The beginning of the end

Last week, the Cath­ol­ic Arch­diocese called for the clos­ing of five high schools and 45 ele­ment­ary schools. Rep­res­ent­at­ives from St. Lauren­ti­us and St. George schools, both in the river­wards, vowed to ap­peal the de­cision.

Ed Han­way, former chair­man and CEO of Cigna and a mem­ber of the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia blue rib­bon com­mis­sion, offered some sober­ing stat­ist­ics in re­la­tion to the Cath­ol­ic school clos­ings an­nounced last week.

The arch­diocese high schools and ele­ment­ary schools edu­cate about 68,000 stu­dents. That’s the same fig­ure as 1911, but a huge drop from the 250,000 in 1961.

Bap­tisms are down 46 per­cent in the last 20 years, and the po­ten­tial Cath­ol­ic school pool is fur­ther hurt by charter schools.

On av­er­age, the tu­ition cost is about $1,500 less than the ac­tu­al cost to edu­cate a stu­dent. Par­ishes make up the dif­fer­ence, and their sub­sidy has skyrock­eted 25 per­cent in the last 10 years.

“This simply can’t con­tin­ue,” Han­way said.

That’s why the com­mis­sion re­leased re­com­mend­a­tions that call for the clos­ing of five high schools and 45 ele­ment­ary schools.

The 16-mem­ber com­mis­sion de­cided to act de­cis­ively. Han­way ac­know­ledged that the re­com­mend­a­tions would be con­tro­ver­sial but said they are ne­ces­sary and long over­due.

The com­mis­sion is not simply re­arran­ging the deck chairs on the Ti­tan­ic, ac­cord­ing to Han­way. In­stead, its re­com­mend­a­tions in­clude new school gov­ernance, ad­vocacy for gov­ern­ment as­sist­ance and a new found­a­tion, likes the ones in Chica­go, Los Angeles and North­ern Col­or­ado.

The 37-mem­ber re­port blamed dwind­ling en­roll­ment on lower birth rates, shift­ing demo­graph­ics and high­er tu­ition.

“A num­ber of our schools are simply not fin­an­cially vi­able,” said com­mis­sion chair­man Jack Quindlen, a former seni­or vice pres­id­ent for DuPont whose alma ma­ter, West Cath­ol­ic High School, was among those re­com­men­ded for clos­ing.

The com­mis­sion aler­ted pas­tors and school ad­min­is­trat­ors of its plan a day or two ahead of the form­al un­veil­ing dur­ing a Fri­day morn­ing meet­ing at Neu­mann Uni­versity in Delaware County. The uni­versity is named in memory of St. John Neu­mann, who in the mid-19th cen­tury foun­ded Phil­adelphia’s Cath­ol­ic dio­ces­an school sys­tem, the first of its kind in the United States.

After the meet­ing, high school pres­id­ents and prin­cipals whose schools will close broke the bad news to fac­ulty and stu­dents.

Ele­ment­ary school prin­cipals and pas­tors told staff, but gen­er­ally al­lowed par­ents to tell their chil­dren.

The list of clos­ings was an­nounced at a late-af­ter­noon news con­fer­ence at the arch­diocese headquar­ters at 222 N. 17th St.

The high schools that will close are St. Hubert, West Cath­ol­ic, Con­well-Egan, Monsignor Bon­ner and Arch­bish­op Pren­der­gast.

Of the ele­ment­ary schools clos­ing, 19 are in Phil­adelphia, 12 in Mont­gomery County, sev­en in Delaware County, five in Bucks County and two in Chester County.

Loc­ally, a num­ber of school build­ings will close, with stu­dents mov­ing to nearby schools.

Stu­dents at St. George Ele­ment­ary School at 2700 E. Ven­ango St. in Port Rich­mond will at­tend Our Lady of Port Rich­mond, 3233 E. Thompson Street.

The more than a cen­tury old St. Lauren­ti­us School at 1612 E. Berks St., in Fishtown, will see its stu­dent pop­u­la­tion merged with St. Peter the Apostle School, at 1009 N. 5th St. in Kens­ing­ton.

Vis­it­a­tion BVM, 300 E. Le­high Ave. in Kens­ing­ton, will grow as stu­dents from St. Malachy, 1429 N. 11th St., move to the school.

