Written by Tim Hadac
A few Queen of Peace girls have worn the St. Laurence black and gold over the years, including as Viking cheerleaders at football and basketball games.
Tears of joy were shed across Chicago and the southwest suburbs earlier this week as Queen of Peace High School students, parents, alumnae and others cheered the news that their current students will be accepted this fall at their “brother” school, St. Laurence High School.
“I don’t know if the timing is coincidental, but this is the Valentine’s Day gift of a lifetime. Our hearts are bursting with joy,” said Michelle Garcia, an aunt of a currently enrolled Peace girl. “If I bump into anyone from St. Laurence today, I’m giving them a hug and a kiss. In fact, I might bake a heart-shaped cake and bring it over to the school.”
This week’s news was largely predicted in a front-page story that appeared in last week’s The Reporter, which revealed that St. Laurence— an all-boys school since its founding in 1961 -- was quietly surveying thousands of its alumni and presenting four options relating to possible responses to Queen of Peace’s announcement that it was closing its doors for good, due to declining enrollment and mounting debt. Three of those St. Laurence options involved going co-ed in some way.
This week’s decision was announced to St. Laurence students at an all-school assembly on Tuesday morning — and almost at the same time, to parents, alumni and other friends of the school via an email blast.
Students who heard the news “were very supportive,” said St. Laurence spokesman Mike Madera, who added that as a 2010 graduate of the school, he finds the decision “smart and forward-thinking"
"This already is an exciting time of growth at St. Laurence, and this decision will make it even more so…it will ultimately make the school a stronger and better place,”Madera said.
Queen of Peace students who choose to enroll at St. Laurence in the fall will still enjoy the benefits of all-girl classes.
“It is a top priority to provide current St. Laurence and Queen of Peace students the single-gender education they signed up for, so all current and incoming students will remain in single-gender classrooms,” according to a statement by St. Laurence Board Chairman George Ruebenson and President Joseph Martinez, both alumni of the Burbank school. “This will allow our students to see very little change in their school day. To foster collaboration, we will open up activities before and after school and will develop a selection of coed electives to provide students opportunities to interact.”
The relatively small number of eighth-grade girls who took the entrance exam at Queen of Peace last month will not be offered spots at St. Laurence in the fall, officials said, but the school will begin marketing itself to both boys and girls and will accept both in the freshman class starting in the fall of 2018.
At that point, St. Laurence’s plan is to educate freshmen and sophomores as separately as possible under one roof and then move those students into co-educational classes as juniors and seniors.
St. Laurence officials also indicated they will not assume control of any Queen of Peace property, including its financial debt. They also were clear that the move does not represent a merger with Queen of Peace — that the girls will be St. Laurence students.
Many questions about Queen of Peace itself remain unanswered, including what will happen to the Queen of Peace building and grounds at 7659 S. Linder.
A request for comment on St. Laurence’s announcement yielded a more general expression from Anne O’Malley, president of Queen of Peace.
“We are grateful to the St. Laurence community and excited about what the future holds for our young women,” she said, in part. “While we are broken hearted to see Queen of Peace close, we find solace in the fact that many of our students will remain together until they graduate. The Queen of Peace leadership will work diligently with St. Laurence to make sure this is a smooth and successful transition for the students of both schools.”
As they did a week ago, graduates of bothschools, as well as mothers, fathers and even grandparents registered their opinions on Facebook and other social media sites.
“A week ago, my daughter and her [Queen of Peace] classmates were panicked and distraught, holding each other and crying,” one mother posted in a Facebook group. “Today, they’re holding each other and crying — but for a very, very different reason. They’re relieved and overjoyed. They’re at peace. Thank you so much, St. Laurence. What you did today is literally life-changing for my daughter and her friends.”
Going co-educational was something St. Laurence had started to consider, even before Queen of Peace announced its shutdown.
“St. Laurence has seen growth in its enrollment in recent years, but the trends of Catholic education in Chicago cannot be ignored,” its statement on Tuesday added. “Fewer and fewer students are going to single-sex high schools.Testing numbers have been on the decline at single-sex schools over the last decade, while coeducational high schools have seen an increase in test takers and historically experience far less volatility in enrollment.”
St. Laurence officials made it clear Tuesday that their decision was not an act of charity. They said Peace students are “a strong group of young women who, should they choose a St. Laurence education, will offer our community a new and valuable dynamic as they finish their high school careers together. These young women will bring intellectual opinions and experiences that differ from our male students, yet their familiarity and background with Queen of Peace’s STEAM program will align well with St. Laurence’s project-based curriculum. In the end, we believe our team-driven environment will only improve the exchange of ideas between students and help all of them prepare for the challenges ahead.”
To begin the transition, St. Laurence was set to host two town hall-style meetings this week: one for parents of its own students and another for Queen of Peace parents. To a limited degree, the schools have conducted co-educational activities over the years, most notably the inclusion of Peace girls in the St. Laurence band and rebranding it with Queen of Peace’s name.