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A New Way to Save Catholic Schools

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By Morgan Zalot and Tom Ferrick Jr.

It would be ironic if Catholic schools in Philadelphia were saved by a Quaker, but that may end up being the case.

The Quaker in question is Letitia Biddle, a woman with tremendous energy and a passion for education. Biddle is executive director of the Churchill Institute for Leadership Development (CHILD), the non-profit founded in 2007 with a mission to bring new ways to an old system, the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Biddle has had some practice in resuscitating Catholic schools.  She was among the people who took over the Gesu School in North Philadelphia in the 1990's, when it was about to close down. Today, the elementary school - which is independent of the Archdiocese - is a success story with a solid record of educating poor, inner-city children.

Could the Gesu model by replicated in other schools?  Not exactly. Gesu has an interfaith board of trustees that numbers 50 and it relies heavily on donations. It also has an endowment of nearly $20 million to draw from to offset costs over and above the $2,400 in tuition paid by its 460 students.

Catholic parish schools do not have access to that kind of money.  But, as Biddle realized, Catholic schools could benefit from the kind of best practices learned and employed at Gesu and other private schools.

Biddle Use this.jpgFor more than a century, the traditional parish school in Philadelphia had a simple organization chart: There was the pastor at the top of the operation, the principal at No. 2 and all other employees falling beneath them.  If the school did not meet expenses through tuition, the parish was expected to make up most of the different - a number that sometimes amounted to 30 percent or more of the school's budget.

This system worked well during the glory day of Catholic education, when the schools were filled to overflowing with Baby Boomers and parishioners packed the pews at Sunday mass.  But, that era ended in the late 1970s, when as Biddle put, "the wheels began to come off the bus."

Today, as a rule, parishes in the city do not have the money to subsidize a school's budget and the number of students attending has declined, sometimes precipitously.  More than a dozen of the city's 65 remaining Catholic schools have enrollments under 200 students - the generally accepted number where a school must consider closing.

(On average, city parishes today subsidize 15 percent of a school's budget; the average figure is 25 percent in the wealthier suburbs.)

As one priest put it: "Sometimes the choice is between closing the school and closing down the whole parish."  And 23 Catholic elementary schools and two high schools in Philadelphia have closed in this decade.

Facing these problems, pastors and principals opened themselves up to considering news ways of doing things - and they were receptive to Biddle's pitch that the school would benefit if it engaged in a two-year CHILD-directed redo of its processes and practices.

CHILD, supported by grants and donations, offers the service free of charge.

It is not a magic formula.  In fact, Biddle and CHILD preaches methods used by many private schools: create an active advisory board; develop a strategic plan; carefully define your education mission; engage in active fundraising among alumni and friends, and market the school in the neighboring community.

"The goal," Biddle explained, "is to be viable and sustainable...I believe the schools that will be successful will be mission driven; they have a great strategic plan and you know who is on first base."

Since 2007, CHILD's has run 36 Catholic schools through its two-year program - 24 of them in the city.

 

 

 

 

 

It may seem surprising that the schools never actively fundraised (except for bake sales); never developed a strategic plan, never carefully defined its mission, and never marketed the school in the community.  But, that was the case.

To many principals and pastors, the CHILD's program came as a revelation and helped them rethink their approach to running their parish school.

This is not distance learning.  Biddle and her staff are there every step of the way: providing templates for fund-raising and annual giving letters; hints on marketing and advertising; suggestions on how to utilize an advisory board so they neither burn out nor fall asleep out of boredom.

She even helps them reconsider their signage - or lack thereof. "What is it with Catholic schools and signs," she asks out of frustration.

Biddle, who went to the George School for her education, is a true believer in the value of Catholic education. She praises the dedication of the staff, the sense of community, the caring environment created.

In her view, Catholic schools and educators, have been "humble too long.  You have to go out there and share your great results.  These are hidden treasures and people do not know what fabulous work is happening in those schools."

The enthusiasm is reciprocated by Catholic educators who have worked with Biddle and bought into the CHILD program.

One example: Sister Shaun Thomas, principal of St. Dominic's in the city's Holmesburg section.  Sister Shaun said that three years ago St. Dominic's was on a path familiar to many Catholic schools: enrollment was declining; the parish subsidy was at 35 percent.

Today, enrollment has risen to 425 students; the parish subsidy is down to four percent. "It was a lot of work and a great deal of commitment, but it has turned us around," Sister Shaun said of the CHILD program. "It gave us a renewed lease on life, a broader vision of the potential of these kids....Three years later, I can't imagine what my life used to be like."

Other schools have had similar results.  Biddle said that since the program began enrollment in Catholic schools has declined five percent, while enrollment in schools with the CHILD program has gone up 5.7 percent.

 

Tomorrow: How one parish school in a poor area has thrived in recent years.

 

 

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