As difficult as it was for Catholics in the Philadelphia Archdiocese to learn of the merger or closure of parish grade schools and high schools Jan. 6, implementing the recommendations and understanding the rationale for them began to sink in for Catholics in the days that followed.
Rallies of students and parents at some affected schools – some protesting the recommendations, others simply gathering for prayer – took place publicly. Most Catholics discussed the changing landscape of Catholic education privately in their parishes the following weekend.
By Tuesday, Jan. 10, the Archdiocese hosted a private information session at Drexelbrook Conference Center in Delaware County for pastors and principals from schools recommended to merge into regional schools, form mission schools in economically challenged areas or close outright. Only one such school, Our Lady of Lourdes in Philadelphia, will close without partnering with a neighboring school.
About 300 pastors and principals from elementary schools and leaders of archdiocesan high schools listened to speakers from the Archdiocese discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead for implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations.
Speakers echoed details of the commission’s report, which is posted on the web site faithinthefuture.com and on catholicphilly.com.
Total Catholic school enrollment of 68,000 has dropped 72 percent from its high in 1961, down to levels not seen since 1911, and dozens of schools have closed or merged in the Archdiocese even in the last 10 years.
Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees Catholic education in the Archdiocese, acknowledged there is firm recognition among many Catholics that “common consensus is needed” to manage the current condition, and “a new plan is needed.”
“The old models are not working as they once did,” he said, “and most people realize we must do things differently.”
He noted that Philadelphia is one of the last large Catholic communities in the United States to address the challenges of Catholic education today. The archdioceses of Chicago, New York, Boston and Baltimore have also enacted ambitious restructuring plans for education in recent years.
The goal of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations is “not only to stabilize but to restore and ultimately grow Catholic education,” Bishop Fitzgerald said.
Superintendent of Schools Mary Rochford outlined the commission’s vision for Catholic schools. Broadly, they must be affordable for families, accessible to students in a given area and financially sustainable.
Specifically, she said, Catholic schools must be adaptable, collaborative by working together within and among parishes, committed to hard work, communicative with relevant information to parishioners, enthusiastic, conscious of the school’s mission and well prepared.
Several concerns were shared by 19 pastors or principals representing many of the 88 affected parishes – those whose schools buildings were to close at the end of the year and those whose buildings would welcome both school communities into a new school. New schools with a new name, identity, leadership and faculty will be in place by the fall 2012 term.
One pastor noted that canon law, or the law governing Church concerns, places the responsibility for Catholic education in a parish with the pastor. Bishop Fitzgerald pointed out that, in addition to the pastors’ rights, the law states that the bishop also has the right to supervise and regulate the educational apostolate in his diocese. He must also ensure that pastors exercise good stewardship in their parishes.
A dialogue between pastors and the bishop is necessary, Bishop Fitzgerald suggested. “The pastor and the bishop both have rights under canon law,” he said, “and that is what the review process is about. The bishop also has the right and responsibility to implement a pastoral plan that is best for the entire diocese.”
Officials at the meeting discussed a review process by which pastors and principals had until Feb. 1 to initiate an appeal if they thought the recommendation to consolidate their school should be reconsidered.
At meetings with officials on two archdiocesan review committees, one for elementary and one for high schools, representatives of schools making an appeal will be presented with all the facts used by the Blue Ribbon Commission in reaching its recommendation. The representatives may also present the reasoning for their request along with supporting facts and documentation.
The review committees will present all information to Archbishop Charles Chaput for his consideration. He will then make a final decision. A final listing of
the schools affected is expected to be made public by mid-February.
Other concerns at the Drexelbrook meeting raised the reality of ethnic and social differences, and perhaps tensions, among merging school communities. Speakers also expressed hopes that Catholics could overcome these and work together for good of students and the Catholic communities themselves.
Doubts about the restructuring were expressed by parish representatives but on balance, hopes that the plans would succeed were more common.
Superintendent Rochford explained that when schools merge under the plan, both schools will cease to exist at the end of the term in June. Members of both affected parishes will choose a new name and, after it is approved, the identity of the new school will be promoted.
Pastors jointly will hire a new qualified principal (and assistant principal in schools with more than 600 students), and qualified faculty. New hires will also include secretarial and maintenance staff, development and business management personnel and a “resource room” teacher to provide remedial assistance to students.
Rochford noted a special provision for consecrated religious faculty in the elementary schools. As an example, if one former school employed two full-time teaching sisters and another former school employed three full-time sisters, the new school would employ five full-time positions for sisters.
No principal or teacher, Rochford said, will be asked to resign. The two schools designated for consolidation will cease to exist, so teachers will have to apply for the first time to the new school.
A series of meetings to discuss more details of implementation will be held Jan. 31, Feb. 21 and March 13 at locations at each of the counties in the Archdiocese, including Philadelphia-North and Philadelphia-South.
An afternoon session at the Jan. 10 meeting hosted presidents and principals of the archdiocesan high schools. The Blue Ribbon Commission recommended four schools for closure: St. Hubert and West Catholic in Philadelphia, Conwell-Egan in Levittown and Msgr. Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill.
“We are all in this together,” Bishop Fitzgerald told the high school leaders. “No matter our thoughts on the plan, ultimately we must come together for a vision for the future – what our children, our parents and our faculty need.
“Thank you for all that you have done, and the challenges you’ve shouldered, for coming together to share in this work.”
Archdiocesan education officials stressed the need for the remaining high schools to welcome students who will be enrolling from one of the closed schools, or from those areas as freshmen.
Since many students of the affected high schools are invited to “shadow” or visit for a full day with students at a welcoming school, officials urged students, faculty and staff of the welcoming school communities to be sensitive and inviting.
To help students identify which of the 13 high schools they would consider to attend in the fall, West Catholic and Conwell-Egan will hold evening information sessions in their school cafeterias Jan. 17. Bonner-Prendergast and St. Hubert’s will hold similar high school fairs the following evening at their locations.
Open enrollment in the Archdiocese means students may register to attend any archdiocesan high school or Mercy Vocational High School.
(The Blue Ribbon commission’s full report plus official lists of mergers and consolidations and much other relevant information is available at the web site faithinthefuture.com. These materials and other information are also available on catholicphilly.com.)