"I learned a lot, personally and politically, when I was there," said Inclan, who last year became the first Hispanic to ever gain election to a countywide political office. "Sister Virginelle was the principal and she challenged me a lot and taught me about the world. She was very focused and down-to-earth. She was a great leader and taught me how to act like a man."
He added, "Richard Fogarty was my gym teacher there and he was the one who got me involved in politics when I was 16. There were great teachers, great administrators who worked so well with everyone, even in a small school. I give them credit for what I am today. They were all very strong and very real educators."
So it's safe to say that Inclan was deeply saddened when St. John Nepomucene closed its doors for good Thursday, just five years after celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Citing plummeting enrollment numbers that had shrunk from 280 just seven years ago to 156 this year, the Archdiocese of Newark, the governing body for all Roman Catholic schools in the area, ordered that the school be closed if some means of financial support could not be attained.
"I am very saddened by it," Inclan said. "It's very unfortunate. I guess it's just a sign of the times."
Rev. Richard Carlson, the pastor and administrator at St. John Nepomucene Parish, said that the school has to abide by the rules of the Archdiocese.
"We do everything with the Archdiocese in mind," Carlson said. "It's always a disappointment when a school has to close. Over the years, the enrollment has dropped, and that forced the Archdiocese to make a decision. We knew we were in a precarious situation when we saw the enrollment. It's just one of those situations, a matter of demographics. You don't find many people willing to send their children to Parochial schools anymore."
Carlson said that the parents of the 140 students (16 graduated from eighth grade last week) who are now left without a gradeschool were forewarned about the situation.
"The decision to close was made in February," Carlson said. "It was not made overnight. We have policies we have to follow. We tried to keep the school open, but the enrollment just wasn't there. I believe the parents have seen the handwriting on the wall from the beginning of the school year."
Carlson pointed out that the Archdiocese has ordered the closing of several schools within the Archdiocese over the past year, including several in Hudson County. St. Paul's (Greenville) in Jersey City was one of the most prominent schools that had its doors closed forever last year.
Carlson said that most of the returning students have already been placed in neighboring Parochial schools, such as Our Lady of Libera in West New York, St. Joseph of the Palisades in West New York, and Our Lady of Grace in Fairview.
"We've worked with the other schools to get our students placed," Carlson said.
Still, there are some parents who are extremely disappointed that the staple of the local community is closing its doors.
Patricia Contreras just watched her 6-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, finish the kindergarten program at St. John.
"I'm very disappointed because I liked the school a lot," Contreras said. "They had small classrooms [14 children to each teacher] and I know my daughter got a lot of attention from the teachers. The teachers had a lot of activities for the students, and they involved the parents with everything. She just finished kindergarten and was going into first grade, which is a big step. She was just getting comfortable with the routine, making friends, knowing the teachers. Now, we have to pull her out of that and start over. She learned so much in this past year."
Heard the rumors
Contreras said that she constantly heard rumors that the school was going to close, but school officials told her that she had no concerns.
"I kept hearing rumors, and I kept asking the people in the school, and they told me it was not going to close, that it was just rumors," Contreras said. "So I did register her for first grade. But when they sent the money back, I knew that it was closing, and I was very disappointed."
School officials refused to comment for the story, referring all questions to Carlson and the Archdiocesan office.
Jim Goodness, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said that there is a plan to either close or consolidate some of the 170 Roman Catholic grade schools in the Archdiocese, because of cost problems. More than 56,000 students attended Roman Catholic schools in the Archdiocese in 2003-04.
Now, the Archdiocese is calling for a minimum enrollment of 200 to 225 students for each grade school, with students from early childhood through eighth grade. School enrollment in the archdiocese is down from about 100,000 students several decades ago.
"Sure, the emotional ties are there," Goodness said. "But we're going to have to face them, like when a mother says, 'My 7-year-old daughter is going to have to go somewhere else, but I went here and my mother went here.' We know we're facing that."
Added Goodness, "If people are willing to pay $6,000 a kid, a school with 150 students is fine. But, on average, that's not the case. Schools can have a bad year, just like any business can have a bad year where there are unanticipated expenses. But if someone is continually not making budget, it needs to be addressed."
According to Goodness, the archdiocese spent nearly $4 million of its $29 million budget in 2003-04, subsidizing churches and schools that could not support themselves.
With the minimum enrollment in place, St. John Nepomucene simply couldn't keep its doors open.
There had been talk of the community rallying together for fundraisers. Inclan said that he heard of some alumni rallying together to organize a fundraiser.
"But by the time we could get everything together, we heard it was closing," Inclan said. "It happened very suddenly and there was not enough time to do anything. It's very unfortunate."
"I thought there were some things that could have been done to keep the school open," Contreras said. "I think even some of us asked what we could do in terms of fund raisers, but nothing ever happened. It's very sad."
Contreras said that she has already enrolled Brooklyn into the first grade at Our Lady of Libera in West New York, some 13 blocks south of St. John Nepomucene. Many of Brooklyn Contreras' classmates are expected to do the same.
There were reports late Wednesday that the North Bergen Board of Education is in negotiations with the Archdiocese of Newark to lease the school for next fall, which would definitely help the district's overcrowding issue, but those reports could not be confirmed by press time.