Goodbye, Curley: Alumni, students grieve loss of beloved Catholic school

File photo: Archbishop Curley High onJune 11, 1953. Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami Museum.
File photo: Archbishop Curley High onJune 11, 1953. Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami Museum.

When Archbishop Curley/Notre Dame High closes next year, the cherished Catholic school will shut the door on six decades of Miami history.

Curley was the first high school in Miami-Dade county to integrate African-American and white students, and the first Catholic school to desegregate in the state of Florida.

Cuban refugees fleeing the island also found a home at Curley, as did Haitian students after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

“Curley has always been a school to never turn down people who wanted an education,” said Christopher Richard, an eleventh-grader at the school, who said he was “very devastated” to learn that Curley would be closing.

The Archdiocese of Miami announced the closure Monday, citing falling enrollment, and the news triggered an outpouring of grief from students and alumni, who treasure the school for its diversity and close-knit community.

Some also worry about the loss of an important educational institution in an urban, low-income neighborhood, a trend that has been seen elsewhere in the country as shifting demographics have left once-thriving parishes without the resources to sustain themselves.

‘Not making a fuss’ about desegregation

Curley’s history of inclusion goes back to 1960, when the all-white boys high school and its sister school, Notre Dame High, then two separate institutions, became the first in the county to accept African-American students.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 officially banned state laws establishing segregated schools, but school districts across the south continued to resist integration, often violently. In Miami-Dade, desegregation started in 1959 at Orchard Villa Elementary School in Liberty City, which was forced to accept African-American students after their parents filed a lawsuit.

When Curley voluntarily decided to integrate, the archdiocese attempted to do so quietly to avoid backlash. “We are simply opening school. We are not making a fuss about this,” the then-principal of Curley told the Miami Herald at the time.

Even at Curley, integration was a slow process. Constance Moore Thornton was among the first African-American students to attend the school, which had a student body comprised largely of Irish Catholics from Miami Shores and Miami Beach in that era. She graduated from Notre Dame in 1966, and said that although she received a “top-notch” education, she still felt somewhat isolated from her white peers.

Curley became more integrated as time went on, welcoming students whose families had come from Latin America and the Caribbean, in addition to more African-Americans.

“It had an incredible diversity,” recalled John de Leon, a prominent Cuban-American civil rights lawyer, who graduated from Curley in 1980. “It had people of different socioeconomic levels. It had people of different cultural groups.”

De Leon credits the school for his career choice. “I really do think it’s one of the historic academic institutions in this community which promoted diversity and social justice as a central feature of its mission,” he said.

Uprooted students

Students in good standing at Curley are guaranteed a spot at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens next year, which has long been Curley’s rival. Most students interviewed by the Herald said they were heartbroken about the school’s closing, however, and did not look forward to attending Pace.

“I feel like we won’t be as welcome over there,” said Melonee Belizaire, an eleventh-grader at Curley.

Senior Madly Exume said she cried when she heard the school was closing, because the students and staff have been like a family to her. “You’re not just a number” at Curley, she said. “Everybody knows you for who you are.”

Not everyone was upset, however. Jose Gonzalez said his son Angel, a sophomore at Curley, was looking forward to going to a bigger school with more updated facilities.

“At first we were skeptical because it’s far for us,” Gonzalez said. After researching Pace and learning that the archdiocese was going to provide transportation for Curley students, however, Gonzalez said he felt better about sending his son there. “I thought he was going to be sad, but he was really excited.”

Alumni said that although Curley students are guaranteed a space at Pace, they worry about some low-income students losing a neighborhood school.

“I know that it’s become quite a community school,” said Irene Secada, who attended in the late 1970s. “It’s going to leave a big hole.”

‘As bare bones as you can get’

Enrollment at Curley had been dropping off steadily in recent years, falling to 272 students in 2015 and just 229 this year in grades 6 through 12.

In contrast, Curley had 560 students in 1960, just counting those at the all-boys high school, which did not merge with its sister institution, Notre Dame, until 1981.

Meanwhile, Catholic schools in more affluent areas of South Florida have not suffered the same fate. Immaculata-La Salle High School in Coconut Grove, for example, is typically filled to capacity, according to the archdiocese. Parents and alumni told the Herald that changing neighborhood demographics that have seen some Catholic families move to other parts of the city have led to a decrease in enrollment at Curley, along with a perception by some that the surrounding area is dangerous.

The archdiocese did not respond to questions about Curley’s financial situation, but alumni, faculty and parents said the school had been struggling economically for the past few years. They said many students receive scholarships to attend the school, and that the archdiocese had been propping up the institution financially.

“It’s been well-known for the last couple of years that Curley was in financial trouble,” said one faculty member, who asked not to be named because he was afraid of being fired for speaking publicly about the school. The faculty member said some teachers had not been rehired at the end of the last school year and that budgets had been stripped.

“We’re as shoestring as you can get as far as teachers teaching six [classes],” he said. “It is as bare bones as you can get.”

Prime real estate

After Curley posted a message about the school closing on its Facebook page, some alumni responded by suggesting that the archdiocese was shutting it down in order to make a profit from the land, which sits near Little Haiti on the edge of the rapidly developing Buena Vista and Design District neighborhoods. Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said the archdiocese did not yet have any plans for the school site.

Curley’s closing may have more to do with changing demographics than anything else, a shift that has led to the closing of Catholic schools across the country. Neighborhoods that were once predominately Catholic have seen those families move to the suburbs, leaving urban parishes without a flock to sustain them.

Historian Paul George, who graduated from Curley in 1960, believes that if Curley could have just held on for a few more years, the school might have seen enrollment go back up as development continues in the area.

“Looking ahead in the crystal ball, that neighborhood is going to continue to become much more financially dynamic than it is today, and there’s going to be a need for a high school in 5, 10, 15 years,” he said. “It’s just a problem that the timing was a little bit skewed.”