Phila. Archdiocese school manager sets growth goal

Posted: September 14, 2012

The private foundation managing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's financially strapped secondary schools announced its goal Thursday to increase enrollment at its campuses by about 4,000 - to levels last attained during the mid-1990s.

The initiative, which Faith in the Future chairman Ed Hanway dubbed "E20K" for the 20,000-student total enrollment called for under the plan, would be aided in part by a relatively new school-choice scholarship program state lawmakers established last year, he said.

The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit offers tax breaks to local business that fund scholarships for students who want to transfer from consistently underperforming public schools.

"Our Catholic schools produce outstanding men and women. It's time to state loud and clear, 'We want you to be a part of this,' " Hanway said Thursday to an auditorium full of students at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School in Drexel Hill.

Flanked by Gov. Corbett and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Hanway touted the quality of the education provided on the campus, which only months ago had been slated for closure due to shrinking enrollment and financial difficulties.

"We're open for business," he said. "We have thousands of seats, and I want to fill those seats."

Thursday's announcement linked the future of two relatively untested ventures in the region's shifting education landscape - the Faith in the Future Foundation, created by the archdiocese and a group of business and civic leaders last month, and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which Gov. Corbett signed into law in June.

The archdiocese's decision over the summer to hand off day-to-day management to the foundation was seen by many as a Hail Mary play to reverse rising cost and shrinking enrollment trends that forced church leaders to shutter 27 campuses earlier this year.

Four Catholic high schools, including Bonner and Prendergast, were recommended for potential closure, but the group that later became Faith in the Future helped devise a financial plan to keep them open.

Already, the organizational shift has shown small signs of success, Hanway said.

For the current school year, the parochial secondary schools have exceeded projected enrollments among students entering ninth grade. And at three high school campuses, the freshman classes outnumber upperclassmen.

"We've come a long way since January 2012," Hanway said to cheers Thursday.

That the foundation's goals dovetailed with the Corbett administration's support of school choice was an added blessing, Chaput said. The archdiocese lobbied on behalf of the Opportunity Scholarship program as it was making its way through the legislature over the summer.

Through the program, corporations earn tax credits for school donations up to $400,000. Private schools, which must sign up to participate in the program, divide those donations into scholarships of up to $8,500 for regular education students and $15,000 for each special-education student.

Only students living in the attendance area of the lowest-performing 15 percent of public schools in Pennsylvania are eligible to receive the tuition assistance. Just more than 400 campuses across the state fall on that list, including 158 in Philadelphia.

Delaware County, home to Bonner and Prendergast, has 28 public schools that rank in the bottom 15 percent.

"Some would argue that this is a war on public education - that couldn't be further from the truth," Corbett said Thursday. "This provides school competition. There's no longer a monopoly, and with competition, we all perform better."

Aside from participation in the scholarship program, Hanway announced plans to expand academic and athletic opportunities on the system's 17 secondary and four special-education campuses, as well as to add new technologies and launch a new marketing campaign to meet his enrollment goals.

He offered few specifics Thursday on those parts of the plan.


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or follow @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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