— St. Matt’s and other Catholic elementary schools are doing what’s necessary to thrive in a competitive environment.
When an Archdiocese of Philadelphia blue ribbon commission announced its recommended school closings and mergers in January 2012, St. Matthew Elementary School was on the list.
“That was a complete surprise to us,” said Sister Kathleen Touey, IHM, the principal.
St. Matthew, located on Cottman Avenue in West Mayfair, has one of the largest enrollments in the archdiocese. The commission recommended that students from Our Lady of Consolation move to St. Matt’s. A committee would choose a new school name and uniform colors and faculty members would have to reapply for their jobs.
In the end, St. Matt’s filed a successful appeal and was able to keep its name, uniforms and teachers. Our Lady of Consolation didn’t bother to appeal, and 105 of its 175 students eventually enrolled at St. Matt’s.
St. Matt’s is also home to students who once attended St. Bartholomew, St. Bernard, St. Leo and Our Lady of Ransom, area schools that have closed in recent years.
“The kids are fitting in very well. We’ve rolled out the red carpet for them,” said Sister Kate, who has been principal for 15 years.
St. Matt’s has 892 children in kindergarten through eighth grade and expects more than 900 to be enrolled next school year. There are four classes in each grade. A pre-kindergarten program will debut in September.
In this day and age — with changing neighborhoods, competition from charter schools, rising tuition and smaller families — that’s a lot for a Catholic elementary school.
“The school is an important part of the community. It’s a rock in many ways. It says the community is solid and stable,” said Monsignor Charles E. McGroarty, pastor at St. Matt’s for 26 years and a priest for 50 years. “The school is a definite attraction. People want their kids to go to St. Matt’s school. There is a spirit here at St. Matthew that pervades the entire area.”
Still, St. Matt’s isn’t resting on its laurels.
“We don’t want the status quo. We want to move forward,” Sister Kate said.
“We want to be at a thousand students in five years,” said school advancement director Barbara Gress.
Academically, the school spent two years preparing for a recent visit from the Middle States Association accreditation commission.
There’s a veteran faculty, and students score above the national average in reading and math on the TerraNova achievement tests.
The school boasts two eighth-graders who won four-year Connelly Foundation high school scholarships. Matthew Feeney will attend Father Judge, and Kaylee Krapp will enroll at St. Hubert.
Tuition is a relatively low $2,400, with grants available and discounts for families with multiple children enrolled.
The St. Matthew Home and School Association is active.
In addition, the nonprofit Friends of St. Matthew Inc. has been established, with a volunteer board of directors charged with raising money to lessen the burden on the parish to support the school.
The school relies on support from current and former parishioners, along with its large number of graduates.
“We have lots of stakeholders involved. We’re over 10,000 alumni,” said Gress, who has been on the job for two years.
A fundraising social was held on March 2, and Ride the Tide V, a celebration for alums and other parish supporters, is set for July 13 at Keenan’s Irish Pub in North Wildwood, N.J.
Also, the St. Matthew Parish and School and Advancement Program began last September and will run through August 2014. Its mission is to provide opportunities for school growth and future sustainability.
The goal of the various committees is to raise $490,000.
“This is a very new process at the elementary school level,” Gress said.
McGroarty said St. Matthew isn’t the only local school with a real focus on future sustainability. He cited St. Katherine of Siena and St. Christopher as two others.
At the same time, the folks at St. Matt’s say the values and morals taught at the school are paramount.
“You can never put a price on that,” Gress said.
Archdiocese of Philadelphia officials like what they see at St. Matt’s and other schools in the Northeast.
Tom Smith, chief operating office and acting secretary for Catholic education, cited the leadership and stability at St. Matt’s.
As for other schools, he said Our Lady of Calvary and St. Anselm are among those offering special resources.
“The Northeast is still a pretty solid area. Enrollment is fairly good,” he said of local schools, where the student population is generally at 375 or more.
Jacqui Coccia, superintendent of elementary schools, previously served as principal at Holy Trinity in Bridgeport and St. Denis in Havertown.
Coccia likes the model at St. Matt’s. Having Gress dedicated to advancement issues allows Sister Kate to focus on academic programs and classroom instruction.
The superintendent is high on the Distributed Leadership Program, an initiative of the University of Pennsylvania that provides training, peer coaching and professional development for faculty members. Among the schools taking part are St. Dominic, St. Cecilia, St. Katherine of Siena and St. Christopher.
“We had a difficult year last year, but I see opportunity for growth in that area. It’s encouraging,” she said of Northeast schools.
Sister Edward William Quinn, IHM, the archdiocese’s director of elementary curriculum and instruction, said she’s buoyed by the number of teachers who attended a recent after-school workshop at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel on Roosevelt Boulevard and a Saturday workshop at St. Christopher.
Sister Edward, who taught at St. Matt’s from 1975-78 and had two stints at St. Joachim, said the archdiocese is proud of St. Cecilia fifth-grader Josephine Nguyen, who is ranked No. 1 nationally in First In Math, a comprehensive online practice program. She attained that rank as a fourth-grader at St. William, which closed last June.
Sister Edward also pointed to an accelerated math teleconference program that includes Resurrection of Our Lord Regional School.
Sister Edward agrees that St. Matthew and other schools have to spread the word about what goes on inside its buildings.
“We haven’t sounded our horn enough,” she said. “We have an awful lot of good going on. We need to do a little bit more marketing about the quality programs we do have. We have to tell our story more.” ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org