The message on the billboard ("Save St. Paul School") outside the St. Paul School in Burlington City has become a rallying cry for a race against time.

With the clock ticking, the school faces an uphill battle that will decide whether it opens next school year.

The 144-year-old parish school in Burlington County has only about six weeks to raise $250,000 or be forced to close for the 2015-16 school year.

"No one wants to see this place go," said principal William Robbins. "We're not going to let go."

The elementary school, which has educated generations of families, has embarked on an emotional appeal to the community. Businesses, families, and alumni have been asked to make donations.

Even students such as Sean Tomczynski, 7, a freckle-faced first grader, signed a Santa pledge and promised to forgo $48.99 in Christmas gifts (the price of two coveted toys) in order to donate the money to the school.

"It's really hard for us - $250,000 is a lot of money," Sean said. His sister, Emma, 10, also attends the school.

The Diocese of Trenton announced last week it planned to close Holy Family School in Lakewood, Ocean County, and St. Denis School in Manasquan, Monmouth County, in June.

"No one doubts or undervalues the contributions made by our Catholic primary schools," Trenton Bishop David M. O'Connell said in a statement Friday. "But as enrollments sadly continue to decline in some areas, showing no signs of changing for the better, and as costs continue to escalate, the burden on some parishes has become an insurmountable obstacle to sustainability."

St. Paul could have chosen to close as well due to declining enrollment and fiscal difficulties, but instead has launched an aggressive campaign to raise money to stay open. The pre-K-through-eighth-grade school has about 144 students.

The "Save St. Paul School" message, plastered on the billboard, on green wristbands, social media, and websites, has resonated with parents, businesses, and alumni in the close-knit community.

"We are going to fight it and do the best we can to raise the money," Robbins said. "We're not going to say die."

So far, about $25,000 has been raised in a week, and a host of fund-raisers, including a car wash, movie night, and dance-a-thon are planned. A poster on display in the school lobby charts the fund-raising progress.

"It's very hard to be in this situation," said school librarian Jennifer Stankiewicz, whose daughter Jillian is an eighth grader at St. Paul. She quickly added, "No one is thinking of what if we don't reach it."

The school has until Jan. 15 to raise an additional $225,000. The deadline was set to coincide with Catholic Schools Week, when registration begins for the next school year. Robbins said he wanted to spare parents any angst about the school's future and give them time to explore other options if needed.

Catholic schools across the region have been struggling with declining enrollment, and some have been shuttered. There are 43 parish and diocesan Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton, educating nearly 17,000 students.

O'Connell said the diocese provided $1.6 million in subsidies to its schools to keep them open this year, and covered insurance premiums. He said the diocese could no longer afford those expenses.

A school sustainability study the diocese commissioned in 2012 labeled 10 schools at risk because of financial problems. They were given two years to improve or close. The decision was left to parish and school leaders.

Founded in 1870, St. Paul is part of the Parish of St. Katharine Drexel. About a decade ago, it had 500 students but enrollment has dropped, mainly due to the economy and changing demographics.

The sprawling brick school on a quiet street in the neighborhood just off Route 130 has been a fixture in the community

"We chose this school for a reason," said Sean's mother, Lucy. "The education they are getting here - nothing compares to it."

Student Council president Brooke Richards, 13, and younger sister Kelsie are fourth-generation students. Brooke promised $250 in her Santa pledge.

"It would be devastating to see it close," said Brooke, an eighth grader. "This school is worth more than a couple of Christmas presents."

If the drive falls short, donations of $50 or more will be refunded, Robbins said. Individual contributions of lesser amounts will be donated to the St. Vincent DePaul Society in Burlington, he said.

"We're going to do it!" said third-grade teacher Dianne Wahner. "We have to for our kids."

For more information about the fund-raising activities, call the school at 609-386-1645 or visit www.savestpaulschool.com.

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney