CHICAGO (WBBM) — Maria High School’s centennial celebration has turned somber, with the news that the Southwest Side girls’ school will close in 2013 and be replaced by a co-educational K-through-12 charter school. 

The change would have been unthinkable in the mid-1980s, when the school had an enrollment of 1,400 girls.  Now, enrollment has dipped to 207, and the freshmen class has only 42 students.

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The school has been an increasing drain on the Sisters of St. Casimir, the religious order that operates Maria and adjoining Holy Cross Hospital. The order now has only 77 members worldwide.

The numbers all looked bad.

Maria President Wendy Lynn, who joined the school after retirement three years ago as a vice president for CNA Insurance, said informal conversations began in 2006 with the charter operator, The Catalyst Schools.

Although secular in its orientation, Lynn said Catalyst grew out of the San Joaquin Schools, a De La Salle Christian Brothers-run organization. It currently operates two non-sectarian K-through-8 charter schools on the city’s west side. 

She said Catalyst’s goals and methods are “quite compatible” with the education Maria has provided over the years. Instead of being faith-based, Lynn said the new school, to be known at least initially as Catalyst-Maria, will be “values-based.”

Although Catalyst applied to the Board of Education in July for the charter, it was not made public until a meeting with parents and current students Wednesday night.

Lynn said many of the students broke down in tears, while their parents expressed fears that freshmen and sophomore girls will have to apply again for a spot in the new school.

Maria’s junior and senior classes will graduate as the existing school phases out. Catalyst-Maria Charter School is expected to open as a co-ed K-9 school in September 2012, and then become K-12 a year later.   

Maria has not had an affiliated grade school since 1929 and has been for girls only since then, Lynn said. Its prominent alumnae include Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. 

“We have been focusing on educating young women, but the young men in the neighborhood need an education, too, and need good discipline and a good foundation,” she said. “It’s a big change for us, but we believe it’s a necessary change, an important change.”

Lynn said the current Maria facility, built in 1952, can easily house 1,000 students.

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to consider Catalyst’s request for a charter at its November or December meeting.

Lynn said it is unclear whether some of the school’s unique facilities will remain, including a fully-functioning room for cooking classes, complete with a series of stoves and refrigerator-freezers. 

The classes are the only ones at Maria still taught by a nun.

Lynn said the change makes sense for more than economic reasons.

 “Half of our students are not Catholic currently, yet they still appreciate the education that they receive here,” she said.