Ronnie Polaneczky: Tracking 'The Rumor' about North Catholic

Students at North Catholic last month protest the planned closing of the school next June. The word on the street is that the closing might not happen.
Students at North Catholic last month protest the planned closing of the school next June. The word on the street is that the closing might not happen.
Posted: November 19, 2009

THE SIDEWALK in front of Northeast Catholic High School can be a loud place to hang out.

Torresdale Avenue bustles with traffic, and the clatter and screech of the Market-Frankford El adds to the decibel level.

Over the last week, another sound has heightened the neighborhood din: Excited chatter about a rumor that the doors of North's mammoth building may not close next June after all.

It's all that anyone at North Catholic is talking about. Even folks atother Philly Catholic schools (including Cardinal Dougherty, also slated to shut at the end of the school year) are talking about The Rumor.

"I am in tears and have goosebumps; I am shaking," said Donna Conway, whose son is a North sophomore. "We're all getting Facebook messages saying, 'Did you hear?' I pray that it's true!"

The word on the street is that North may be reincarnated as an independently run "Cristo Rey" school - a Catholic prep school targeted at low-income students whose families can't afford the $5,500-and-up cost of a Catholic education in this city.

Except, says Philadelphia Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell, the story isn't true.

"It's all rumors," Farrell told my colleague Val Russ on Monday, as Val and I worked to get to the bottom of The Rumor. "There have been no negotiations. North Catholic is not going to become a Cristo Rey school and, sadly, North Catholic will be closing in June."

Cristo Rey Network CEO Rob Birdsell was more equivocal. "I can't speak about the specifics of Philadephia," he told Val, neither confirming nor denying that conversations with the Archdiocese have taken place.

But a well-connected North alum familiar with The Rumor tells me that Bishop Joseph McFadden met with four heavy-hitting North alums last week - among them multimillionaire and philanthropist Paul Hondros - to chat about the school.

Also present were others with ties either to the Cristo Rey Network or to the Society of Jesus - the Jesuit order of priests that created the Cristo Rey model.

"They even toured North Catholic on November 11," said the source. "To say that nothing has been discussed isn't true."

Hondros was unavailable for comment yesterday, so I hoped the Rev. Timothy Lannon could enlighten me about what might've gone down in the meeting. Lannon, the Jesuit president of St. Joseph's University, is a close friend of Hondros' (a loyal St. Joe's grad who funded the university's new autism center).

"Lannon is the most high-profile Jesuit in the area," said the North alum. "You can bet that if the Jesuits are thinking of bringing Cristo Rey here, [Lannon] knows about it."

Lannon said that it was "premature to discuss" whether he even had a conversation with Hondros about Cristo Rey, North Catholic and the bishop.

And then he chuckled.

Obviously, there's a difference between a discussion and a negotiation, a germ of an idea and an actual plan.

The only thing certain, after Val and I grilled umpteen sources about The Rumor, is that North families are so desperate for their beloved school to remain open, they'll leap at a good rumor the way a drowning man lunges for a life presever.

And Cristo Rey is one ingenious life preserver.

The Jesuit-run, Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network comprises 24 high schools that provide Catholic, college-prep education to low-income urban kids living in "communities with limited educational options" i.e., poor neighborhoods. All of the 24 schools were heading toward financial destitution when they were taken over by Cristo Rey.

To finance their tuition, Cristo Rey students attend school four days a week and, on the fifth day, work at a paying job outside the school. Their employment provides them with real-world job experience and - this is the brilliant part - a salary that pays their tuition.

"It's a terrific model," says St. Joe's Lannon. "I think it could work really well in Philadephia."

State Rep. John Taylor, who's meeting with Bishop McFadden on Monday about the closing of North and Dougherty, is equally intrigued.

"But we'd need the permission of the Archdiocese for it to happen," Taylor said.

It can take 18 to 24 months for a Cristo Rey school to evolve from a hopeful idea to full-scale operation, say network administrators. So it's a long shot to imagine North re-opening next fall as a Cristo Rey institution, whether the Archdiocese blesses the conversion or not.

Meantime, Len Knobbs expects he'll spend a lot of time battling new rumors.

He's the executive secretary and treasurer of North's alumni association, and he's been hearing some doozies.

One had the association buying the school for $30 million; not true, says Knobbs. Another had La Salle University purchasing the place as an annex; also false. The funniest, he says, was when he was asked to confirm that he himself was donating $5 million to save the school.

"I said, 'If I had five million dollars to give away, I'd sit up all night staring at it.' "

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog/ 

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