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Ursuline High School, a Catholic all-girls school that educated generations of young women in Santa Rosa for 130 years, will close at the end of the school year because of lack of funding.

Ursuline's staff of about 35 people were notified on campus Tuesday afternoon of the decision by the Ursuline Sisters of Santa Rosa to shutter the school. Families were noticed via e-mail after school.

"We'd received notice that we are in a lot of financial difficulty," said Sister Joanne Abrams, president of the Santa Rosa Ursuline Corporation Board of Directors.

The board of directors agreed to use $1.2 million in retirement and ministry funds to operate the school through June 2011 but concluded that "running Ursuline High School is no longer financially feasible."

"We thought long and hard about what we are going to do in the future," said Abrams. "We cannot continue to subsidize the school."

Officials at neighboring Cardinal Newman, the all-boys Catholic school which shares upper-grade classes and many activities with Ursuline's 280 students, were caught off guard by Tuesday's announcement. The school was notified at 1:30 p.m., said Graham Rutherford, Newman's principal.

Newman officials almost immediately announced that beginning next year, girls would be admitted to the historically all-boys school.

"We are going to make every effort to take girls that want to be here," Rutherford said. "We'll make sure there is a place for them and they are not going to be treated as secondary applicants."

The recession took a toll on families' ability to pay tuition at Ursuline, which is $11,000 a year per student. The school has seen its enrollment decline 30 percent since the 1999-2000 school year. More students are applying for financial aid, according to Principal Julie Carver.

"This is the first year we have had a cash-flow deficit," she said. "We haven't had the situation where we have actually had to ask for a loan. This is a new situation for us."

Carver, who is also an Ursuline alumna, said the decision by the Ursuline Sisters to close the school was "heartbreaking." She was told last Wednesday of the Sisters' decision.

"I was surprised the choice was to close," she said.

Abrams said the Ursuline Sisters were called to action after receiving a letter from the board of directors last month that outlined the school's current financial woes.

"We got a letter on Oct. 1 from the board at Ursuline High School," she said. "More or less it said that they could not continue financially as it is right now and they would need a loan of $1.2 million from the sisters in order to get them through the school year."

That is not sustainable, Abrams said.

While Ursuline will close in June, the Ursuline Sisters are not abandoning their educational mission. The organization is planning to open a charter school "based on social justice" on the campus in 2012-13.

The Ursuline Sisters "have a call to try to mission and respond to" the poor, she said. A charter school will help meet that aim, she said.

But on Tuesday, the current Ursuline community was left reeling from the news.

"It came as a total shock to faculty and staff," said Jennifer Gray, president of the Ursuline Faculty Organization. "Our faculty and staff are dedicated to being stewards for these young women and we are deeply distraught to learn of the Ursuline Sisters' decision.

"In recent years faculty and staff have made significant sacrifices, especially financially, to support the present and future viability of the school and yet at 2:26 p.m. today, we learned our efforts were in vain," she said.

Board members were equally dumbfounded, said trustee Sue Aguirre Fowler of Sebastopol.

Fowler is an Ursuline graduate whose daughter Marina is a freshman on campus. An older daughter graduated from Ursuline in 2008.

Fowler spent nearly two hours Tuesday morning mapping Marina's three remaining years of Ursuline coursework with her counselor.

"We picked all the way to her senior year, to get her to college," Fowler said. "Not knowing that in four short hours the school would be closed."

"We found out with the parents and that was not Julie's intent, obviously," she said. "As board members, we have a lot of respect (for Ursuline) — we love this school — and we would never do anything to jeopardize it."

Founded in 1880 by a group of Ursuline nuns from Ohio, the school opened its doors in downtown Santa Rosa and moved to its current campus north of town in 1956.

Alumna and former trustee Sue Nelson said about 20 members of her family, including her mother, three sisters and nieces attended the school over the years.

"It's a change of an entire era to not have this school that has been here for well over 100 years," she said. "It sounds trite, but obviously it's a tremendous loss."

Students are planning a show of support for the school this morning, but many were left confused about not only what was possible for Ursuline's future but their own remaining years of high school.

"It's such a good school," said sophomore Tica Anderson. "It's hard to think about having to go to another school next year."

Anderson was scheduled to accompany her younger sister around campus next week in the hopes that she too, would attend Ursuline.

Sophomore class president Allyson Ahlstrom said students are wondering if there is anything they can do to keep the doors open.

"As cheesy as it sounds, we are real sisters. We're so close," she said. "To hear it like that with the e-mail, it just felt so impersonal. ... Basically it left a ton of unanswered questions. Everyone is just freaking out."

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