St. Thomas More Academy to close after 2020 graduation

Rachel Casey

MAGNOLIA — After the class of 2020 accepts their diplomas from St. Thomas More Academy at the end of this school year, the Catholic school will close its doors and cease operations, officials announced this week.

“I regret that the class of 2020, during a time of celebration and moving forward to the next stage of life will also have to reconcile with the fact that they, along with the 19 classes of graduates before them, will not be able to return to STMA for musical productions, sports games, or alumni events,” Principal Rachael Casey wrote in a letter to the school community.

“I regret that our underclassmen, my freshmen, sophomores and juniors, cannot reach the culmination of their high school career here at STMA,” she continued. “To be the one to shake their hands and turn their tassels as they receive their diplomas will be a great honor. I’m sad to pass on to another principal at a different school.”

Ms. Casey said that the closure is a result of “continued lower than expected enrollment and financial burdens beyond our ability to bear.”

The school currently enrolls 50 students in the four grades it serves, said the Rev. James Lentini, pastor for Holy Cross Church of Dover and Immaculate Conception parishes.

St. Thomas More Academy opened in 1998, after about 10 years of work to bring another Catholic high school to Kent County following the closure of Holy Cross High School, according to the school’s website.

Through fundraising efforts, more than $1.6 million was raised for the school to take shape, and in 1997, the Diocese of Wilmington lent support, making it a diocesan high school.

Holy Cross Parish in Dover took over control and financial support in 2017.

“We thought we’d be able to strengthen the school with a closer affiliation to a local parish,” Father Lentini said. “We wanted to give the school every possible chance to succeed.”

Though Holy Cross maintains a successful elementary school, the loss of the high school in Kent County means that there will be no Catholic high school below Wilmington, Father Lentini said.

“Catholic schools are much more part of the landscape in New Castle County than down here,” he said.

He noted that it is “hard to quantify” why enrollment has seen such a decline, but noted that tuition weighs in heavily.

At the highest, tuition was around $12,000. Though they lowered tuition, it remains “a good deal of money for some people,” he said.

Access to Catholic schooling allows for education built around faith, Father Lentini said. He said he believes having that option is important.

In the short term, though, it is difficult to sustain such a small high school.

At the school’s highest peak, about 230 students were enrolled. Its strength was demonstrated on the court when, just a couple years ago, St. Thomas More found itself in the sports spotlight when both its boys’ and girls’ basketball teams reached the DIAA state semifinals.

In 2017, playing before a crowd of a few thousand people at the Carpenter Center, the Ravens’ boys lost a heart-breaking 48-47 decision to Caravel in the state semis. St. Thomas More reached the state quarterfinals the year before, knocking off higher-seeded Dover before falling to St. Georges, 45-39 in the state quarterfinals.

The Ravens’ girls reached the state semifinals in 2018 where they fell to Caravel, 58-33, at the Carpenter Center.

St. Thomas More also reached the state tournament in girls’ soccer and volleyball in earlier years.

The last six to seven years have presented struggles for the school, though, Father Lentini said.

He added that they tried different approaches for admissions, but none seemed to make the school flush with students.

“My prayer is, like the phoenix, we will rise from the closed high school to having another high school,” he said. “So many things in life come in trends. I think one day it will trend toward people wanting a Catholic high school. If enough people want it, it will happen.”

In her letter, Ms. Casey said that she regrets that the school cannot continue the work of the founders.

“I am consoled by the fact that my soon-to-be graduates in the class of 2020 are going to thrive in the larger world beyond our walls,” Ms. Casey continued, adding that the current group of students in grades nine through 11 have the character to “face challenges with Christian confidence.”

“I have watched them mature academically, socially, and spiritually during their time at STMA,” she wrote, “and if any group can face a transition such as this, it is this group. I know they will find success.”

The closure of St. Thomas More comes just about a year after the closure of St. John’s Lutheran School in Dover, which also shuttered due to financial strain caused by continued low enrollment.

“We’re people of hope,” Father Lentini said. “We hope for the best, and we hope that there’s another opportunity one day to have another Catholic high school in the southern part of Delaware.”

Andy Walter contributed to reporting.