Philadelphia Metropolis

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Catholic School Crisis

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This article was amended on Feb. 17 to reflect the ruling appeals by parishes about plans for closure and consolidation.  See the material in brackets for the updates.


By Tom Ferrick Jr.

The tears have been shed, the anger has abated somewhat, but the pain remains over the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's decision last month to close several dozen Catholic schools in the region at the end of this school year.

In conversations with parents, pastors, principals and teachers, I have found, if not acceptance, at least an understanding of what motivated the Blue Ribbon Commission to recommend such a jarring course of action.

To summarize those comments: there was a recognition that something had to be done; that the downward drift in enrollment, especially in Philadelphia, had to be dealt with in a decisive way; that the archdiocese's prior way of handling this issue -- through a tortuous process called self-study -- was not working.

Finally, if downsizing was to occur, best for it to come in one large dose, as opposed to the water torture of the previous decade, with each year bringing a school closed here or there.

There was also a feeling -- though rarely expressed publicly -- that there had to be some consolidation in the name of maintaining the academic quality of Catholic schools. St. Laurentious use this.jpg When they are honest, even top officials of the archdiocese admit that some schools -- especially those with declining enrollments -- were offering sub-par education.

Fewer and fewer students meant less income from tuition, which meant fewer teachers, fewer extra programs -- such as music and art -- and a general diminution of the learning going on inside those ancient school buildings.

"Something had to give," was the way one strong supporter of Catholic education put it.  "It's really about the quality of education."

All that said, there is still anger and frustration among the parents and students at the schools scheduled to be closed.  And most of them have appealed the archdiocese's decision, hoping for a reversal.

In the city of Philadelphia, the plan calls for the closing of 19 elementary schools and two high schools -- St. Hubert's for Girls and West Catholic.  This is in addition to the 24 grade schools and two high schools (Cardinal Dougherty and North Catholic) closed between 2000 and 2010. (Click here for a map of the schools due to close.)

[Added Feb 17th: The archdiocese released results of those appeals.  It delayed for several weeks a final decision on the closing of high schools.  It reversed its decision to close 11 of the 19 Philadelphia grade schools.  The decision was a surprise -- in its scope of reversals.]

In 2000, the archdiocese had 79 grade schools in the city and 12 high schools.  When this most recent round of closings and consolidations is completed, and taking the appeals into consideration, it will have 51 grade schools and six high schools operating in Philadelphia.

And for those who thought the bad news was over, sources within the archdiocese said that once all of the appeals of closings are settled, the archdiocese plans to announce a round of tuition increases in the high schools, reportedly to the tune of $500 per student.

See Part Two for a list of the schools in Philadelphia scheduled to be closed and the results of the appeals.

Still, in the field, there are questions about the plan -- on issues large and small.  Here are five 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. St. Malachy use this.jpgBridget'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.

The consolidation people will be watching most closely is creation of the Stella Maris regional in South Philadelphia, which will take students from five parish schools due to be closed under the plan.

Two. Why so few Mission Schools?

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 were charged a 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 mission of Catholic schools was faith formation. Others said that educating 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 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 was 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.  Click here for a list of the seven mission schools.

At the same time, the archdiocese plan calls for the closing of seven other schools that also serve poor communities and are majority non-Catholic.  The most notable are St. Malachy's (pronounced: Mal-a-kee's) in North Philadelphia and Our Lady of Lourdes in West Philadelphia. Both schools have over 200 students -- usually the minimum required -- and both schools have appealed their closings. St, Malachy's in particular has been successful in raising money from outside donors to support its mission. Click here for aWest Catholic use this.jpg list of Catholic schools in the city with high non-Catholic enrollment.

[In its Feb 17 ruling the archdiocese announced that St. Malachy's would remain open and become a mission school.]

I asked the archdiocese about these schools, but had not gotten a reply as of deadline. On Monday (Feb. 13) I did get a written response to a number of my questions from Mary Rochford, who is superitendent of Catholic schools.  You can read her responses here.

I also asked if any consideration was given to making West Catholic High School a mission 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.

[In its Feb 17 ruling, the archdiocese increased the number of mission schools from seven to 13.  The newly designated mission schools are: St. Peter the Apostle, St. Gabriel, St. Thomas Acquinas, St Malachy and Visitation BVM.  It also said it would consider naming more mission schools in the future.]


Three.  Why close Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop High Schools in Upper Darby?

The two schools have a combined enrollment of 1,000, making them the fifth largest of the archdiocese's 17 high schools in the region. A shutdown of West would have brought additional students to the school, which is a short trolley or el ride away.

Both Bonner and Prendergast have appealed the decision and -- perhaps belatedly -- engaged in a fundraising drive among alumni and supports to raise money for their operations. 

Four. Will there be enough spaces in surviving schools for students from other parishes?

My analysis of archdiocesan data found five instances where the surviving school does not have the capacity to handle a rush of students from a closed school.

Those examples include:

-- Holy Cross, a parish school in Mount Airy, is slated to close.  Students are being directed to Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill.  The projected enrollment of the combined school, according to archdiocesan planners, is 330.  However, the listed capacity of Consolation is only 237. [On Feb 17, the archdiocese reversed it's decision to close Holy Cross.]

-- The five South Philadelphia parish schools due to be consolidated into the new Stella Maris Regional currently enroll about 1,000 students.  Stella Maris has a capacity of  725. [On Feb 17th, the archdiocese abandoned it's plan to have a super-regional school for South Philadelphia located at the Stella Maris building.  Instead, it decided to keep Epiphany of Our Lord open and make it a regional school, taking in students from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and Sacred Heart.  It also decided to keep St. Richard's open as a regional school and have studentsfrom Holy Spirit attend it.]

-- Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament school in West Philadelphia is due to merge with St. Donato's.  Project enrollment of the new, combined school is 383.  St. Donato's capacity is listed at 290.

-- Pope John Paul Regional in Bridesburg is due to merge into St. Timothy's Projected new enrollment: 656.  Capacity of St. Timothy's: 575.

-- St. George's school is scheduled to merge into Our Lady of Port Richmond.  Projected enrollment: 665.  Capacity of Our Lady: 570.

-- St. Malachy's parish school in North Philadelphia is scheduled to merge with Visitation BVM.  Project enrollment: 658.  Listed capacity of Visitation: 570. [Under the Feb 17th ruling, St. Malachy's will remain open.

-- St. Laurentius in Fishtown is due to merge with St. Peter's.  Projected enrollment: 457.  Listed capacity of St. Peter's: 340. [The Feb 17th ruling reversed the decision to close St. Laurentius.]


Five.  Is this the end of it?

The Blue Ribbon Commission said it was seeking to change the fate of Catholic schools from a "vicious to virtuous cycle" and that these closures and consolidations would accomplish that goal. The Commission also said that once schools were closed, the survivors will be stronger.  Finally, the commission said it did not foresee additional closings in the future.

There's a great deal of hope in the field that those assertions are true. There is also skepticism. The Catholic schools have undergone so much turbulence in the last 20 years, optimism about the future is hard to come by.



Cover Photo: Parent protests closing of St. Laurentius


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