In ad­di­tion, St. Timothy in Lower May­fair will ab­sorb stu­dents from Pope John Paul II in Brides­burg.

The big­ger schools that will take in stu­dents from the smal­ler schools might have to change their names and uni­forms.

The clos­ings con­tin­ue a trend in the area. North­east Cath­ol­ic and Car­din­al Dougherty high schools shut down in 2010.

When the 2012-13 aca­dem­ic year be­gins, there will be 112 ele­ment­ary schools and 13 high schools. Among ele­ment­ary schools, just 63 will be par­ish-based. The oth­er 49 will be so-called “re­gion­al” schools, which in­clude stu­dents from one or more formerly low-en­roll­ment schools.

The com­mis­sion was es­tab­lished in Decem­ber 2010 by Car­din­al Justin Rigali. Today, the Rev. Charles J. Chaput leads the arch­diocese.

Chaput, who came to Phil­adelphia from Den­ver in Septem­ber, will wel­come ap­peals.

“The soon­er that can hap­pen, the bet­ter,” he said.

Chaput ac­know­ledged be­ing in Phil­adelphia for only a short peri­od of time, but ad­ded that he trus­ted the com­mis­sion’s work.

“These are com­pre­hens­ive re­com­mend­a­tions,” he said.

Chaput ex­plained that par­ishes will de­term­ine what hap­pens to the soon-to-be-closed ele­ment­ary school build­ings.

The high school build­ings that will be closed are owned by the arch­diocese and likely will be sold.

Quindlen said the com­mis­sion did not eval­u­ate high schools based on a po­ten­tial sale price.

“We nev­er looked at the value of the real es­tate,” he said.

As for the next time schools will be eval­u­ated for vi­ab­il­ity, Quindlen said, “If I gave you a year, I’d be ly­ing to you.”

Chaput, though, leaped out of his seat to say that he ex­pects no more clos­ings for at least 10 to 15 years.

The arch­bish­op ad­ded that, had Pennsylvania passed a school-vouch­er bill 15 years ago, many of the schools sched­uled to close would have re­mained open.

Yet, some of those af­fected by this move hope that the book hasn’t quite closed on their school.

Ac­cord­ing to Sis­ter Rita Mar­ie Aponik, prin­cip­al of St. Lauren­ti­us School, par­ents, teach­ers and mem­bers of the school’s ad­min­is­tra­tion plan to ap­peal the moves this week.

“We are sad to see this … We hoped that this wouldn’t af­fect us,” she said. “We are the only Cath­ol­ic school in Fishtown.”

Aponik re­called the re­cent clos­ings of loc­al schools at St. Anne’s and Holy Name of Je­sus, and said her school’s en­roll­ment grew thanks to new stu­dents who joined St. Lauren­ti­us after those schools were shuttered.

“We feel we need to be there for our stu­dents. We need to give them what we owe them,” she said.

Dan Markowski, prin­cip­al at St. George was even more adam­ant that his school would ap­peal the de­cision.

“We aren’t go­ing down without a fight,” he said. “Our fo­cus now is ex­plor­ing how our school can sur­vive.”

Markowski said that, while mem­bers of the com­mis­sion claimed to have vis­ited every school  re­com­men­ded for clos­ing, they nev­er vis­ited the more than a cen­tury old St. George school, or met any of the more than 200 stu­dents en­rolled there.

“We have a wait­ing list for our school,” he said, not­ing en­roll­ment. “They nev­er vis­ited my school …The com­munity at St. George was lit­er­ally blind­sided by this.” 

Teach­ers at ele­ment­ary schools that will be partnered be­gin­ning in Septem­ber must re­apply for their jobs.

The high school teach­ers are uni­on­ized, and the more seni­or in­struct­ors whose schools are clos­ing will be able to “bump” less ex­per­i­enced teach­ers at schools that are re­main­ing open.

Chaput lauded teach­ers for their ded­ic­a­tion and sac­ri­fices.

“We can nev­er thank them enough,” he said.

The com­mis­sion re­port is avail­able at­in­the­fu­ ••

Ad­di­tion­al re­port­ing by Hay­den Mit­man, Star news­pa­pers.

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­

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