Philadelphia Metropolis


Catholic School Dilemma

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Cardinal Rigali's appointment last week of a blue-ribbon commission to examine the state of Catholic education didn't get much ink, but inside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia it was big news. Rigali Use This.jpg

People have been pressing the archdiocesan leadership for several years to take a big-picture look at Catholic education in the Philadelphia region and develop an actual, factual strategic plan for its future.

This is opposed to the current system the archdiocese has in place, which could be called earnest dithering,-- whereby you lament the decline in Catholic schools, earnestly pray for guidance on how to deal with it, and slowly close parish schools one-by-one.

Those one-by-ones do add up. In 2000, there were 80 Catholic elementary schools in the city.  Today, there are 64. Tomorrow? Who knows.

Since the "Holy Ghost Enlighten Us," method hasn't worked, the Cardinal decided (prodded by influential givers to Catholic education) to let the experts have a whack at it. The panel has 17 members, eight of them laymen, and includes some prominent out-of-town clerics and experts in Catholic education. Their report and recommendations are due in September.

In Philadelphia (and the inner-ring suburbs), Catholic schools have a problem: too many seats for too few students.

Enrollment in Philadelphia's Catholic elementary schools has declined 40 percent in this decade and high-school enrollment has gone down 26 percent in the same period.

The schools are under capacity, given current demand - and foreseeable demand, given the demographics of Catholicism in the city (fewer Catholics, fewer children, with church attendance falling even among the faithful.)

The simple answer (and one favored by the system's leaders) would be to consolidate, Close down weakling schools, creating presumably stronger and more vibrant regional schools. There are several places where this has happened - Our Lady of Port Richmond comes to mind - and they have been successful.


There is skepticism in the field that this will work. Regional looks good on paper, but Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods (or, if you prefer, of parishes) and parents are reluctant to have their kids schlep a mile or two to get to grade school.

Add the fact that, paradoxically in this ancient hierarchical organization, the person vested with the final power to decide the fate of a parish school is not the Cardinal, but the pastor. To close a school - even one with fewer than 200 kids - is a traumatic event in the world of a parish. Pastors who do it find they become pariahs among parents and parishioners. And some simply won't pull the plug.

Finally, the clergy and laymen who have devoted their lives to the cause of educating children believe deeply in their mission and are not willing to retreat from the field, not without a fight.

In the spring, in working on a report on the city's schools for Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, I must have talked to three dozen pastors, principals and others involved in Catholic education.

Their pain over this issue was palpable and it was exacerbated by their belief that the archdiocesan leadership was...well, dithering, while the system sank.

Meanwhile, a funny thing happened to Catholic schools in the city during this Era of Dithering.  While no one was looking, they began to attract non-Catholics, drawn to the schools by their promise to deliver safety and order in a caring environment.

Today, 27 percent of the kids in Catholic grade schools are non-Catholic and 20 of the system's 64 city grade schools are majority non-Catholic.

Again, while no one was paying attention, the schools began to attract the city's new immigrant population. These are parents, who don't make much money, but who are willing to pay $2,100 to $2,600 a year for grade school and $7,000 for a Catholic high school education.

When Pew polled Catholic parents, their approval rating of their children's schools was about as high as you can get - about 94 percent - without a unanimous vote.

This is a roundabout way of saying it is time to stop looking at Catholic schools as a Catholic asset and see them for what they really are: an urban asset.

These are schools that draw immigrants, non-Catholics and other aspiring-class parents and deliver the goods when it comes to education in a way that has eluded the public schools.

There is a potential market for this brand of education in Philadelphia. Just to mention one - the city's Latino population, which is our fastest growing ethnic group.

Today, in Catholic grade schools in the city, there are 12,500 empty seats. Imagine if we could find a way to fill them with children?

In a city that desperately needs an educated class of workers to assure its future, can we afford to stand by and watch this civic and urban asset sink below the waves?

It doesn't make sense.


-- TF

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