'This is tantamount to a death'

Students gathering outside West Catholic High School on Friday after learning that their school was one of the four area high schools on the list to be closed.
Students gathering outside West Catholic High School on Friday after learning that their school was one of the four area high schools on the list to be closed. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2012

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia's announcement Friday that it was closing 45 elementary schools and four high schools set off shock waves of anger and grief that are reverberating across the region.

"This is tantamount to a death," said Michael Wetzel, a veteran English teacher at Monsignor Bonner/Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, which will close in June. "We're taking it so hard because it was so unexpected and so unnecessary."

Joan Weeney, who has taught at Our Lady of Mount Carmel elementary in South Philadelphia for 35 years, said teachers at her school had feared the worst.

"We kind of knew," the fourth-grade teacher said. "We all dressed in black. It was a total day of mourning."

Her school on South Third Street is one of five South Philadelphia elementary schools that will close and consolidate into a new regional school, the former Stella Maris on Bigler Street.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and a 16-member blue-ribbon commission that recommended the closures said that as painful as school closings are, these are a critical component of a comprehensive plan to halt declining enrollment and rising deficits to ensure Catholic education remains viable.

Roman Catholic dioceses across the country have been grappling with the same problems of declining enrollment and rising school deficits and have come up with similar plans in the last few years to deal with them. Experts on Catholic education point to the Archdioceses of New York, Washington, and Baltimore, as well as the Diocese of Brooklyn. The Diocese of Camden closed several Catholic schools a few years ago as part of a restructuring plan.

"The major point is that Philadelphia does not look to be alone," said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute in Washington, which has studied Catholic education.

Rising deficits

Philadelphia's plan is aimed at addressing widening deficits at many of the schools - the annual average was $319,162, a 25 percent increase since 2001. The archdiocese and parishes have spent $751 million to support the schools over that time. Commission Chairman John J. Quindlen has estimated the closings could save the archdiocese as much as $10 million a year.

"We cannot sustain unsustainable schools," Chaput said Friday when the commission's report was announced.

The commission said it chose schools for closing based on several factors, including low enrollment, financial instability, cost of needed building repairs, and enrollment trends and projections.

At the elementary level, Quindlen said, "most of these schools have small enrollments and do not offer the key elements of a 21st-century curriculum."

Thirty-four of the elementary schools being shuttered, he said, have enrollments below 200 students, and 14 have fewer than 150 children.

The restructuring plan does not affect dozens of private Catholic schools scattered across the region, such as St. Joseph's Preparatory School in North Philadelphia, Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station, and Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill.

Other recommendations

Cardinal Justin Rigali, Chaput's predecessor, established the commission in 2010 to take a comprehensive look at Catholic education and recommend a blueprint to address an enrollment decline of more than 30 percent over the last decade and ensure a strong future for Catholic schooling.

The commission's plan calls for creating many regional elementary schools, setting up new advisory boards with lay members who have financial and management expertise, and establishing a foundation that will raise money for the schools.

The report also urges strengthening the parish religious-education programs that provide Catholic instruction to students who attend public schools. The archdiocese said 49,312 Catholic elementary-age children receive their religious instruction from the parish programs compared with 43,145 from Catholic schools.

According to the archdiocese, 14 percent of the students in Catholic elementary schools across the five counties are not Catholic. But data from individual schools show a wide variation, ranging from zero non-Catholic students at St. Matthew in Mayfair to 89 percent at St. Malachy in North Philadelphia.

The commission said its plan was aimed at making sure all families who want to send a child to a Catholic school have access to one whether they belong to the church or not.

The announced closings mean that 29 percent of the archdiocese's 156 elementary schools will close and 24 percent of its 17 high schools. The closings will displace 1,700 teachers, some of whom will not find new jobs with the school system.

And while 45 elementary schools will close, more than 80 will undergo changes as well, as students from the closed schools transfer to the new regional schools. The archdiocese said the moves would affect 20,993 elementary students.

The high school closings will have an effect on 2,800 students who will transfer to other schools. The archdiocese has an open-admission process that allows students to attend any of the archdiocesan high schools.

To help displaced students, the remaining 13 high schools will send representatives to the closing schools, hold visitation days, and assist with enrollment."

Quindlen, a retired senior vice president and chief financial officer of the DuPont Co., said the commission's plan includes a spot at another Catholic school for every student affected by the closings.

Mary Rochford, the superintendent of schools, said officials would meet throughout January with the affected schools to begin building bridges among them. She said the Office of Catholic Education hopes new names will be selected for the regional elementary schools and principals selected by March 25.

The regional schools will then hold open houses for students and their families.

