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.’ ” ••EndFragment