Alumnni from as far back as the 1960s strolled the halls of Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School one last time during an open house May 27. The school, founded in 1953 as all-girls Notre Dame Academy and all-boys Archbishop Curley, will merge with Msgr. Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. (ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC)

Archbishop Curley closing … why is this happening?

MIAMI  |  Too few students. Too little money. Too much competition from charter schools. Too many parental fears about a changing neighborhood.

“There’s a perfect storm of reasons why the school struggled,” said Doug Romanik of his alma mater, 63-year-old Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame Prep. Simply put, “it was difficult for us to get students who would pay to come to our school.”

Romanik graduated from ACND in 1984, and became the school’s first lay principal in 2012. He joined the faculty in 2005, after working as an attorney. He is one of 15 siblings and cousins who attended either Archbishop Curley or Notre Dame Academy or the combined ACND. That includes two of his daughters, who are ACND graduates, and a third who just completed her sophomore year.

ACND had 226 students enrolled this year, in sixth through 12th grades. Most of them relied on Florida’s privately funded Step Up scholarships to cover about half of the $10,000 annual tuition. They struggled to pay the other half.

“You can’t serve the population the school wanted to serve without alternate funds (apart from) tuition,” said Brother Patrick Sean Moffett, the last Edmund Rice Christian Brother to serve as principal of Curley-Notre Dame. His community took over the school’s administration in 1985.

“We tried to cover that with alumni donations, but it was difficult,” said Romanik.
For years, the Archdiocese of Miami made up the deficit.

Despite the tight budgets, successive administrations pursued grants and partnerships to pay for needed improvements: renovations to the office, chapel, football and baseball fields; a new softball field; re-wiring the entire school for Wi-Fi connectivity; becoming the first Catholic school in Miami to provide iPads for all its students.

Whenever they were called upon, the alumni helped as well.

“If we had to fix something up, I’d make five different phone calls” and the work would get done, Brother Moffett said. “But I’d also give them a hard time and say, I need your kids to come.”

Competition from charter and magnet schools began cutting into enrollment. So did publicity surrounding Curley-Notre Dame’s acceptance of the so-called opportunity scholarships, which allowed students from F-graded public schools — mainly nearby Edison at the time — to transfer to religious or private schools. When the program was ruled unconstitutional by Florida’s Supreme Court, ACND refused to turn its back on the “voucher” students and allowed them to remain in the school.

“It was just a new lease on life for these kids,” Brother Moffett said.

The move also aligned with the school’s history and the Christian Brothers mission. In the 1960s, Curley and Notre Dame had been the first schools in Florida to be integrated. Around the same time, they welcomed Cuban refugees who had come without their parents via the Pedro Pan exodus. More recently, ACND accepted students displaced by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

That openness throughout the decades made Curley-Notre Dame perhaps the most culturally diverse school in the archdiocese.

“The school was a model for race relations,” said Brother Kevin Griffith, province leader for the Christian Brothers, who taught at ACND from 1986 to 1992.

Brother Richard DeMaria, former superintendent of schools for the archdiocese and the school’s principal from 1993 to 1998, remembers standing before the faculty one day and praising that diversity.

Not just that Curley-Notre Dame was about one-third black, one-third Hispanic, and one-third white, he said, but that “one third of the student body were from wealthy families, one third were from middle class families, and one third were from poor families. I also thought it important that the student body was a mixture of honors students, average students and students who were struggling. Thus, by every measure, we were an integrated school.”

But the balance began to shift. That’s because the Buena Vista neighborhood where the school is located had been changing for some time.

“As the neighborhood became poorer, families from wealthier areas decided against sending their children to our school,” Brother Richard said. “In fact, the school was very safe, but it’s hard to overcome people’s fears. The size of the student body kept diminishing, despite every effort to recruit them.”

Brother Moffett started a middle school — at various times known as 6 to 12 Prep or Brother Rice Honors Academy — to attract more students. ACND also partnered with the nearby Design District to promote arts education and opened an on-campus gallery. It highlighted its history and distinguished alumni, among them Miami historian Paul George, Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Carl Juste, and veteran television anchor Tony Segreto. Its speech and debate team gained national renown. And two graduates became Gates Millennium Scholars.

But Curley-Notre Dame had not built a new building in decades. Putting it on par with neighboring public and charter schools would have required at minimum a $2 to $3 million investment, Romanik said, while the cycle of low enrollment and lower income kept repeating itself.

The experts kept saying that the neighborhood would come back. And it has. The nearby arts scene and gentrification have turned Buena Vista into one of the hottest real estate markets in South Florida. But the change came about 10 years too late for Curley-Notre Dame.

“I’m not going to say that it wasn’t a shock to a lot of the people who worked there,” said Romanik. “There’s disappointment. Sadness. Not being in that neighborhood bothers a lot of people,” because Little Haiti and the surrounding area would be well served by a quality Catholic high school.

But the archdiocese decided that ACND’s current students will be better served by moving to Msgr. Edward Pace, a school that can offer them a full complement of educational and extra-curricular activities.

“I always say that the church is about people, not buildings. Then ACND is going to live for a long time, because it lives on in the hearts of the people who graduated and worked there,” Romanik said. “We’re going to go out like knights. We’re going to go on.”