catholic schools nationwide.

St. Ann School third and fourth graders line up to head back into their classroom after recess.
Third and fourth graders at St. Ann School line up to head back into their classroom after recess. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the last decade, a rise in older residents and decline in the number of younger children in the community, combined with a diminishing interest in parochial school education, has caused the school’s enrollment to careen steadily downward.

The cost of operating expenses amid steadily declining enrollment over the last decade proved too much to overcome once the coronavirus took hold. St. Ann announced last month in a letter to parents that it will be closing its doors for good once the final bell rings June 4, the last day of the school year.

“What does it mean to me? I can’t begin to tell you. I’m terribly sad,” said the Rev. Richard McNally, head of St. Ann Church, which owns the school and will remain active.

“You can imagine our campus next year, without that,” the priest said, gesturing toward the outdoor basketball court on a recent Friday morning as fourth graders ran around during recess.

St. Ann Church. Father Richard McNally.
Father Richard McNally of St. Ann Church. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The private school, which charges $9,300 per year in tuition, had been planning to shutter its doors at the end of last school year with the onset of the pandemic. But the school’s advisory board persuaded McNally to keep the school open one more year as it strove to raise $500,000 in December to sustain the school in future years.

That virtual drive raised only $72,000 and a decision was made by January to close the school permanently. The school needs at least 120 students enrolled per year to stay financially solvent but only had 71 K-8 students registered for the next school year, leaving it facing a deficit “well over $300,000,” McNally said.

Like other schools nationwide, St. Ann was forced to switch to online instruction last spring when the coronavirus hit, though it decided to welcome students back into the classroom with strict safety protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing when the new school year began on Aug. 24.

Declining Enrollment

In 2011-12, 290 students were enrolled in grades K-8 plus another 113 in its preschool, which opened in 1989. But the last decade saw declining numbers of students in K-8, in particular: there was no 8th grade class in 2017, and just six 8th graders in 2020, according to enrollment numbers provided by the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

The enrollment of 88 kids total in grades K-8 this year has caused the school to double up on grades for the first time. First and second graders, wearing masks, were mixed in one classroom on a recent visit, while third and fourth graders sat beside each other between plastic partitions in the next classroom over.

Across the large outdoor field sits the Early Learning Center, which has previously boosted the school’s overall enrollment, with a capacity of 168 students.

Though preschool enrollment over the last decade averaged 85 students, only 40 kids were enrolled this year and fewer than 10 families had committed to coming back next year, largely due to parents’ wariness over sending their kids to campus during the pandemic.

That accelerated a trend already set in motion by a declining number of children in Kaneohe. As the share of residents 65 and older has risen, the share of residents 18 and under has shrunk between 2007 and 2017. The number of K-12 children in Kaneohe has dropped from 5,364 to 4,779 in that same time frame, according to Justin Tyndall of University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“That’s why I say, COVID was the last straw,” said St. Ann principal Mandy Thronas-Brown, who appeared in a video message late last year appealing to the community for donations. “You need a five-year plan to thrive. And we can’t see past this June.”

St. Ann School students wear their masks in their classroom with social distanced desks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students have been back in the classroom since the start of the current school year. But due to lower enrollment, grade levels have been combined. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The church officially established St. Ann School in 1871 as a boarding school for eight boys and began accepting girls the following year. However, missionaries began teaching local kids reading, writing, math and geography in the Hawaiian language when the church first opened, putting the school’s age at 180 years.

It stood its ground through many crises ranging from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, previous pandemics that tore through the population and Pearl Harbor.

“Saint Ann was a great school,” said Louis John McCabe, 91, who attended kindergarten through 8th grade at the school from 1937 to 1945.

His grandfather, who was of mixed Irish and Hawaiian ancestry, was the first English teacher at the school. “All of my brothers and sisters went there. The church gave my grandfather church land to build his home.”

The McCabe family was heavily involved in running the school until the sisters of the Maryknoll community took over in 1927, according to a historical account.

A high school for girls was open from 1955 to 1970, Thronas-Brown, the principal, said. The early learning center operates in the building that had once housed the high school.

St. Ann, which sits across the street from the Windward Mall, has welcomed students who weren’t Catholic but whose families were drawn to the smaller class sizes, a more disciplined regimen and a public school alternative.

Autumn Vargas, who attended fourth through eighth grades at the school from 1988 to 1993, remembers how wistful she felt when she could not participate in Holy Communion at graduation because her family was not actually part of the parish.

She had pushed her parents to enroll her in St. Ann School because many of her fellow Girl Scout troop members were students there. The school provided a “well-rounded” education, with speech and science fairs and an emphasis on student recognition through certificates and awards, she recalled.

Her education also drew from the history of the surrounding community: her class once walked over to the nearby St. Ann church-owned cemetery to do a crayon-tracing of the gravestones marking some of Kaneohe’s oldest residents who had been born in the 19th century and later.

St. Ann School Principal Mandy Thronas-Brown.
St. Ann Principal Mandy Thronas-Brown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It was to learn about the history of people who lived in Kaneohe: just to know who’s walked these halls and these grounds, what they endured and where they’re at,” Vargas, 42, said in a phone interview.

More than just an educational institution, with an emphasis on punctuality and cursive handwriting, St. Ann School also was a community hub from the late 1930s on. It hosted luaus, rodeos and carnivals that raised funds and drew crowds for fresh and hot malasadas, corn on the cob and camaraderie.

