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Hoping for a Rescue

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By Patrick P. McNally

It isn't hard for me to be pragmatic and detached while discussing both the news that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia would be closing North Catholic High School at the end of the school year and plan hatched recently to turn the school into a private academy.

 "It's easy for you," said a good friend, who wears his Falcon pride on his sleeve. "You didn't go there."

 Of course, he is right. Instead of attending North Catholic, a school which has educated young men since 1926, I went to Archbishop Ryan, a school that didn't open until 1966. It's not my fault - going to a specific Catholic school in those days was determined by geography.  You went to the high school closest to your home.  Now, you can choose from any of the Catholic high school in the city.

But I can appreciate the things that go along with being an alumnus of North. There's the all-male, almost prep school environment. And the legacy of sons fathers and grandfathers all walking the same halls. There's going to basketball games or wrestling matches at the "Pit" and fighting Frankford on the gridiron every Thanksgiving morning. I get it all, and would be sad to see it all end. To be that close to seeing your history go down the drain would be devastating.

 

Reinvent the school

That is why hope sprang from the North Catholic auditorium last Thursday night (Jan 7), as a team of alumni and community leaders announced a plan to reinvent the school as a private institution, and align it with the Jesuit order's Cristo Rey network of schools. A nationwide program, Cristo Rey schools are seen as a beacon of hope for urban, faith-based education.

 The Cristo Rey plan seems to be a viable option to save North Catholic from the scrap heap. In recent years, the school has been hurt by the numbers game. The demographics of the school's primary feeder neighborhoods have changed. The change, along with the rise of good charter schools and economic hard times, has translated into declining enrollment. Tuition and fees that total about $6,000 a year make it difficult for working families to afford the Catholic high school tuition.

 The phenomenon of closing under-performing Catholic schools and churches isn't new. That is certainly true in Philadelphia, with the closings of venerable institutions such as St. Thomas Moore High School and St. James High School in Chester, the merger of West Catholic Boys and Girls and Sts. John Neumann and Maria Goretti.  It continues to be true with the closings of three catholic grade schools in the Port Richmond section that, thankfully, consolidated into one school, Our Lady of Port Richmond. Now, the archdiocese plans to close North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty, once the biggest parochial high school in America, as of June.

 

Neighborhood connections

But North Catholic is different, or so the proponents say. They point out how closely the school is connected to the neighborhoods of Frankford, Kensington, Port Richmond and Fishtown. They talk about the continued legacy of North Catholic families. Of course, they fail to mention that the flight to the suburbs by many of those same alumni and families who used to call those neighborhoods home. That is part of the reason why the school is in trouble now.

Sitting in that auditorium, listening to the members of the team talk of their plans to keep North Catholic alive, I wondered how many of these men would then leave the building and walk into the chilly air surrounding Torresdale Avenue, get in their cars and drive quickly to their suburban homes.

 Much more needs to be done before anybody can celebrate North Catholic's return from oblivion. One hundred businesses need to be recruited for the Cristo Rey program that has its students spend part of each school week working outside the school. Alumni and friends of the school need to be approached for donations. A tuition plan has to be finalized. The building has to be either bought and repaired or plans need to be made to buy a new building. And it all depends on a feasibility plan that still must be finalized and accepted by all parties. Most schools take years to put together a plan to enter the Cristo Rey network and open a school. North Catholic's team is trying to do the same job in 10 months.

Emily Dickinson wrote that "hope is the thing with feathers."  The friends of North Catholic's mascot, the falcon, were flying high after the meeting. Will that hope be able to be realized?  I certainly hope so. But if I had gone to North, I would be worried about time running out.

 

Patrick McNally is a journalist who lives in Northeast Philadelphia

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