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Transfiguration family says goodbye

| Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teresa Yanicko figures being forced out is God's way of telling her something.

The Transfiguration School sixth-grader is among dozens of students who will not return next year, and not by choice.

The school will close for good Thursday as part of a joint decision made by Diocese of Pittsburgh and school administrators as a result of declining enrollment.

"In my opinion, I think the school should stay open," said Yanicko, 12, of West Deer. "But, I think this is God's way of telling me I need to meet new people."

Yanicko and her schoolmates celebrated Transfiguration's 44-year history on Tuesday along with teachers, parents and former students. In all, more than 200 people crowded into the school's gym for an evening of music, skits, solemn goodbyes and food.

Although many said they were sad to see the school close, there were more smiles than tears as old classmates reunited and teachers encouraged students to carry with them the lessons they learned at Transfiguration.

"We are here to celebrate what Transfiguration School stood for and the spirit that will continue to be Transfiguration School," Principal Mary Ann Miller told those who gathered.

The celebratory spirit was more than evident during a candlelight vigil in which the crowd stood in a circle around the gym while the students repeatedly sang, "This Little Light of Mine," at the top of their lungs.

Miller later said privately that enrollment has declined to a point at which the school couldn't keep its doors open without raising tuition costs.

School and diocese officials said in March that Transfiguration's enrollment has been declining for years, from 92 students in 2004-05 to 57 now in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Miller said that including preschoolers in the total figure would bump the number to 70.

Cost per pupil increased from $4,200 to $6,200 over the past four years. Tuition has risen, too, from $2,200 to $3,200.

Projections indicate the decline would have continued, and next year's projected tuition -- with even fewer students -- would be $4,500, with a $7,400 cost per pupil.

"It was a joint decision between the diocese and us," Miller said. "It was just one of those facts of life."

The Transfiguration community has seen some hard times recently. About two years ago, the parish church burned down. The diocese announced this year that the church wouldn't be rebuilt.

Miller said the decision not to rebuild the church and school closing are "totally separate issues." She added that the diocese plans to convert the school's gym into a sanctuary and continue church services at the school building.

Mass has been celebrated in the gym since the fire, she said.

Meantime, Miller said the majority of students -- about 65 percent -- will continue at other Roman Catholic schools in the area.

Yanicko said she will attend St. Mary School in Glenshaw, Shaler.

Eighth-grader Samantha Gulick, 13, of Tarentum wouldn't be returning to Transfiguration next year anyway, but said the closing still saddens her.

"I've been here for nine years," she said. "This is like a family."

Gulick's classmate, Joseph Vaerewyck, 14, of Tarentum, equated leaving the school to moving into a new house. Asked what he enjoyed most about his time at Transfiguration, he said, "Everything's been really special to me."

Gulick and Vaerewyck said they will attend St. Joseph High School in Harrison next year.

Christy McGranahan and Nacol Sharkins-Werries said they were shocked when it was announced earlier this year that the school would close.

The pair were part of Transfiguration's first kindergarten class in 1977.

"To everything there is a season," lamented Sharkins-Werries, 36, of Hampton.

Sharkins-Werries not only attended school at Transfiguration, she said she returned to teach music from 1994 to 1999.

Said McGranahan, 35, of Vandergrift, "It's sad. You think some things are going to be here forever."

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