Quick Take:

After 60 years of serving families in Santa Cruz, Good Shepherd Catholic School closed on June 30. Officials from the Diocese of Monterey said declining enrollment and financial challenges led them to shutter its doors, but families believe they were close to meeting the target enrollment — and now feel betrayed.

Jude Smith loved his preschool class so much he would skip to class when his mom dropped him off at Good Shepherd Catholic School.

So when his mom Ayla Smith, who attended Good Shepherd herself in the 90s, found out in late June that the school founded in 1963 would be closing its doors immediately, she was devastated.

Good Shepherd Catholic School taught grades preschool through 8th grade and employed 20 staff members when it closed. Located off Mattison Lane, several blocks away from Dominican Hospital, the school had been one of two Catholic schools in Santa Cruz, including Holy Cross School — which serves preschool through 8th grade at its campus located near downtown next to the Mission Santa Cruz.

Good Shepherd Catholic School.
Good Shepherd Catholic School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

While it served more than 200 students in the 2000s, Good Shepherd ended this school year with about 85 students.

It was home to generations of local families, including its founding members from the Bargetto family — who also established Bargetto Winery. At one point, John Bargetto told Lookout, one Bargetto was in each class from preschool to 8th grade.

Now, the families find themselves scrambling for a place to enroll their children. But it’s not as easy as switching to another school under the diocese that some parents feel they can no longer trust.

Good Shepherd is the second school the Diocese of Monterey has closed in recent years and is part of a growing number of Catholic schools to close across the country. Since 2010, a total of 1,400 Catholic schools were closed or consolidated in the U.S., according to the National Catholic Educational Association. In 2020, the diocese closed Junipero Serra School in Carmel, with officials citing declining enrollment and financial trouble.

“It’s so heartbreaking, because now, what am I gonna do?” Smith said, wondering where she could enroll her children. “The staff are losing their jobs, and we have so many friends there. My youngest was supposed to go there next year too.”

Former Principal Rich Determan was shocked to hear the news as well. He took on the role in 2018 and completed his tenure there when the school year ended in May.

“The parents, and some of the community members were really upset,” he said. “They don’t know if they can trust the Catholic Church.”

Diocese cites declining enrollment, finances

Diocese of Monterey officials had reassured concerned parents at a meeting in May that the school would stay open for the next school year, but would have to shift to combination classes because of declining enrollment. Combination classes would have combined kindergarten and first-grade students in one class, for example.

In the days following the meeting, Smith, several parents and community members rushed to raise money to help fund tuition for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend, in order to increase enrollment. They said the diocese set a deadline of June 30 to have 90 students enrolled and registration paid.

They regularly dropped off donations at the school and received updates about enrollment numbers through the beginning of the summer: 85, 86, 84. Families signed up and families left. On June 29, Smith went to check on the status of their campaign.

Good Shepherd Catholic School.
Good Shepherd Catholic School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“I was told [the superintendent] wants all the enrollment, and deposit paid today by 3 p.m., for it to count. And so she had changed the date on us from June 30 to June 29, at 3 p.m.,” she said. “It was like, every time we were jumping through their hoops and following their rules, they would always change it on us. That’s how I felt.”

She said at that point, three more students needed to be assessed and approved that day, but, she says, they were denied. If they were approved, enrollment would have reached 91 students, according to Smith.

The Superintendent of the Diocese of Monterey Catholic schools Kimberly Cheng told families in the June 30 email the school did not meet the goal of 90 students enrolled and registration paid and therefore the school would be closing immediately.

“In summary, the school has struggled with a multi-year decline in enrollment resulting in a precarious and fragile financial situation,” she wrote. “The resulting enrollment has created an unsustainable current and projected budget deficit.”

For the past several years, the diocese was covering the school’s deficit as it worked with school officials to build enrollment, Bishop Daniel Garcia wrote in a statement that accompanied the email.

“I know that there will be some who wish to appeal this decision or ask me to keep the school open for another year, but regretfully this decision is final,” he wrote.

After several days of seeking comment, Lookout received word from a spokesperson for the diocese on Tuesday that no one would be available for comment, but offered the emailed statements.

Good Shepherd Catholic School.
Good Shepherd Catholic School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Facing a decades-long decline in enrollment and a declining population of practicing Catholics, Catholic schools in the U.S. have struggled to stay open and the pandemic exacerbated the challenges, according to the New York Times. As families lost incomes over the past two years, paying tuition for private schools became much more difficult.

