Monica Yant Kinney: Facts should save St. Laurentius School

Supporters of St. Laurentius School march through their Fishtown neighborhood. Some say the archdiocese relied on outdated information in its decision to close the school.
Supporters of St. Laurentius School march through their Fishtown neighborhood. Some say the archdiocese relied on outdated information in its decision to close the school. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 11, 2012

Archbishop Charles Chaput said he'd listen to facts. He'd reconsider shuttering some of the 49 Catholic schools if decisions were made using good faith but bad math.

"Sometimes," Chaput acknowledged last week, commissions like the one charged with streamlining archdiocesan education in the city and suburbs "make mistakes."

So how much faulty logic will it take to get Chaput to reverse the death sentence for 125-year-old St. Laurentius School in Fishtown? No pressure, but a thriving, reviving community is banking on numbers saving the day.

"Our school is not dying. It's not like we have empty floors where we keep cadavers," quips A.J. Thomson, a lawyer and father of four who organized a spirited 1,000-person march through the neighborhood Monday night.

"We refurbished the rectory to make room for pre-K students," he says. "Enrollment is up, baptisms are consistent. We formed a development committee to fund-raise and eliminate any small deficit. These are clearly errors of fact."

St. Laurentius is following the rules, relying on data, not emotion, to make its case. So who, if anyone, at the archdiocese stands ready to reverse the call and let little kids get back to learning?

Being judged on the past

How shocked was St. Laurentius to learn its fate? The congregation's beloved pastor, the Rev. Francis Gwiazda - Father Frank - was so confident the school would be spared that he scheduled knee surgery last week and heard the news in a hospital bed.

The first thing the principal, Sister Rita Marie Aponik, and others noticed when they studied www.faithinthefuture.org for more information? Flawed information.

The archdiocese's blue-ribbon commission relied on 2009 data that claimed St. Laurentius was just 67 percent full, with 207 students. According to the analysis, the parish subsidized the school to the tune of $89,000 a year. Still, the pre-K-to-8 school owed nearly $100,000.

"That's just not true," says Patricia Kinsman, mother of a first grader. With 238 students in a building that can hold 285, "we're at 84 percent capacity. We're basically full."

Though the school sought a one-time loan in 2009, aggressive fund-raising - a Super Bowl pool, 5K race and Communion breakfast are on tap - is erasing red ink. A summer splash at the Jersey Shore could net $30,000 easy.

If St. Laurentius was declining, why did the archdiocese pick it to participate in a four-year leadership development program at the University of Pennsylvania? And don't get Dolores Griffith started about the claim that St. Laurentius lacks a 21st-century curriculum.

"Every class has technology and gym," counters Griffith, a second-grade teacher. "We have music! Our seventh-grade teacher is also the musical director of the parish."

Parents hope to fund a Spanish teacher soon, but to Thomson, with one daughter at St. Laurentius and three to follow, getting nicked for not employing academic specialists seems like a red herring.

"Show me any grade school in the archdiocese with a full-time honors math teacher," he says.

Proving their point

If the archdiocese needs more proof of St. Laurentius' well-being, Chaput could watch my colleague Larry Kesterson's video account of Monday's march (www.philly.com/laurentius). The threat of losing the last Catholic school in Fishtown brought the neighborhood to its feet and into the streets.

Five years ago, the archdiocese tried to darken St. Laurentius and nearby Holy Name of Jesus, redirecting students to St. Anne's in Port Richmond. Families fought, but both Holy Name and St. Anne's eventually closed their doors.

St. Laurentius welcomed the displaced students. Now, some of those newcomers would have to seek a third Catholic school in as many years.

Such upheaval, the principal writes in bold in her appeal, would be "unprecedented . . . in the history of the archdiocese." It would also be "unconscionable."


Monica Yant Kinney:

Watch a video of parents, students, and neighbors marching in protest of St. Laurentius School closing at

www.philly.com/laurentius


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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