Philadelphia Metropolis

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Catholic Schools: A Leap of Faith

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

It's one thing to be a faith-based organization.  It's another thing to take the leap of faith Archbishop Charles Chaput executed over the last two weeks on the future of Catholic education. It was the equivalent of an Acapulco cliff dive.

Confronted with a Blue Ribbon Commission report that called for severe contraction of Catholic education in the region, Chaput headed in another direction.

Two weeks ago, he overturned the Commission's recommendation to close 48 grade schools in the archdiocese, deciding instead to keep many of them open. In Philadelphia alone, where 19 grade schools were due to close, the list was cut to 11. Click here for a complete list of Philadelphia Catholic schools affected.

Chaput.jpgLast week, Chaput went a step further.  He overturned the Commission's recommendations to close four of the archdiocesan high schools: Archbishop Prendergast and Monsignor Bonner in Upper Darby; West Catholic High School and St. Hubert's High School for Girls in Philadelphia, and Conwell-Egan High School in Upper Darby.

Instead, Chaput decided to keep them open as well.

Catholic parents, students and educators were ecstatic -- and shocked. Few expected such major revisions in the commission's recommendations.

Chaput's announcement -- live streamed last week to the four high schools -- was greeted

whoops, cheers, applause and tears from students assembled in the schools' auditoriums.

In fact, the Blue Commission report had a galvanizing effect on the Catholic -- and non-Catholic -- community.  It was a clarifying moment, as people realized the role Catholic schools played not only in educating children, but as anchors of their communities and neighborhoods.

Chaput said he was able to change the decision to keep the four high schools open because of an infusion of nearly $12 million in donations that came from alumni, supporters of Catholic education and anonymous (read: rich) donors after the closings were announced.

The joy over the reprieves for the high schools and elementary schools should not obscure the reality.  As Chaput himself has said" "No family can run on nostalgia and red ink."

For these schools to remain open, four things must happen -- all simultaneously: they must find operating funds to make up for their annual deficits (tuition alone is not enough); the state must increase in a major way its support for non-public education through vouchers and expansion of the Education Income Tax Credit (EITC), which gives tax breaks to businesses that donate to Catholic schools; individual schools must improve their efforts at fundraising, marketing and building enrollment.

Finally, and most importantly, they must reverse the trend of declining enrollment.

To give one concrete example: a school such as West Catholic, one of the two Philadelphia schools that was spared, must have more than the 365 students currently enrolled or else it won't be able to function as a high school -- without several million dollars of subsidies each year.

West, located at 46th and Chestnut Streets, is an example of the dilemma facing Catholic schools.  In one sense, it represents the best of Catholic tradition -- taking the role of educating poor students in the inner city. The school is an academic success story that is 75 percent non-Catholic, 80 percent African-American, with 90 percent of its students receiving financial aid because they come from low-income families.

It also has an active alumni group in the Friends of West Catholic that supplies an additional $1 million a year for scholarships and school operations.

Still, West needs more students. And, if current trends serve as a guide, most of the students who do enroll will need financial aid to pay the annual $7,000 in tuition and fees.

A major strut in the help-the-schools effort is creation of an independently run Faith in the Future Foundation, which will have the goal of raising $100 million over the next five years to support Catholic high schools in particular. 

The foundation already has $12 million in hand, and hopes to have $15 million by June, most of which will go for operating subsidies for high schools.  It hopes to raise another $70 million by 2017.

The idea is modeled after the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago, another independent foundation that annually provides $10 million to $12 million to support the city's Catholic schools.

The key word is independent. The truth is many donors -- including Catholic donors -- are reluctant to give money to the archdiocese for fear it will not be used wisely or for its intended purpose.  As one high school principal told me: "I have donors who tell me, 'I will give to the school, but I don't want a dime to go to the archdiocese.' "

With an independent foundation, with its own CEO and a board composed mostly of outsiders, there is hope that reluctance will fade. 

Unlike private schools, as a rule, Catholic schools do not have endowments, though they run annual fund drives to raise money.  An exception is Roman Catholic High School, whose alumni and friends not only provide $1 million in annual operating subsidies, but also have $5.6 million set aside in an endowment.

There are quiet complaints (complaints are always quiet in the Catholic system) that many high schools have done a mediocre job of marketing, advertising and fund raising.

One of the goals of the new foundation is to help the schools in those missions.

In addition to the new foundation, there is also a group called Business Leaders for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), run by 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 Use This.jpgBLOCS 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 scholarships 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. In recent months, 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. It also provides scholarships to needy students.

Another major player is the Connelly Foundation, run by Josephine C. Mandeville and Emily C. Riley, president and executive vice president respectively.

The foundation was founded by the late John and Josephine Connelly. Connelly made his fortune with Connelly Containers and later Crown Cork and Seal. 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 foundation.

Connelly and BLOCS also have been active in pressing the archdiocese to be more aggressive in improving its grade schools and high schools. And they have both been supporters of inner-city Catholic grade schools with a large number of non-Catholic students, most of them poor.

During its decade of drift, the Catholic schools in Philadelphia engaged in mission creep.  With fewer Catholics signing up, many schools took to accepting non-Catholic students, whose parents liked the discipline, safety and moral teachings found in parochial schools, even though they paid higher tuition.  (Tuition for Catholics is usually around $2,600 for grade school.  For non-Catholic children it averages $400 to $500 higher.)

Today, 27 percent of all students in Catholic grade schools in the city are non-Catholic.

The hierarchy had a mixed view of this change.  To some, the principle role of Catholic schools was faith formation of Catholic children. Others said that educating poor, non-Catholics was part of the social mission of the church and could also result in conversions (though that is rare in practice.)

The problem was that whenever a school ran a deficit -- as they almost inevitably did -- the parish had provided funds to balance the budget.  Was it fair to ask parishioners to subsidize non-Catholic students? In Philadelphia, on average, 17 percent of a grade school's budget comes from the parish subsidy, though the figure varies widely from school to school.

The Blue Ribbon Commission addressed this issue by establishing a new category of school called a Mission School -- a parochial school, often majority non-Catholic, whose role will be to educate students in the poorest neighborhoods. Seven such schools were named in Philadelphia.

The idea is that these schools will be subsidized not with money from the parish, but from a fund set up by the archdiocese that will attract money from donors and foundations. 

Last week, the archdiocese increased the number of mission schools from seven to 13.

Mission Schools will operate differently from traditional parish schools.  For one thing, they will be quasi-independent, not under the control of the parish's pastor.  Instead, they will have independent boards -- part of whose job will be to raise money from outside sources to support the school.  (Financial support from the parish is expected to diminish.) Click here for a map of the 13 Missions Schools.

There are successful models of Mission Schools.  One is the dePaul Catholic School in Germantown, a failing parish school in 2003 that staged a turnaround.  As of the last school year, $520,000 of the school's $1.3 million budget came from sources other than tuition and the parish subsidy.

In Part Two, we offer a profile of the dePaul school.


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