Model school

— St. Domin­ic is among the in­sti­tu­tions of learn­ing that's con­tinu­ing to do what it does best in try­ing times.

Mrs. Denis O’Grady’s pre-kinder­garden class takes a break for a por­trait after their daily les­son at St. Domin­ic, Fri­day, March 23, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)


It’s been more than two months since the Phil­adelphia Arch­diocese an­nounced its fi­nal de­cision on a blue rib­bon com­mis­sion’s re­com­mend­a­tions on ele­ment­ary school clos­ings, and sur­viv­ing schools aren’t rest­ing on their laurels.

At St. Domin­ic, for in­stance, one of the fo­cuses re­mains on all-day, week­day pre-kinder­garten classes for 40 3- and 4-year-olds. Fac­ulty mem­bers say that the Chil­dren’s Lit­er­acy Ini­ti­at­ive les­son plan has the young­sters read­ing ahead of sched­ule.

At­tract­ing chil­dren that young in­to a school set­ting has helped pay di­vidends, as St. Domin­ic has seen small but steady in­creases in its over­all en­roll­ment.

“It’s be­cause we’re build­ing from the bot­tom,” said Sis­ter Shaun Thomas Cal­la­han, IHM, the school prin­cip­al. “We re­tain al­most one hun­dred per­cent of the stu­dents.”

St. Domin­ic, loc­ated at 8512 Frank­ford Ave., was not on the blue rib­bon com­mis­sion’s list to close, con­sol­id­ate or be­come a mis­sion school. Its en­roll­ment is about 435, and the school has no debt.

The school is not alone in hav­ing a pre-K pro­gram. Of the 157 ele­ment­ary schools in the arch­diocese, 110 of­fer pre-K edu­ca­tion.

Many of the schools that were on the ori­gin­al list and will ul­ti­mately close were burdened with low en­roll­ments and a lack of what the arch­diocese calls a “21st cen­tury cur­riculum.”

The com­mis­sion wants to see schools of­fer core cur­riculum sub­jects, in ad­di­tion to art, mu­sic, world lan­guage, ad­vanced math, tech­no­logy, phys­ic­al edu­ca­tion, a lib­rary and a re­source room.

St. Domin­ic of­fers all that.

“We’re a 21st cen­tury school,” said Sis­ter Shaun, also point­ing to the school’s Mod­el UN pro­gram and Span­ish classes that are man­dat­ory for kinder­garten through fifth-graders and an elect­ive for sixth- through eighth-graders. “We’re a little well-kept secret in Holmes­burg.”

Times have changed in the arch­diocese. In 1961, some 250,000 stu­dents were en­rolled in its ele­ment­ary and sec­ond­ary schools. That fig­ure is down to 68,000.

The reas­ons are many for the steep de­cline in en­roll­ment.

Bap­tisms are down, as are church at­tend­ance and con­tri­bu­tions. Shift­ing demo­graph­ics is a factor. Many middle-class Cath­ol­ics have flocked to the sub­urbs and South Jer­sey, where the pub­lic schools are gen­er­ally con­sidered bet­ter than those in the School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia.

The num­ber of re­li­gious fac­ulty has dropped, with schools and par­ishes hir­ing lay teach­ers in their place.

Charter schools have been in ex­ist­ence in Pennsylvania for al­most 15 years, and many par­ents view them as of­fer­ing the same kind of safety and dis­cip­line found in Cath­ol­ic schools. The one big dif­fer­ence, of course, is that charter schools are free.

Rising tu­itions have hurt en­roll­ment, for­cing par­ishes to sub­sid­ize their schools at an in­creased rate.

Few­er stu­dents means school build­ings that are un­der­u­til­ized.

While big money donors stepped for­ward to save St. Hubert and the oth­er three high schools re­com­men­ded for clos­ing, and most ele­ment­ary schools that ap­pealed the re­com­mend­a­tion that they close won the right to stay open, the arch­diocese will con­tin­ue to mon­it­or en­roll­ments.

Mary E. Roch­ford, the arch­diocese’s su­per­in­tend­ent of schools, likened schools with en­roll­ments fall­ing un­der 200 to busi­nesses that see a big drop in cus­tom­ers. Both would lose money and the abil­ity to of­fer the best ser­vices.

“You can’t do that,” she said.

