Once afraid, parochial converts praise kids' new public schools

These students at the Performing Arts Charter School in South Philly would have gone to Mt. Carmel had the parochial school not closed : (from left) Matthew Hershman, Emma Stuhl, William Hershman, Kyran Gilbert, Moira Gilbert, Brian Romano, Hanna Stuhl and Colin Gilbert.
These students at the Performing Arts Charter School in South Philly would have gone to Mt. Carmel had the parochial school not closed : (from left) Matthew Hershman, Emma Stuhl, William Hershman, Kyran Gilbert, Moira Gilbert, Brian Romano, Hanna Stuhl and Colin Gilbert. (DAVID MAIALETTI/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 09, 2012

WHEN the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in January that it was closing St. Bridget's elementary school in East Falls, Nancy DiGiovanni couldn't imagine transferring her two children to the local public school.

For years, she had heard scary things about the neighborhood school, Thomas Mifflin: Its hallways were "unruly," school police were always there and employees yelled at each other.

But, with the prospect of higher tuition at St. Blaise, a new regional school where Nancy and her husband, Michael, would have sent their children, a teacher friend urged her to give Mifflin a look.

The friend vouched for principal Leslie Mason, who has turned around the school's performance and people's perception of it since taking over in 2008.

Today, DiGiovanni, 42, boasts that her kids, Nick, 10, and Jenna, 7, are thriving at Mifflin. Nick, a fourth-grader with learning disabilities, is "happy going to school," DiGiovanni said. Second-grader Jenna wants to do more homework than the full load she already gets and "feels very at home" at the 300-student school, on Conrad Street near Midvale Avenue.

The DiGiovannis aren't the only Catholic-school parents who have taken a leap of faith, deciding to leave their beloved Catholic-school education for the unfamiliar waters of district and charter schools.

With the closing of 34 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese this year, scores of families have moved their children into public or charter schools this fall. For some affected parents, tuition increases and new payment plans were too much of a financial stress. For others, the nearest Catholic school wasn't conveniently located.

Mifflin has about 30 new students this year from Catholic school, Mason said. Andrew Jackson Elementary, in South Philadelphia, has about 25 former parochial students, said Jackson's principal, Lisa Ciaranca-Kaplan. (The school district said it doesn't track the number of students coming from parochial schools.)

The fears that many parents had of attending a non-Catholic school seem to have been replaced, for the most part, with relief and enthusiasm.

"I was kind of scared at first," said Jenna DiGiovanni. "But after a couple of days, I started to like it [because of] the [class] pet rat."

Thousands of other parents around the city may soon be forced into deciding among unfamiliar options for their children. The School Reform Commission last spring voted to close eight schools and will soon begin discussing more than 40 further closures.

Once parents know their children's school is slated for closure, they have to act immediately, said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which hopes to raise and invest $100 million to improve education at charter, public and parochial schools in the city.

"As soon as it becomes clear which schools are going to be closed, families who are affected by those closings will want to examine all of their options, which could include the schools the district proposes they go to, but which could also include several other kinds of choices," Gleason said.

Parents or guardians may also seek schools outside their catchment areas and apply for transfers or consider charter or private schools.

George Matysik, cochair of the Friends of Mifflin, in East Falls, said that once parents select a new school for their children, they should volunteer and ask teachers and other staffers what they need to do their job.

Friends of Mifflin began in June, as part of the East Falls Community Council. Community members will hold their first community-wide dialogue Monday night at the Falls Presbyterian Church, on Vaux Street near Midvale Avenue.

"Folks are just tired of waiting to hear whether or not . . . their school is next to be closed," Matysik said. "We're one group in one community. But I think we're part of a larger movement. . . . I think people are just tired of their children's education being outsourced to the lowest bidder."

Communities like East Falls "are starting to come together in a way that they should and say 'yes, it does take a village to raise a child,' " he said. "We're in this together, whether it is the children, parents, administrators or the community at large."

It was that sense of community that helped DiGiovanni feel comfortable sending her children to Mifflin. She suggested in the spring that Mifflin hold an open house for St. Bridget's parents interested in sending their children there, and the principal got right on it.

"I always felt comfortable at St. Bridget's. It was a close school community," DiGiovanni said. "I get that same exact feeling at Mifflin. . . . The second time I walked in, I felt like I've always been there."

Melissa Gilbert, of South Philadelphia, previously sent three of her four children to Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Moira, 10, Colin, 8, and Kyran, 6, now attend Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, where they get string instruments to take home to practice.

Her kids also have weekly vocal lessons and are learning French, she said, describing the PPACS staff as "very welcoming."

"The kids are responding very, very well," Gilbert said. "They don't complain about getting up for school. They don't complain about the longer hours. They're kept really, really busy."

Gilbert's only complaint about PPACS is its location, at Broad and Porter streets. The morning drive there, she said, can be hectic. Mount Carmel, at 3rd and Ritner streets, was only a half-block from her home.

"I'm still sad," she said. "I'm always going to be sad Mount Carmel is not there."

Contact Regina Medina at medinar@phillynews.com or 215-854-5985. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaMedina.

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