The commission said it had examined school-restructuring plans of other dioceses, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, but that its recommendations were not based on any of those plans. "Philadelphia is unique, and therefore so is this plan," the archdiocese said.

However, the commission's blueprint shares some approaches that other dioceses have followed, including creating regional schools and establishing new advisory boards with greater lay involvement.

Philadelphia's plan has some similarities with Baltimore's. A blue-ribbon committee there in 2010 called for consolidating nine schools in Baltimore city and four in Baltimore County to deal with struggling parish schools, which had 10,000 empty seats and were requiring more and more financial support from that archdiocese.

Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said that plan also created a governance model that includes an archdiocesan school board that recommends policies and oversees strategic planning for Catholic schools.

Sister Helen L. Wiegmann, a staff member at Sacred Heart Parish in Glyndon, Md., served on both Baltimore's committee and Philadelphia's commission.

Experts said the nation's Catholic schools have been under growing financial strain for decades because of the growing shortage of members of religious teaching orders and their being replaced by lay faculty who had to be paid.

In the 1960s, when Catholic enrollment peaked, nuns, brothers, and priests made up 95 percent of the staff. That number has dwindled to 4 percent.

To cover rising personnel costs, schools increased tuition and pushed the cost of a Catholic education beyond the means of many families.

A 2008 warning

In Philadelphia, the average annual elementary-school tuition is $3,000. 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.

In 2008, the Fordham Institute released a report that warned: "America's urban Catholic schools are in crisis."

The institute's Petrilli said the nation's recent economic downturn only made matters worse.

Schools' strategies for shoring up finances began unraveling as parents lost jobs and could no longer afford tuition, dioceses' coffers were squeezed, philanthropies' endowments shrank, and donors' investment portfolios were battered by declining markets.

"The economy has been the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said.

Michael Caruso, an executive director at the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, agreed.

Faced with their own financial worries, dioceses and parishes were less likely to be able to provide a safety net for struggling schools.

Caruso said in an interview that the association put out a report two years ago called "Weathering the Storm" that served as a rallying point for dioceses nationwide. He said the report helped clarify some of the issues and stressed the importance of finances, leadership, parental involvement, and strategic planning that were critical for schools' survival.

On Friday, Chaput said that the commission had told him that with the changes it had recommended, it hoped enrollment would stabilize and grow.

"They told me 10 to 15 years without any more closings," he said.

"So these are comprehensive recommendations based on sustainability . . . I hope for many, many years."

The commission's report is available at www.faithinthefuture.com.


Blue-Ribbon Commission Members

John J. Quindlen, chairman, former senior vice president, chief financial officer, DuPont; former chairman, Archdiocesan Board of Education.

Thomas J. Colligan, vice dean and director, Aresty Institute of Executive Education, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Charles P. Connolly Jr., former president and CEO, First Union Bank, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Gerald Davis, retired director of media and public relations, Sunoco.

Msgr. Edward Deliman, pastor, Our Lady of Fatima, Bensalem.

Eleanor M. Dezzi, president, the Dezzi Group Ltd., political and business consulting firm; member, Archdiocesan Board of Education.

Sister John Evelyn DiTrolio, congregational liaison for the Immaculate Heart of Mary elementary schools.

Sister Patricia Fadden, president, Immaculata University; chair of the Archdiocesan Board of Education.

Frank A. Farnesi, retired partner, KMPG L.L.P., international accounting firm.

H. Edward Hanway, chairman emeritus, Cigna Corp.

Msgr. Daniel J. Kutys, pastor, SS. Peter and Paul Church, West Chester.

Miguel A. Leon, attorney, former member of Archdiocesan Board of Education.

Msgr. Joseph T. Marino, pastor, Our Lady of the Assumption, Strafford, and regional vicar for Chester County.

Sister Theresa Maugle, principal, St. Genevieve School, Flourtown, Montgomery County.

Jerry Parsons, cofounder, chairman, and CEO, Communications Test Design Inc., global communications services, West Chester.

Sister Helen L. Wiegmann, former member of Blue Ribbon Committee on Catholic Schools, Archdiocese of Baltimore; staff member, Sacred Heart of Glyndon Parish, Glyndon, Md.


See a video about the school closings, more photos, and an interactive map at www.philly.com/education


Complete Coverage of the Closings

Which schools will be shut? Map and list, A18.

1,700 teachers will be displaced. How many will find new jobs is unclear. A18.

At Masses across the region, parishes grapple with the closure plan. A21.

Monica Yant Kinney: Sacrifices betrayed. B1.

Joseph N. DiStefano: Poor leadership is the key to Catholic school woes. Currents, C1.

Abiding love and a sense

of loss for Catholic League sports. Sports, E1.


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

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