One pos­sible way to in­crease en­roll­ment is for the state to pass a vouch­ers bill, but that has proved to be a tough sell.

Oth­er than that, schools need to mar­ket them­selves to the com­munity. St. Domin­ic has ban­ners on Frank­ford Av­en­ue and is in­vit­ing the pub­lic in­side for “Tues­day Tours” through the end of the year.

Video con­fer­en­cing is one way Cath­ol­ic schools are team­ing up to of­fer courses in a cost-ef­fect­ive way.

St. Domin­ic of­fers French I for eighth-graders, who watch a tele­vi­sion screen of a teach­er lead­ing a class at St. Hubert. The ini­ti­at­ive is cour­tesy of the Con­nelly Found­a­tion.

St. Domin­ic is also in part­ner­ship with Our Lady of Ransom, St. Mar­tin of Tours and St. Richard in an ad­vanced Math Mat­ters pro­gram.

The St. Domin­ic fac­ulty has the op­por­tun­ity to earn mas­ter’s de­grees at St. Joseph’s Uni­versity. The uni­versity’s Al­li­ance for Cath­ol­ic Edu­ca­tion also brings young col­lege gradu­ates in­to the classroom.

Some edu­ca­tion ma­jors at Holy Fam­ily Uni­versity, mean­while, have com­pleted their prac­tic­um at St. Domin­ic.

The Uni­versity of Pennsylvania’s Dis­trib­uted Lead­er­ship Pro­gram provides weekly train­ing for teach­ers in 15 dio­ces­an schools, in­clud­ing St. Domin­ic.

“It’s a great pro­gram. It’s em­power­ing teach­ers to em­power chil­dren,” Sis­ter Shaun said.

Sis­ter Shaun said a suc­cess­ful par­ish school needs the sup­port of its pas­tor. She cred­its the Rev. Ed­ward Kearns, the cur­rent pas­tor, and the Rev. John Gabin, the former pas­tor, with back­ing her ef­forts over the last five years.

In ad­di­tion, St. Domin­ic be­ne­fits from a 12-mem­ber ad­vis­ory coun­cil. The mem­ber­ship in­cludes aca­dem­ic and busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als.

“They all have a very strong in­terest in Cath­ol­ic ele­ment­ary edu­ca­tion,” said chair­man Mike Server­son.

The coun­cil, sep­ar­ate from the home and school as­so­ci­ation, is in its fourth year. Mem­bers want to be pro­act­ive, not will­ing to wait to mo­bil­ize when the school is threatened with clos­ing.

Among its ini­ti­at­ives is the monthly STARS en­vel­ope that pa­rish­ion­ers can use to sup­port the school. Thanks in part to the ad­di­tion­al rev­en­ue, the par­ish sub­sidy to the school has been cut 20 per­cent in four years.

The coun­cil also re­com­men­ded adding the pre-K class and oth­er aca­dem­ic pro­grams to make sure St. Domin­ic, which opened in 1874, is a 21st cen­tury school.

“We’ve been around a long time,” Server­son said.

Roch­ford, who once served on the St. Domin­ic ad­vis­ory coun­cil, said the arch­diocese wants all schools to have coun­cils. Those coun­cils need to be act­ive in areas such as se­cur­ing cor­por­ate dona­tions through the state Edu­ca­tion­al Im­prove­ment Tax Cred­it to provide tu­ition as­sist­ance.

“We’re look­ing for people of in­flu­ence who have con­nec­tions and can help with net­work­ing,” Roch­ford said.

Roch­ford, who is leav­ing her po­s­i­tion on June 30 to care for fam­ily mem­bers, be­lieves more changes are com­ing in the arch­diocese.

A dwind­ling num­ber of priests will prob­ably con­trib­ute to the clos­ing of some par­ishes.

Also, she can see a day in which the arch­diocese al­lows for open en­roll­ment in ele­ment­ary schools, a policy that has been in place for high schools for al­most 20 years.

For now, schools must meet the de­mands of the fam­il­ies liv­ing with­in their par­ish bound­ar­ies.

“If you want to live on in the years to come, you have to be ag­gress­ive in what you’re of­fer­ing,” Roch­ford said. “We want to say to Cath­ol­ic par­ents, ‘By the way, be­sides the faith form­a­tion, we’re schools of ex­cel­lence.’ ” ••


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