Small Catholic school makes big gains in sustaining itself

Sixth grader Haley Hooven at St. John the Baptist School in Ottsville. The school appealed the Philadelphia Archdiocese's decision to close it, won, and is doing well.
Sixth grader Haley Hooven at St. John the Baptist School in Ottsville. The school appealed the Philadelphia Archdiocese's decision to close it, won, and is doing well. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 19, 2014

Marilyn Allena values faith, Catholic education, and the quiet of country living.

All three drove Allena, 54, to recently enroll her fourth-grade son and seventh-grade daughter at St. John the Baptist School in Ottsville, Bucks County.

"I feel St. John's is absolutely the right school for them," Allena said. "I don't know what I would do if they said they were considering to close."

Two years ago, St. John's was indeed slated to close, one of more than four dozen schools targeted as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sought ways to save money and consolidate shrinking schools.

About half the schools successfully appealed the decision; the others were forced to close or consolidate.

The schools left standing were expected to demonstrate long-term sustainability. For St. John's, that meant the school needed to increase its enrollment and fund-raising while also upholding the archdiocese's curriculum.

It wasn't easy, but St. John's may have turned the corner.

"We don't want to just survive. We also want to grow," principal Michael J. Patterson said. "We are being proactive in reaching out and making sure that everyone who wants or desires a Catholic education can have one."

It all started when Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced the recommended closures on Jan. 6, 2012.

But he said each school could appeal the decision. If a school could prove the recommended shutdown was based on erroneous data, he would consider sparing it.

St. John's, which had sharp declines in enrollment in 2010 and 2011, had foreseen trouble months before.

"We had already put together a business plan . . . [comprising] a thorough overhaul with everything, beginning with the leadership," said the Rev. Simione Volavola, pastor of St. John's parish.

Volavola and members of St. John's School Board of Limited Jurisdiction presented a fact-based, short- and long-term business plan to the appellate panel.

They outlined how the school intended to achieve sustainability and were overjoyed when the presentation persuaded Chaput in February 2012 to grant St. John's a reprieve.

Next, they had to move forward with the plan.

General overhaul

To show growth, St. John's, with a capacity of 250 students, wants to increase its enrollment from 77 students to at least 87 when the next school year begins Sept. 4, Patterson said.

There were 181 students in 2009, but that number declined every subsequent year.

Annual base tuition at the school is $3,470, and it competes in the Ottsville area with the Palisades School District, which has elementary and middle schools that generally perform above the state average, according to the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile.

The new business plan's main points called for new administrators to be installed, the teaching staff to be reevaluated, and a major appeal to go out to the community for support and new students.

Volavola, 46, had already been installed as pastor in October 2011. Patterson, 63, was hired as principal in July 2012, and a new job, director of institutional advancement, was created in October 2013 and filled by Geoffrey A. Meyer, 62.

Together, the new staff and community hustled and raised $400,000 over two years. In the grassroots effort, Volavola and school board members solicited parishioners and other individuals for donations. The checks came pouring in, and the $400,000 raised went toward school operating costs and financial aid for students.

St. John's school board now has a goal to raise $300,000 for the current fiscal year that ends June 30, and Patterson said the board was "extremely optimistic" about meeting it.

"There is momentum at the moment," Meyer said.

To overhaul its 15-member teaching staff, St. John's required its teachers to reapply for their jobs in 2012, and an archdiocese panel of three principals evaluated them on merit. Four teachers were replaced by new hires, and the staff now numbers 14.

The Catholic school teachers union does not represent elementary school teachers. Still, Rita C. Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776, said she was unhappy with the closures and staff cuts, which she claimed disproportionately affected "teachers who were on the high end of the salary scale."

To energize the Ottsville community, Patterson said, St. John's upgraded its website, and sends e-mails and postal mail to prospective students.

He said the school reaches out to the church's 1,300 parishioners, the archdiocese's Office of Catholic Education, local businesses, and the principals of other schools.

The school also holds tours of the grounds and meetings for the public with faculty and staff.

"I can say with great certainty that we have fixed the brand of the school," Patterson said.

'Good headway'

Heather Grindrod, 39, who has three children enrolled at St. John's, said the archdiocese commission's 2012 recommendation to close the school "was a blessing in disguise."

"As hard as it was to go through that a couple of years ago, I think a lot of people were getting complacent," she said. "I think the scare made our school better."

Two years after the commission recommended sweeping changes, many have been made. Every county in the archdiocese has its own county-level board of education, and a central education board oversees all 123 elementary schools.

Each school is encouraged to form its own local school board, which St. John's has done.

"I think we are making good headway in each of the counties," Jerry Parsons, a member of the archdiocese's Executive Board of Elementary Education, said.

Jackie Lenox, a language arts and Spanish teacher at St. John's, took it a step further.

St. John's, she said, "is a little piece of Heaven."


BY THE NUMBERS

49

Archdiocese of Philadelphia schools recommended for closing or consolidation in January 2012.

22

Schools that successfully appealed or were otherwise spared.

123

Archdiocesan elementary schools.

17

Archdiocesan high schools.

4

Archdiocesan special education schools.

2,000+

Catholic schools across the country closed since 2000.

SOURCE: Archdiocese of Philadelphia


sabdur-rahman@phillynews.com

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