By Gerald J. Parsons
The recent announcement regarding the closing of Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic high schools has been very difficult for many Catholics throughout the Archdiocese. Current students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff were understandably concerned and asked good questions regarding the facts that led to this result.
As chair of the archdiocesan Board of Education, I speak on behalf of the entire board when I say we were also deeply saddened by the necessity of these closures. However, we do take comfort in knowing that the process that led to this most difficult decision was extremely thorough and comprehensive, driven by an overriding commitment to achieving the best possible outcome for the future of all our children.
The role of the Board of Education is to advise Cardinal Justin Rigali and the Office of Catholic Education on educational policies and programs. This requires ongoing strategic planning to ensure that our schools are strong in their Catholic identity, have vibrant academic programs, have a sound financial model and are affordable for as many students as possible.
The board has examined many factors especially looking at the declining number of Catholic elementary school students in these areas and the increase of charter schools that now serve many of the families who would traditionally choose the Catholic school option for their children’s education. In the case of Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic, the Office of Catholic Education spent a great deal of time and effort conducting an in-depth review of current and projected enrollment, building utilization and the academic curriculum.
All possible options were explored with the primary objective focusing on what would be best for our students, preserving the high academic standards and moral values for which our schools are renowned.
The facts that surfaced as a result of this study included a steady decline in the number of feeder school students, who are by far the primary source of the high schools’ enrollment. Both high schools have a population below 700 students, with projections showing a sharp decline to below 500 in a short period of time.
The lack of students limits the schools’ ability to offer competitive, wide-ranging academic programs. Each of the buildings is underutilized by 68 percent. It was quite evident that there were more high school facilities than needed.
Another important consideration in this decision was that all students currently attending Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic have the opportunity to attend other archdiocesan high schools.
Absorbing these students into existing schools will bring benefits to all of the students involved. The efficiencies gained will ultimately drive better academic and extra-curricular programs, better buildings, more course offerings and continued affordability for all students.
Continual improvement in the quality of the education provided by our schools, while keeping tuition increases as low as possible, is what will ensure the long-term viability of our school system.
Finally, the loyal alumni of these two schools and the level of support that this faithful group has consistently shown toward Catholic education made this decision all the more difficult. The hope is that Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic alumni will continue to support the children in our Archdiocese who wish to receive, as they have, the rich and rewarding benefits associated with a Catholic education.
Although a very difficult decision, especially for the alumni and students, I hope most people will understand and believe as the Board of Education does that closing these doors will open many others leading to enriched Catholic education opportunities for our children.
Gerald J. Parsons is chair of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Board of Education.