The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport announced last Friday that it will close Holy Family School this summer and shift its students, teachers and staff to Our Lady of Assumption School.

The move will be an "absolute merger," said Margaret Dames, the diocesan superintendent of schools, and allow the schools to pair their programs into a single "exemplary" school. The alternative, Dames said, would have the schools cutting programs to shore up funds; or closing them both.

Both principals will remain at the new school, serving as "co-principals with equal authority" for at least one year. Their workload has not yet been determined.

But even as much will remain at the new school, teachers and staff from both schools face layoffs. The number of faculty retained will depend on how many students enroll at the consolidated school.

Diocesan officials have already begun evaluating teachers to determine who stays on. The evaluation includes a classroom observation, personal interview, resume review and input from principals. Their decisions will be announced on May 3.

Dames said that if all 345 students from the two schools enroll after consolidation, nearly all the faculty will be retained. "If that doesn't happen," she said, "we have 39 schools in the diocese and a turnover of 30 to 40 employees a year."

Laid-off faculty will be placed on a "preferred" list that will make them among the first interviewed by principals of other diocesan schools when future openings emerge, Dames said. The diocese currently employs nearly 900 people in its schools, which stretch from Greenwich to Stratford, Bridgeport to Danbury.

The consolidation aims to bridge a budget gap of around $550,000 between the two schools this year. The gap reached $1.2 million last year, diocesan officials said, and mostly involved teacher salaries and benefits, costs which the diocese assumed.

The decision also comes as Holy Family School is celebrating its 50th year of existence. According to its Web site, the school opened in 1960 to serve its swelling congregation and the rising demand for Catholic education in the area.

Catholic education, however, has taken a battering in recent years. In the mid-90s, Assumption School had as many as 350 students, according to Dames. Now, Holy Family and Assumption combine for just 345 students.

Parents were informed of the final decision in a four-page letter that went out last Friday. The letter outlined the diocese's targeted class sizes for the school, its planned curriculum, programs and tuition levels, and what technology it would provide in the classrooms.

Classes would not exceed 22 students between pre-kindergarten and second grade, the letter said. If they did, a second aide would be added to the classroom. An aide may be added to grades three through eight if more than 25 students are in the class, the letter said. And if class size were to reach 30 students, a second class would form for that grade level.

Assuming just 280 students enroll, tuition at the school will be $5,000 for diocesan members and $5,350 for non-members. If enrollment climbs, however, tuition will drop in $100 leaps with each 20 additional students. There will be a $200 registration fee, which will be waved if a child is registered before May 8.

The letter further stated that each classroom will come equipped with a Smart Board; that there will be an engineering program from kindergarten through eighth grade, daily Spanish class in seventh and eighth grade, and an advanced math program; and that all academic and athletic programs at the two schools will continue to be offered.

There will be an open house at Assumption on April 20, at 7 p.m.

Dames credited parent involvement during the month-long process which culminated in the decision for consolidation. "The parents had a voice in building the ship, definitely a voice in how to communicate everything, and a voice in recommendations for finance and for academics," she said.

Dames added: "Other than the physical building, they're gaining everything: the principals, the teachers, the programs, the sports. Everything will be part of the new school, except for the fact that there'll be one facility."