PIEDMONT -- Zion Lutheran School on Park Boulevard, which celebrated its 130th anniversary last September, will close its doors at the end of the school year because of declining enrollment.
The school, which has 61 students and eight faculty members, was established in 1883 in West Oakland as the German-English Day School and moved to its current Piedmont site in 1958.
"It was with great sadness that the congregation made such a decision," said Paul Aldrich, senior pastor at the church, which oversees the K-8 school. "The church itself remains strong and continues its ministry to the community. The Zion Lutheran School community is marking a strong ending to the current school year and wishes God's blessings to all its students and their families."
Cost-cutting measures over the past several years -- such as combining grades and using parent volunteers to run the school office -- didn't go far enough. To try to save the school, more than $31,000 was raised through alumni and other donations.
Parents pledged an additional $49,000, according to Jacq Wilson, whose 8-year-old son has been a Zion student since kindergarten. Parents recently organized a crab feed and candy sale that raised more than $7,000.
"Parents did everything in their power to save the school because they love it so much, but in the end it was a financial numbers game," Wilson said.
The school didn't get the 45 guaranteed enrollments it needed for fall 2014, and its board of directors informed families at the beginning of March that the school would close.
"We're heartbroken, you don't expect that a school that's been around for 130 years is going to close," said Wilson, whose wife has taught at Zion for 12 years. "It's withstood the test of time -- more than 20 presidents and two world wars -- you don't think that anything can bring it down."
According to the Zion Lutheran School website, tuition for a Zion church member is $7,650 for one child; $14,150 for two children; and $20,655 for three children. For nonmembers, tuition is $8,500 for one child; $15,725 for two children; and $22,950 for three children. Wilson said that one of Zion's greatest strengths was also its greatest weakness.
"People used to say it's 'the best kept secret in the East Bay.' Not everyone was aware of it," Wilson said. "Students got academic, social and spiritual development all in one spot -- now all of a sudden, it's gone -- it's shocking that something went terribly wrong, but it's hard to diagnose what that is."
Wilson said that when his son heard about the school's closing, he broke down.
"It's been home for him all his life," said Wilson, whose family are congregants at Zion Lutheran Church. "It's his first reality of how unforgiving the world can be."
Teachers are also wrestling with this new reality. Cindy Andresen has taught at Zion for 25 years.
"We informed parents in March about the closure, as we wanted to set a responsible deadline so that people could make plans and choices," Andresen said. "The board has been struggling with this issue for a long time."
She said many schools in the private and parochial sector are not filling the lower-grade classes.
"The decline in enrollment started with the economic recession (in 2008) and never recovered," said Andresen, who added that Zion staff is working with families to find new schools and is providing counseling to students. "It's great to be a small school, but then there comes a tipping point."
She said the school community is not focusing on the closure, but celebrating the many years of education it has provided.
"Zion is such a strong school academically and it also provides a strong foundation of values," Andresen said. "This school has made a difference in so many."
John Heinitz has taught at Zion for 34 years.
"I'm thankful for the years we've had here and the influence we've had on our community, as well as parents and students," said Heinitz, whose wife, Ruth, also teaches at the school. "For now, we're focusing on finishing up a great year -- after that, we'll think about résumés and other opportunities."
Parents, congregation and alumni have come out in support of Zion Lutheran School. Malcolm DeFrantz is a 2009 graduate and a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.
"Zion has been one of the finest blessings of my life," said DeFrantz in a letter of support to the school. "The lifelong friendships, the world-class teachers and the values of trust, accountability and service that Zion brands on each of its students have proved to be invaluable to my life."
Fellow alumni Cameron Corwin (class of 2006), attended Zion Lutheran from kindergarten through eighth-grade.
"Looking back on my nine years at Zion, I realize how lucky I was to be immersed in such a diverse, caring and encouraging community," said Corwin, who graduates this summer from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "No matter where you were from, what race you were, or what religion you believed in, once you entered Zion's doors, you became one family."
Teacher Ruth Heinitz said she's very sad about the closing of the school where she's taught for 24 years because it's such a tight-knit community. However, one of her students took a positive spin.
"One of my students asked me, 'Can we now have free dress for the rest of the year?' " Heinitz said. "I said, 'No, we're keeping to our same high standards.' "