St. Bernard's High School was closing, and Rita Albert was devastated.

Albert is a St. Bernard's grad, as are her three children and multiple members of her family, and she had worked at the North End institution for 22 years.

When word came last spring that the school would be shut down, "There were a lot of hurt feelings," she said.

She wasn't going to look for another job, she said, and she certainly wanted nothing to do with the school that was taking St. Bernard's place.

But as she finished up her work over the summer, she met the staff of the new school — Community School of Excellence — as they were moving in. Her feelings started to change.

"It was just a great atmosphere," she said. She started talking with the executive director, Mo Chang, who offered her a job, and she wound up staying.

"It's really hard to come to this building that broke my heart," Albert said, but "I really enjoy my job ... I just feel blessed to be here."

The transition from St. Bernard's — a Catholic mainstay in the community for 119 years that closed its high school last spring and its grade school the year before — to a Hmong-focused charter school is well under way at the corner of Rice Street and Rose Avenue.

"We will miss St. Bernard's as we would miss a good friend that unfortunately has passed," said Bruce Larson, a North End businessman and neighborhood booster. "However, we are positioning for change and new growth.

"It's a real joy — and I emphasize that — to see so many kids on campus. ... It has added new life and vitality to the neighborhood," Larson said.

Focus And Growth / Community School of Excellence, which serves 637 students in grades K-8, signed a seven-year lease with the church in May and opened in its new space in August.

The school is focused on Hmong culture and language, though regular classroom instruction is in English. The student body is almost entirely Hmong and about 85 percent low-income.

Community School is one of at least four St. Paul charters that focus on Hmong language and culture.

The school has more than tripled in size since it opened in 2007, said Chang.

Once people learned it was moving from its former location at St. Columba's school to the larger space in St. Bernard's, about 200 new students signed up over the summer, she said. That's equivalent to the entire student population at St. Bernard's High School in its final year.

The growth is fueled by word of mouth, Chang said, based in part on the school's highly customized program that includes trips to Thailand, Hmong food in the cafeteria and even bilingual bus drivers. "You talk about tailoring to meet the needs of your population," she said.

Community School is applying for certification to offer the International Baccalaureate program and intends to add a high school program as well, Chang said.

Staff and parents worked over the summer to transform the inside of the new space.

Traditional Hmong snail designs have been painted on doorways and classroom walls. Posters of Hmong leader Vang Pao have been put up, and on the third floor, a Hmong cultural center is in the works.

Chang said the school's focus will always be on Hmong language and culture, but "we hope to become a school that's very diverse. ... You have to evolve and change to meet the needs of the community."

Catholic School Losses / Community School taking over St. Bernard's is in itself a reflection of the changing community.

Catholic schools in St. Paul and other U.S. cities have been closing in recent years as families with means move to the suburbs and those taking their place are increasingly unable to afford a private education.

From 2000-06, more than 500 urban Catholic schools closed nationwide, displacing more than 250,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Some have been turned into charters — tuition-free, public institutions that are often small and organized around specific educational methods or content areas.

In St. Paul, the Catholic Church in recent years has shut down not just St. Bernard's but Trinity, Blessed Sacrament, St. Columba's and Holy Childhood.

Catholic enrollment in the city dropped 23 percent from 2002 to 2010, while charter enrollment went up 136 percent.

Upbeat Viewpoints / Rita Albert recalls when she was growing up, all the Catholic kids in the neighborhood went to St. Bernard's. She and her siblings would walk home for lunch, she said.

Roughly 70 percent of Community School's families live in the vicinity of the new school — in the North End, Frogtown or East Side neighborhoods — Chang said, but there are virtually no walkers.

Kevin Barrett, owner of Dar's Double Scoop on Rice Street, said he likes having so many new people down the street from his ice cream shop. He handed out coupons to the teachers and is already scheduling fundraisers for the new school.

"This is a great opportunity for me to get involved with the school and get the families hopefully coming here," he said.

Many of his customers are unaware there's a new school at St. Bernard's, Barrett said. "The people I've talked to are surprised and happy that the building's being used."

Mo Chang is working to raise the school's visibility.

She's joined the local business association, and on a recent day, she took some staff and students and dropped in on several Rice Street stores, handing out invitations to a community luncheon at the school on Oct. 27.

Coming to St. Bernard's is a homecoming of sorts for Chang.

She and her family came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1976 and moved to St. Paul two years later. Growing up, she lived for a time in the North End, and her brother was a student at St. Bernard's.

"I never thought that maybe 25 years later I'd be a principal in this school," Chang said. "It brings back a lot of memories." Pioneer Press