Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


The Race to Save Catholic Schools

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

At long last, there is a glimmer of hope for the future of Catholic education in Philadelphia.

A group of advocates for Catholic schools - inside and outside the church - are working to staunch the loss of schools and students that has hit the system in the last decade: with enrollment down 40 percent in the city's elementary schools and 26 percent in the city's eight surviving archdiocesan high schools.

At the same time, these reformers are looking to reshape the schools, looking to give them new forms of governance, a revived sense of purpose and the tools to seek new students and outside financial support.

To put it in business terms, they want to reshape and build the brand that is Catholic education so it can better compete in modern times.

The key players in this movement include:

-- Michael O'Neill, the real estate and mining magnate, who is a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes School in Overbrook, Malvern Prep and Villanova. O'Neill is the head of the Business Leadership for Catholic Schools (BLOCS). BLOCS was created 25 years ago by local businessmen - many of them non-Catholic - who wanted to find a way to support the archdiocesan schools. For years, it did that mainly through offering O'Neill Use This.jpgscholarships and financial aid to students and it was housed in the Archdiocese's headquarters at  222 N. 17th Street.  In 2009, O'Neill took it out of 222, made BLOCS an independent organization, and has a stated goal of raising $50 million. He has taken an active role in trying to convince archdiocesan leaders to be more pro-active when it comes to innovation and saving the schools. This month, BLOCS made $4 million in matching grants to seven Catholic schools - five in Philadelphia, one in Lansdowne and one in Chester - to assist them in developing endowments to support their own operations. He also has met with archdiocesan officials and urged them to open charter schools in underserved areas of Philadelphia, especially in the Latino community.  Church officials have been hostile to charters, which they see as competitors who have stolen the Catholic brand - but recently reversed themselves and said they would consider the charter option.

--  Josephine C. Mandeville and Emily C. Riley, president and executive vice president respectively of the Connelly Foundation, founded by the late John and Josephine Connelly. Connelly made his fortune with Connelly Containers and later Crown Cork and Mandeville Use this.jpgSeal. Mandeville and Riley are his daughters and oversee the foundation, which is one of the largest givers to local Catholic causes. They give millions each year to Catholic education. Connelly also supports scholarships for Catholic students, but has become more pro-active in seeking to improve the schools. Nearly every Catholic school in the city (and some in the suburbs) has a computer lab and/or a science lab paid for by the Connelly Foundation. Recently, the foundation has begun to experiment with - and fund - distance learning, using modern telecommunication technology to expand the offerings of schools. This fall middle school students in a half-dozen Catholic schools will participate in an advanced mathematics course, delivered live and on-line by a teacher from St. Hubert's High School.

-- Winston Churchill Jr. is a local financier who was a prime mover in helping to save the Gesu School near 17th and Spring Garden Streets. Threatened with closure in 1993, Churchill and others intervened to keep the school open and shiftedChurchill use this.jpg its mission to educating poor, inner-city children, many of whom are not Catholic. More recently, he helped found and fund the Churchill Institute for Leadership Development (CHILD), now housed at the University of Pennsylvania. CHILD and its director, Letitia Biddle, offer pastors and principles a two-year program designed to remake their schools, using modern educational and financial practices. So far, the Churchill Institute has 24 city schools involved in the program. We will have more about the CHILD program tomorrow.

-- John DiIulio Jr., a Penn professor and one of the nation's leading advocates of faith-based initiatives. DiIulio also attended Catholic grade school in Philadelphia, before winning an athletic scholarship to the Haverford School. Last year, DiIulio decided to create a local version of the Alliance for Catholic Education program, then housed at Notre Dame University. ACE has been called the Teach for America for Catholic schools. ACE recruits college graduates to teach in Catholic schools. In exchange, the students earn a Masters Degree in Education and receive teacher certification after their two-year stint.  Unlike TFA, though, their salaries are not paid by the schools, but by ACE.  They also boast a higher retention rate than TFA, with many ACE graduates staying on to teach in the schools. With DiIulio's help (and with aid from BLOCS and Connelly), St. Joseph's University opened an ACE program this fall, with a first class of DiIulio Use this.jpg15 students, who started working in schools around the city this month.

While acting independently, these players share the same goal: stop the slow disintegration of the Catholic system in the city; support the schools financially; and encourage the church in a mission to educate the poor, even if they are non-Catholic.

Against this, they have faced an archdiocesan leadership that has been divided - some would say frozen into inaction - over the role of Catholic schools. Is the mission principally faith formation? Then why admit non-Catholics? Should the city schools be saved? Or allowed to wither while the church focuses on growth areas in the suburbs? For years, church leaders hoped that public vouchers would save the schools. Instead, in Pennsylvania, they got charter schools - independent but publicly-funded schools that have drained students from Catholic schools. "It is hard to compete against free," was the way one Catholic educator put it.

In the field, among Catholic educators and some pastors, there was a feeling that the archdiocesan leadership was engaged, as one of them put it, in "earnest dithering" over the fate of urban Catholic education.

In the meantime, two things were happening: enrollment continued to decline, but more and more of the empty seats were filled by non-Catholics looking for a safe alternative to the public schools. Today, one out of every four children enrolled in one of the city's 65 elementary schools is non-Catholic. Many of them are from poor or working class families, including the children of recent immigrants, willing to pay $2,200 to $2,600 a year in tuition for their children to be in a safe, caring and structured environment.

The reason for this surge in non-Catholic enrollment? Part of it is deliberate. There are Catholic educators and some religious orders who believe their mission is among the poor, regardless of religion. Another part is accidental: Pastors looking to fill empty seats accepted whoever showed up, Catholic or non-Catholic.

As a result, at 20 of the city's 65 Catholic elementary schools the majority of students are non-Catholic.

The argument of O'Neill, DiIulio and others is that these schools are not simply Catholic assets, they are city assets. Many of them offer low-cost, high-quality education with proven results - nearly 95 percent of all Catholic students graduate high school.

Catholic parents bear out this impression. In a poll taken earlier this year by Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, 92 percent of Catholic school parents rated their children's schools as excellent or good. Also in the 90s were categories such as quality of education, physical safety, commitment of teachers, order and discipline.

Tuition only accounts for 67 cents out of every dollar spent in a Catholic school. In the past, the difference often was made up by a subsidy from the parish.  In the city, as the Catholic population has declined - along with donations - parishes have struggled to maintain the subsidy. Currently, the parish subsidy averages 15 cents on the dollar, though there are a dozen parishes that give no subsidy.

The challenge of the schools is to find a way to fill that hole - by filling more seats and by independent fundraising - and not just through candy and gift wrap sales, but also by full-scale development efforts.

Even supporters of the schools say they also must improve and enhance their educational offerings with programs that are distinctive and emphasize educational excellence. That is hard to do when your school is already running in the red.

In Part Two, we will report on the efforts to remake Catholic schools so they can be more self-sustaining. In Part Three, we will look at one Catholic school that has successfully bucked the trend of declining enrollment.

There is energy and commitment behind these efforts, but also a sense of urgency. Enrollment continues to decline, more schools close every year.

In another 10 years in Philadelphia there may not enough of a Catholic educational system left to save.


Tomorrow: How CHILD helps Catholic schools survive. 



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