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The DePaul Catholic School

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By Morgan Zalot

As Catholic schools throughout Philadelphia close their doors for good, one school in the heart of Germantown has found a way to flourish and last week was named as one of the 13 so-called mission schools in Philadelphia.

In 2003, the DePaul Catholic School, known then as St. Martin DePorres, had a problem - enrollment had dwindled to just 181 students. If the school closed, it would leave its Germantown neighborhood with no Catholic school.

Since the school received no subsidy from its parish, it had to find a way to pay for itself.  Many Catholic schools - faced with the same dilemma - cut budget and staff to the bone.  The people who ran DePaul went in the other direction - they decided to expand and experiment.

They lowered class size, hired math and reading classroom assistance and eventually added teachers for Spanish, art, music, gym and computer science.

They also re-branded and re-aligned the school, by expanding the school day, notching up expectations for students and, eventually, renaming the school.

By making the DePaul experience distinctive, they differentiated the school from nearby charter and public schools, giving parents the feeling that although they were paying tuition they were also getting extra value.

DePaul Use this.jpgThe change began in kindergarten through second grade classes, where they created what is called a Franciscan Academy. They shrunk classes school-wide to 15 to 20 students per class, and then eventually added two of each grade.

"We decided to get bigger by getting smaller, with more attention [from teachers for students] and more instruction time," said Vice Principal Steve Janczewski, who has been at DePaul for more than a decade  "It's risky to some degree, but some Catholic schools lower their standards because they need bodies in the seats. They would bring kids who weren't as prepared, then enrollment declined."

In sixth through eighth grade, they created what they called a Vincentian Academy, which featured not only smaller classes but an expanded school day - until 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

The philosophy was that raising expectations would raise the students' effort and their responsibility, better preparing them to be successful in high school.

In addition, the school received financial help from the Vincentian order, which staffs the St. Martin DePorres parish church, which is next door to the school. DePaul also got help from the Daughters of Charity, the order of nuns to which Principal Sister Cheryl Ann Hillig, belongs.

"We wanted to say to people, 'We're going to be around for awhile,'" said Janczewski, adding that a school has been on the property where DePaul is located since 1899. "Our kids deserve everything they would get in other, suburban schools."

To reach their goals, Janczewski said they wrote countless grants and began a development program within the school to raise money to make DePaul self-sustaining.

It became clear within a few years that the plan had worked - enrollment in DePaul nearly doubled, leveling off at 344 students last year, and the school went from having a faculty of 10 teachers who taught all subjects to a teaching staff of 35, many of whom specialize in subjects they're passionate about.

The school's graduating class TerraNova standardized test scores have increased by 102 percent over the last five years.

Janczewski attributes the dramatic increase in enrollment to word of mouth.

"The parents are really supportive," he said. "Parents want the very best for their kids."

In the school's changing and improvements, administrators were sure to keep teachers in the loop as well. Teacher retention at DePaul increased as well.

"Our whole way was going to teachers and saying, 'What's holding you back from giving these kids the education they deserve?'" he explained. "And the teachers are so supportive because they know if they come to us, we're going to do our best."

The school was also able to come up with the funds to hire an in-house counselor for students full-time.

"She's able to build relationships because she's here five days a week," Janczewski said, stressing the benefit of a counselor to the students, many of whom are from poor and working class families in Germantown and North Philadelphia.

Thumbnail image for DePaul 2 use this.jpgIn addition to tuition, the funds needed to keep up the school's $1.5 million annual budget come through grants and fundraising events, including an annual gala, an annual fund to benefit the school and social fundraising events, such as Happy Hours, a 5K race and an event each year centered on March Madness.

The yearly tuition per student was $2,575 last year, but will increase to $2,975 this year.

"It's a big jump for us, but we work with parents to find ways to make it affordable," Janczewski said. "We don't want anyone to come because they can't afford it."

Most families receive some kind of financial aid from the money raised through grants and fundraising.

Steve Clark, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade writing at the school, graduated from the University of Scranton and began teaching at DePaul five years ago. The sense of community at the school is so great and reminiscent of that at Scranton that Clark has recruited several other alums from his college, including his twin brother Mike, to come work at the school.

"He just spoke highly of the school, and my family spoke highly of it," said Mike Clark, now DePaul.s director of development.  "The community aspect is a major selling point."

Mike Clark began as a teacher, and said he was impressed with how bright and mature the students at DePaul were. "They are very insightful. I learned a lot from them," he said.

"The school has been growing. It's an awesome thing to be a part of," Steve Clark said as he helped other teachers and staff paint a mural to be installed on the school's front wall. "People see this as a different, cool model."

Currently, DePaul caps its kindergarten through fifth grade classes at 25 students per class and two classes per grade; it caps its sixth through eighth grades at 20 students per class.

Janczewski said one of the best benefits to having increased individual student-faculty and instruction time is that they are able to determine what the students truly need in order to learn - something often not discerned in traditional public or charter schools.

"We don't push kids through. We really work to find what kids need, whether it's tutoring, support or a diagnosis," he said. "For some kids, they get to a point and realize this really isn't the best fit."

DePaul is currently participating in the CHILD program and developing a strategic plan for the next five years. Janczewski said the school will continue to expand, provided it can find the funds and the space to do so.

Most graduates, he said, go on to Catholic high schools in the city, and he said alumni who come back to visit say they felt well-prepared for high school.

"It's a great spirit whenever you walk the halls. There's a really settled, peaceful feeling," Janczewski said. "There are times when it feels like a lot, especially if they come from schools that expect less, but our parents and our kids really appreciate it.

"Without their buy-in, we couldn't have those expectations."

 

Flag Photo: Detail of the mural at the DePaul School, 44 W. Logan St.

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