Supporters push to keep school at Ladywood site

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Lauren Hartwig learned late last year that Ladywood High School would close in 2018, the teen immediately burst into tears.

Like others who attend the all-girls Catholic school in Livonia, she cherished the atmosphere, activities and bonds. While planning to enroll elsewhere for the next academic year, the 16-year-old’s family and others with ties to the longtime institution have sought to keep it open.

A group of community residents now is gathering input on recommending a replacement at the site that would resurrect the school — a blessing to the teens who don’t want to leave.

“If this was a possibility, it would mean the world to us,” said Hartwig, a junior from Plymouth active in volleyball, Student Council and other extracurricular activities there. “It’s something we hold with pride. We’d love to keep the legacy it’s had since 1950.”

That has driven supporters since officials in December announced plans to shutter Ladywood at the end of the 2017-18 academic year, citing a 60-percent enrollment drop since 2005. The school affiliated with the Felician Sisters of North America boasted about 600 students in 1964-65 but now has 169, a representative told The Detroit News.

Felician Services, which supports the order’s ministries, has since started mulling changes at the property. Beginning March 1, “ministries and organizations who have an interest in leasing the property following the dissolution of Ladywood High School will have an opportunity to submit proposals” for plans, the group said in a statement.

Criteria and details will be available on its website then. Felician Services is set to review the proposals for the sisters, president Andrea White said.

“We announced to those who have made inquiries that preference would be given to Felician Sponsored ministries, Catholic sponsored ministries/agencies and not for profit educational institutions,” she wrote in an email.

The request for proposals prompted parents, alumni and others working under the name Project Blazer to start pursuing the idea of keeping an independent school at the Ladywood site under a different name. The group has reached out to the Healey Education Foundation, which invests in PK-12 Catholic schools, in hopes of developing a business plan, said Karyn Paulin, a Ladywood graduate involved in the efforts.

“It’s important for the community and the girls and the alumni,” said Paulin, whose daughter attends the school. “It’s needed where it is.”

Her group hosted a meeting Wednesday night at a Knights of Columbus hall in Livonia to gauge interest from families of current and potential students.

Though questions remain about financing and administrative oversight as well as other education issues, the group urged parents to consider the cause a possible route to saving the Ladywood campus.

“This is our opportunity to have a stronger say in the school and the future of our girls,” said Maureen Fay, another graduate working with Project Blazer.

Christine Healey, president of Healey Education Foundation, confirmed her group has been in contact with Ladywood supporters.

“We receive many calls from Catholic schools across the country, especially those at risk of closure,” she wrote in a Friday email. “It is our policy to listen and to provide whatever guidance that might be helpful to those facing such challenging times. However, we have no formal agreement to work with the school community members.”

Project Blazer aims to secure 90 percent approval from families, more than 100, by the end of the month to move forward with Healey, Fay said.

Even if their bid reaches the Felicians, the order has the final say on the fate of the Ladywood grounds, White said. A deadline for a decision has not been announced.

“They’d like to have the property occupied if at all possible, but they want to make sure they have the right occupant that is going to be appropriate for the campus,” White said.

While no plan has been finalized, many parents welcome the chance to try to maintain a Catholic space for the students.

“They built this whole community,” said Nicole Collins, whose daughter is a freshman.

When news of the scheduled closing broke, “it was like a death,” said Sarah Dotto, whose daughter is a sophomore. “We love Ladywood. It’s so important to us. It’s a wonderful, safe place. The kids were devastated.”

Hartwig plans to attend another Metro Detroit Catholic school her senior year but holds out hope for staying put, even if it’s under a new name or different structure.

“It’s a home to every single one of us,” she said. “I could never love a school like I love Ladywood.”