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A New Day for Catholic Schools

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

It sounded like the death knell for Catholic education in Philadelphia.

Last month, a Blue Ribbons Committee, originally appointed by Cardinal Justin Rigali, issued a report recommending the closing or consolidation of dozens of Catholic schools in the region.

Philadelphia was particularly hard hit, with the commission calling for the closing of 19 grade schools and two high schools.

Then a wonderful thing happened.

Pastors, Catholic educators, parents and neighborhood groups rallied.  Allowed by the rules to appeal, schools did appeal en masse. They held rallies and wrote letters to Archbishop Charles Chaput.  They flooded Facebook pages with pro-Catholic school messages. They fought vigorously -- sometimes with tears, sometimes with angry shouts -- the decision to shut them down.

They disputed the gloomy prognosis of the commission, saying it misread enrollment data and overlooked recent positive developments at the schools.

Last week, in a surprising reversal, the archdiocese overturned many of the commission's recommendations. It reconfigured the proposal in major ways so that fewer schools would close.

In Philadelphia, where 19 grade schools were due to close, the list was cut to 11.  The four Catholic high schools in the region slated for closing were given more time to prove they could raise money from alumni and supporters to continue.

[On Friday. Feb 24th, the archdiocese announced that all four high schools would stay open.  The ruling effects: Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast in Upper Darby, West Catholic High School and St. Hubert's High School for Girls in Philadelphia and Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills.]  

For a current list of schools in Philadelphia affected by the report and the appeals, click here.

For the schools that were slated to close, the archdiocese offered a reprieve -- and a tacit challenge to find ways to survive and thrive.

The decisions made will reshape Catholic education, particularly in the city.

As of next September, there will be three types of Catholic grade schools in Philadelphia:  traditional parish schools, many of them in Northeast Philadelphia; regional schools, created by the consolidation of smaller parish schools; and mission schools -- a whole new category of school, most of them located in poor areas of the city and serving a high proportion of non-Catholic students.

Still, questions remain on issues large and small. Here are some of them:

One.  Can regional Catholic schools succeed?

The heart of the plan is to consolidate individual parish schools into larger, regional schools on the theory that bigger is better.  A small, struggling parish school with 200 students will bring in about $520,000 in tuition each year.  A regional school with 500 students will get $1.5 million in tuition.

The paradigm for a successful regional school is Our Lady of Port Richmond, which opened its doors in 2008, replacing four Port Richmond parish schools.

The money generated by the infusion of students allowed the school to hire an art teacher, a music teacher, a Spanish teacher, pay for a science lab, a computer lab, a full gym program and a teacher for remedial and enrichment education.

But, there also concern that Our Lady of Port Richmond may be an exception to the rule.  Under the original consolidation, most of the students from the closed schools were within walking distance of Our Lady.

But, neighborhood boundaries tend to be sacrosanct in Philadelphia. Going to a grade school that is a mile or more away is the mental equivalent of a trip to the moon for some parents. Neighborhoods in Philadelphia have been defined by their parishes -- and their parish schools -- for 150 years. Now that is about to change.

Most of the regional schools created in recent years started with healthy enrollment levels, but they usually dropped in succeeding years. 

For instance, Holy Child in Manayunk opened as a regional school in 2004 with 435 students.  Last year, it had 256.  (The plan seeks to bolster Holy Child by closing St. Bridget's in East Falls and sending those students to the Manayunk school.)

Holy Innocents in Juniata Park opened as a regional in 2004 with 399 students.  As of last year, it had 274.

More dramatically, Pope John Paul II regional opened in Bridesburg in 2004 with 365 students.  Last year, it had 184 students -- and it is being closed under the new plan.

Two. Can Mission Schools find the money and support to survive?

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.

Raising outside funds of that magnitude is not easy.  The archdiocese says it will establish a foundation to solicit funds to support the inner-city Mission Schools.

Still, competition for charitable dollars is stiff. These schools could require hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies a year.

The Mission Schools have been handed a second chance -- and a challenge by the archdiocese.

Three. Why didn't the archdiocese create a Mission High School?

A perfect candidate would be West Catholic, now slated to close its doors in June.

on school.  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.

Last week, Brother Tim Ahern, who was president of the school, abruptly resigned because of parent and alumni unhappiness over the fact he did not appeal the archdiocesan decision to close the school.

In an earlier interview, Ahern felt he had little chance of success in making an appeal.  The archdiocese limited the grounds for appealing to factual errors it may have made in determining a school's fate.  As far as Ahern was concerned, he could not argue on the facts: enrollment at the school was at 353 students this year (down from 636 in 2005) and was barely able to keep its academic programs going, despite generous giving by West Catholic alumni.

However, faculty a the school did appeal the decision and West Catholic's fate, along with St. Hubert's High School for Girls, is pending.

West has a low enrollment, but the 13 mission schools created by the archdiocese could act as feeder schools.  Also, West has an active and generous corps of alumni who have been subsidizing the school for years -- sometimes to the tune of $700,000 or more each school year.

 

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