“Some of the best carnivals put out!” exclaimed McCabe, speaking via phone from his home in San Antonio. “People from all over Oahu came to St. Ann’s carnival. They had some of the best bingo games you’d want.”

McCabe’s grandparents are buried in the parish cemetery. His eldest brother fought to keep the church from selling the gravesite land when the mall, which is owned by Kamehameha Schools, was being developed in the early 1980s.

John Rosa, an Oahu resident, attended St. Ann School between 1978 and 1982 for grades 5 to 8. He and his brother were altar boys at St. Ann Church: back then pews were full during the Saturday evening Mass and three early Sunday morning ones. School tuition was around $250 to $300 a year, he said.

“Kaneohe is not very big, so everyone kind of knew us as one of the big Catholic families in Kaneohe who played soccer,” Rosa, 52, said. “Growing up, there were a lot of kids, period. The tuition was affordable. The majority of us were Catholic, but not all of us were.”

Rosa, now a history professor at University of Hawaii Manoa, recalls the school as “strict but not overly strict.”

“I learned how to read and write and be prompt and dress well,” he recalled. “How to be prompt, how to be presentable. I got a solid education.”

The school fostered a tight-knit, family-like atmosphere, which is why the St. Ann School Facebook alumni page has seen an outpouring of tributes and reminiscences after news of the closure broke. Many alumni posted old class photos that were taken on the school’s sun-dappled field with the majestic Koolau mountain range in the background.

St. Ann’s Church and School.
While St. Ann School was officially established in 1871, missionaries were teaching local students since the establishment of the church 30 years prior. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rosa, who was in the 8th grade when the Windward Mall opened, recalled when the land across the school was just a grassy area. Before the mall opened, he and friends would have to take a bus across town to have a place to hang out at Ala Moana Mall in central Honolulu.

Neither Rosa nor Vargas live in Kaneohe today.

Rosa’s parents moved to East Honolulu while he lives in town with his wife and children.

As with many people born and raised in Hawaii, Vargas and her husband moved out of the state in 2006 for a cheaper cost of living, settling in Spokane, Wash.

“I always say Hawaii is home, but as far as St. Ann, every time I go back, I visit Kaneohe because that’s my hometown,” she said. “It was really sad to hear (the school) is not going to be there.”

Recent Catholic School Closures

St. Ann School is one of several Catholic schools to succumb to economic forces in Hawaii in recent years. Saint Francis School in Manoa closed in May 2019, while St. John the Baptist in Kalihi and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ewa Beach both closed last June due to the pandemic.

St. Joseph School in Hilo, another stalwart in the Catholic school community that has been around for 150 years, was on the verge of closing until it managed to raise $500,000 in June. It encompasses all 12 grades and so financially benefited from a larger alumni base, said Llewellyn Young, superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools, and the school’s former principal.

Nationwide, Catholic school enrollment enjoyed a peak in the early 1960s but witnessed a sharp decline in the 1970s and 1980s, with just half the amount of kids enrolled in Catholic schools by the 1990s as there had been 30 years earlier, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

“The pandemic is putting the extra (financial) pressure on things, but Catholic schools have had that problem raising up slowly over the years,” said Phil Bossert, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. “Fewer people are choosing to become nuns and brothers and priests, and so there are fewer nuns and brothers to teach in the schools for free.”

While modern Catholic schools are generally taught by secular teachers, the pay is humble. Teacher salaries at St. Ann range from $39,000 to $48,000 a year, according to Thronas-Brown, whereas the average Hawaii Department of Education salary is at least $10,000 higher.

In Hawaii, 33 Catholic schools currently serve 6,726 students, down from 10,108 a decade ago.

Some private schools have gained students during the pandemic as families pulled their kids out of public schools to get the in-person instruction private schools have been able to continue offering, although only one student came back to St. Ann this year for that reason, according to its principal.

St. Ann School with masked early learning students during in person class during the COVID-19 pandemic.
St. Ann’s Early Learning Center has helped prop overall school enrollment over the last decade, but enrollment dropped steeply during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

St. Ann staff have been directing its families to other nearby Catholic schools like St. John Vianney School in Kailua for next year. Many St. Ann students finish their high school years at Damien Memorial School, Sacred Hearts Academy, Saint Louis School, Punahou and Iolani. The neighborhood public school is Castle High.

“It’s just sad because the teachers are really good teachers,” said Dick Wainwright, as he waited in a long line of cars outside the school to pick up his granddaughter, who is in fourth-grade and had been a student at St. Ann since kindergarten.

St Ann School staff Kuulei Halemano shares that her family connections to St. Ann School for several generations.
St Ann School staff member Kuulei Halemano. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A lean operation, the school has nine teachers, four aides and three administrative staff, one of whom, Kuulei Halemano, has worked at the school for 25 years. Born and raised in Kaneohe, she herself attended the school, as did her mother and grandfather and great-grandfather, and her own daughter.

She recalls when the school invited parents to help with tasks such as cleaning classrooms or even teaching a music class, as her mother did, to waive or offset some of the tuition.

“In the past, families from the church and school were very connected,” she said.

Rosa, the UH history professor, said the closure of St. Ann is a vivid reminder of the fact a school isn’t always just a school.

“A school that provides education can also be the hub for a community, not just for one, but two, three, even more generations,” he said.

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