Archdiocese may close 'staggering number' of schools

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says)
Posted: January 01, 2012

The landscape of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is about to undergo a seismic shift as the schools grapple with a one-third drop in enrollment over the last decade.

A blue-ribbon commission on the future of Catholic education in the five-county region is expected to make sweeping recommendations Friday that include closing what a source called "a staggering number" of parish elementary schools and replacing many with regional schools, changing the governance of the elementary schools that remain, upgrading schools' academic offerings, and creating a foundation to help support them.

The panel also may recommend that four or five of the 17 archdiocesan high schools close in June.

"There's a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety," said the source with ties to the archdiocese who has been told that between 30 and 40 parish elementary schools could be closed. "Even if they're staying open, every single school will be impacted."

Michael G. O'Neill, chairman of the Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, a nonprofit that raises money for the schools, fears that "a lot of schools will close."

"We're going to lose schools that we need terribly," O'Neill said. "But the good news is that for the schools that we have left, there will be a common focus on making them successful."

Commission leaders say their goal is making Catholic education stronger and putting schools on solid financial footing to give parents confidence that if they send a child to a Catholic school, it will be there in the years ahead.

Schools with fewer than 200 students and financial problems - especially those near other Catholic schools - are the most vulnerable.

The Office of Catholic Education told administrators they will learn their schools' fates when the report is released Friday.

In a recent interview, John J. "Jack" Quindlen, a retired DuPont official who chaired the commission, said he could not discuss the number of recommended closures before the announcement.

'A strong future'

"I think the archbishop said recently how difficult change can be," Quindlen said. "But in the long run, you get it behind you, and you've laid the groundwork for a strong future. . . . As far as we're concerned, Catholic education has a long way to go and hopefully will be with us for the millennium. We're making sure it's set up to do that."

The archdiocese has 49,177 students in 156 elementary schools; 15,172 students at 17 high schools; and 212 students at four special-education schools.

Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 38 percent at the elementary schools, 34 percent at the high schools. And there are fewer schools to attend. A decade ago there were 214 elementary and 22 high schools.

The archdiocese has cited the move of Catholic families to outer suburbs, declining birthrates, rising tuition, and competition from publicly funded charter schools as reasons for the decline.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop, created the blue-ribbon commission in December 2010 to take a comprehensive look at Catholic education and recommend a plan for ensuring its future.

Rigali asked Quindlen, former senior vice president and chief financial officer at DuPont and a former chairman of the archdiocese's board of education, to lead the project. Quindlen assembled a group of 16 lay and religious leaders.

He said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Rigali's successor, met with the commission shortly after his arrival in September and pledged his support.

The archdiocese said Chaput and the commission would announce the recommendations jointly.

The panel gathered demographic and financial data and reviewed responses from 3,500 parents and 700 teachers and administrators who participated in an online survey in the spring.

The commission also examined information from regional meetings in 2010 where parents discussed what they wanted from quality schools.

The yearlong study was the most thorough review of Catholic education in the archdiocese since a 1992 consultants' report, which called for closing six and merging four of the then-25 high schools. Seven of the targeted schools were saved or merged then.

Quindlen said the changes would have the greatest impact on the Catholic elementary schools, where the average annual tuition is $3,000.

"We had a lot of issues to deal with that were hanging on from the past: Primarily, a lot of grade schools that were not functionally viable for either financial reasons or curriculum reasons," he said.

"That is one of the things we have spent a lot of time on, and I think will be one of the tough bites for people."

But Quindlen added: "In the process that we're recommending, every single child in a Catholic school today will be accounted for. . . . That child may have to walk further or ride a bus further, but there is going to be a school there for them. And it's going to be a better school than the one they're in."

H. Edward Hanway, chairman emeritus of Cigna Corp., who oversaw the commission's subgroup on elementary schools, said the commission hoped that having a comprehensive plan with sound business strategies would end the annual agony and disruption caused by closing a few schools each year.

"We have been experiencing death by a thousand cuts," Hanway said. "We've had episodic, one-off, crisis-based school closures."

Now most Catholic elementary schools are operated by parishes. The parish sets the tuition and provides a subsidy when tuition does not cover the cost of educating students.

In 2010, the commission found that at schools that receive subsidies, the average was $319,162 - a 25 percent increase since 2001. The subsidies reduce funds available for other parish needs.

'Fairly dramatic'

To address this, Quindlen said the commission "was recommending a fairly dramatic change in how our grade schools are being governed . . . to bring more strategic, coordinated focus to the effort so that we don't have the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing and not having enough parental input and . . . dialogue."

He said recommendations would include alternatives to the traditional parish system, including some regional and multi-parish schools and independent Catholic schools similar to the model adopted by St. Martin de Porres in North Philadelphia.

The commission is expected to recommend advisory boards for each school to oversee finances and fund-raising, as is already being done at a few parish schools.

The commission also will recommend schools partner with universities and other resources in their communities.

"It really is broad-based, but the fundamental thought . . . is bringing a very professional, business-oriented, strategic approach to keeping the schools vibrant," Hanway said.

Regional and multi-parish schools will replace some schools to end what Quindlen called "a death spiral." As enrollment falls, programs are cut, tuition is raised, and more families leave.

"There's a whole bunch of schools that we can't name but they have 120, 130, 140 kids," Quindlen said. "You've got your fixed costs, which are way out of line."

He said creating a combined school at one building with 450 students would reduce fixed costs so money would be available to improve curriculum and add programs.

Overall, the high schools are in better financial shape than most elementary schools. In the aftermath of the 1992 consultants' report, the high schools created financial advisory boards and developed aggressive fund-raising strategies.

Annual tuition at 15 of the high schools is $5,600. The rate is higher at the two newest schools: $6,100 at Bishop Shanahan in Downingtown, and $6,600 at Pope John Paul II in Royersford.

Despite strong enrollment at several high schools, a few are caught in the grip of dwindling enrollment.

"Some of the same issues that we've talked about in terms of the vicious cycle are impacting the high schools as well," Hanway said.

Quindlen said no major management changes would be recommended for high schools, but there would be fewer of them.

Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents the lay teachers at the high schools, has heard rumors about the names and number of high schools that might be targeted but is not sure what to expect. The high school system, she said, is still coping with the closings of Northeast Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty in the city in 2010.

Quindlen and Hanway know parts of the commission report will be controversial.

"Hopefully, the recommendations we make . . . will position our schools to be sustained, affordable, and ensure that people who want a Catholic education have access to it," Hanway said. "This is not just about today. This is about the future of Catholic education in Philadelphia and the need to reinvigorate our Catholic education system. And to hopefully establish a foundation that will allow it to grow."


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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