At its peak in the 1960s, more than 5.2 million students were enrolled at 13,000 Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. This past year, enrollment was just under 1.7 million students at 5,938 schools.

How families, staff experience the loss

Parents and staff told Lookout that the school closing is a loss for the community and hurts their relationship with the Catholic Church.

“I really had feared that the diocese was never really on our side,” Smith said. “And then when this happened, that fear came true.”

Rich Determan, the former principal, said even after having such long ties with the school, he understands why these families wouldn’t go back to another Catholic school.

His first teaching job was at Good Shepherd in 1979 teaching 8th grade, before he went on to teach in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for 38 years. He retired, but then decided he wasn’t done and was hired as principal for Good Shepherd in 2018.

“I was so proud to say that I was the principal of Good Shepherd,” he said.

While he wasn’t at the meeting in May, he said parents had reason to believe the school would stay open after diocese officials assured them, telling them they were doing what they could to keep it open. So, the news of its closure was abrupt.

Good Shepherd Catholic School.
Good Shepherd Catholic School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Considering the school’s long history, and all the families it had served in its nearly 60-year lifespan, John Bargetto said he was “bitterly disappointed” when it closed.

His father, Lawrence, his uncle Ralph, and a local priest founded Good Shepherd in 1963.

“I grew up with 15 siblings and cousins on the [winery] property in Soquel, and 13 of them went through Good Shepherd,” he said, adding his three kids all went to the school as well.

“When a school closes like Good Shepherd, it’s a loss for the community,” he said.

When he heard about the school being at risk of closing, he reached out to the diocese. He tried to talk to the bishop, but said he was able to get in touch with general counsel for the diocese, Susan A. Mayer, several days before the announcement of the school’s closure.

“I begged them not to close it,” he said. “To give the community time — people were ready to give money and support, but people need time.”

A couple of days after his conversation with Mayer, he said, the email was sent out to families. He confirms Smith’s count, saying the school was only one or two under the goal of 90 students.

“[The families] felt the rug had been pulled out from under them,” he said. “They were very disappointed…The parents and staff felt that they were dealing in bad faith. And then when you’re an institution of faith, it’s kind of a double bad move.”

Christina McLaughlin's kindergarten class surprised her with a cake at Good Shepherd Catholic School.
Christina McLaughlin’s kindergarten class surprised her with a cake with her nickname, Mrs. Mac, written on it, at Good Shepherd Catholic School this past year. Credit: Courtesy of Christina McLaughlin

As co-founder of the school’s endowment fund, Bargetto said he would have told the bishop to take money out of the endowment to balance the budget and give the school another year to increase enrollment.

“So that’s why it’s a little extra personal for me, because the purpose of the endowment was to try to help get through tough times,” he said. “I just felt like, OK, people should have come to the rescue of this school and should have had a long-term perspective — kept it alive, at least a full year. And, now the school is shuttered.”

Another member of the Bargetto family, Christina McLaughlin taught kindergarten at Good Shepherd this past year. Her grandfather, Ralph, brother of Lawrence Bargetto, helped found the school. Her mom also taught at the school.
“It honestly felt like coming into a family each day,” she said. “It was a really special place. You went there, and you didn’t even really feel like we were working.”

It was difficult getting the news, and getting it so last minute. As she processes the news, she’s taking time to decide what she’ll do for work for the coming school year.

“It’s just sad — like going to clean out my classroom on Friday,” she said. “When I did that, I barely cleaned up half of the class. It’s just depressing.”

She recalled how the school garden was already starting to wither.

“Everybody stopped taking care of it all. We had this big vegetable garden that our kindergarten class planted and it was just, like, withering away,” she said. “What’s going to happen with this [property]?”

Ayla Smith, the mother of Jude Smith, said each time she and her son drive by the school, he says, “There’s my school.” It brings tears to her eyes thinking about him losing the community and safety the school provided.

At first, Jude didn’t understand the news. Ayla took him to the school to say goodbye.

“I was like, we’re gonna go say bye. I know the [staff] are there, we’re gonna go say bye,” she said. “And I think that’s when he kind of got it. I was like, ‘Tell the school goodbye when we leave.’ And he did.”

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...