Ronnie Polaneczky: St. Bridget's is thriving. Why force it to merge?

Students at St. Bridget's join their families for a rally Saturday to save their East Falls school, which is scheduled to merge with Holy Child in Manayunk.
Students at St. Bridget's join their families for a rally Saturday to save their East Falls school, which is scheduled to merge with Holy Child in Manayunk.
Posted: March 08, 2012

IN  12-STEP meetings, there's a "no cross-talk" policy. After a member says his peace, the group responds, "Thanks for sharing." No one comments any further.

After listening to families at St. Bridget's School describe their meeting with the Philadelphia Archdiocese to ask that their school remain open, I'm wondering if they stumbled into a 12-Step gathering instead of an appeals hearing.

Because the response they've gotten to their respectfully expressed concerns is, basically, "Thanks for sharing."

That, and the Archdiocese's ruling that the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission will stand: St. Bridget's in East Falls will merge with Holy Child in Manayunk.

The move is going forward despite a strong argument from St. Bridget families that the Holy Child site could be disastrous for a merged regional school.

What makes them so sure? In 2005, five Manayunk parish schools were merged at the Holy Child site. Since then, Holy Child's enrollment has plunged 51 percent while St. Bridget's - which has a smaller catchment area - has increased 16 percent.

"It's clear that the Manayunk location has been rejected by its own surrounding community as a viable location for a regional school," says St. Bridget parent John Grady, who led the appeal and attended the hearing.

So what will the Archdiocese do differently at the Holy Child site to sustain it in the future?

"Who knows?" says St. Bridget parent Anne Wilson, who has been emailing Archbishop Charles Chaput for specifics. His response is that the decision is final.

"Enough is enough," he wrote, urging her to cooperate with the plan "for the unity of the church."

He then scolded Wilson for "sharing correspondence," as she'd referenced emails he'd sent to other St. Bridget families.

"How dare he!" she seethes. "In the absence of any information, what recourse do we have but to share what we know with each other? What are we, children?"

Yesterday, Archdiocese spokesman Kenneth Gavin told me that it made sense to move St. Bridget students to Holy Child, given that children from the five Manayunk parishes that feed Holy Child had already been uprooted by the 2005 merger.

He added that those five parishes are facing consolidation later this year, which will certainly bring more upheaval.

Given the past and pending tumult to those parishes, keeping Holy Child open certainly seems to be a compassionate decision.

But is it a wise one? Chaput has said that the fate of individual schools must be decided on facts, not emotion. And the facts presented by St. Bridget families make Holy Child's future seem doubtful.

The families argue that, from 2006 to 2010, St. Bridget parish, and the East Falls area in general, has been in a growth spurt while the five parishes feeding Holy Child, and the population of Manayunk itself, have been shrinking.

At St. Bridget, baptisms are up 110 percent; marriages, 31 percent. In East Falls, registered population is up 12 percent; registered households, 5 percent.

Among the Holy Child parishes, baptisms are up just 18 percent, and marriages are down 10 percent. In Manayunk, the registered population is down 21 percent; registered households, 41 percent.

And there are more kids under age 6 in East Falls than in Manayunk and Roxborough combined.

From a practical standpoint, the families add, St. Bridget, on Midvale Avenue, is easily accessible and, for marketing purposes, highly visible. It abuts a regional-rail station and is close to major highways and multiple SEPTA routes. Maybe that's why students from 21 ZIP codes attend the school (making it a de-facto regional school).

Holy Child, chopped into two buildings situated a block from each other on Hermitage Street, is squeezed into a hilly area that's hard to get to and is often impossible to traverse on snowy days.

All of these factors and more, says St. Bridget parent Sean Stevens, have contributed to the 16 percent uptick in St. Bridget's enrollment and to the 51 percent drop in Holy Child's.

A drop, he says, that's occurred despite what an Archdiocese spokesman calls Holy Child's "upgraded" facilities, "thanks to extensive financial commitments" since 2007.

But from the raw numbers, says Stevens, "it appears that resources and efforts have not had any impact on the decline of enrollment at Holy Child."

So, again, what will the Archdiocese do differently at the Holy Child site?

I think St. Bridget's families deserve to know. As Chaput would say, enough is enough.

Email Call 215-854-2217. Blog: Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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