Most of the attention from the Blue Ribbon Commission Report to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been focused on the recommendations for consolidation; achieving cost savings through the creation of new schools through combining two or more existing schools.
Less attention has been given to the recommendation that “mission schools” be established in neighborhoods where a majority of the people could not reasonably be expected to afford the tuition payments for a Catholic school. Just how these schools will function and be funded has not yet been completely worked out, according to Mary Rochford, archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools.
However, there are several Catholic schools within the Archdiocese that are meeting this challenge in their own unique way.
Drexel Neumann Academy was founded five years ago to replace the heavily in debt St. Katharine Drexel School, which in turn was formed in 1993 after the consolidation of five parishes into one in the economically distressed city of Chester.
“The Sisters of St. Francis and Neumann University approached the Archdiocese with a model for sustainable Catholic education,” explained Drexel Neumann president Sister of St. Francis Maggie Gannon.
The prime movers in the foundation were Sister Lynn Lavin for the Franciscans, Father Joseph McLoone, who was pastor of St. Katharine Parish, Bishop Joseph McFadden, who was then supervisor for Catholic education in the Archdiocese, and Rosalie Mirenda, president of Neumann University. It is noteworthy that Edward Hanway, the current board chairman of Drexel Neumann, is a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
Drexel Neumann started with approximately 200 students and has maintained that figure, and recently added ninth grade. About 97 percent of the student body is African American, and about 85 percent are non-Catholic, Sister Maggie estimates. Nevertheless, it is a traditional Catholic school where Catholic traditions are upheld, including students attending Masses.
“Our first graduates are now seniors in high school, and they are doing fabulously,” she said. One hundred percent went on to high school, something that is not the norm in Chester, according to the principal. Standardized tests show steady improvement in scores, especially among the younger students who began their schooling at Drexel Neumann, she added.
In addition to the very supportive board, Sister Maggie said, “Our parents are incredibly supportive and that is a big key; 100 percent of our parents participate in parent-teacher meetings and one-third of our kids had perfect attendance last year.”
The school, which is co-owned and co-sponsored by the Archdiocese, is limited to residents of Chester; tuition is $2,375 annually, although many students receive financial aid.
It’s all possible through generous supporters and fundraising, for example, an annual golf outing and a gala this March at Drexelbrook Conference Center.
“We are holding our own,” Sister Maggie said. “The model is working. Sustainable Catholic education is not just parish and parents; it is everyone working together.”
Gesu School on 1700 W. Thompson Street is probably the granddaddy of Philadelphia private Catholic schools with an exclusive mission to the inner city.
It was founded in 1993 when Gesu Parish was officially closed along with the parish school.
The building it utilizes is a former school building of St. Joseph’s Prep. Among the perks it enjoys through its St. Joseph’s Prep neighbor is the use of a scenic rooftop recreation area any school would die for, as well as the officially closed but nevertheless grand Gesu Church for major liturgies.
“We have 452 students pre-K through 8, and most years we have a waiting list,” said Brian Carter, who became president this school year.
There is no entrance test, just a waiting list, and because most of the applicants are from low-income families, most of the bills are paid through fundraising.
“We maintain a donor list and try to expand it, and we also have an ‘adopt a student’ program,” Carter said, explaining the participants take responsibility for a child’s tuition. Nevertheless, “we ask every family to pay something, even if the child is sponsored.”
“We must raise $3 million every year just to open the doors,” Carter said. The school is about 99 percent African American and 95 percent non-Catholic, the president estimates.
Most of the children come to the school academically behind where they should be, but thanks to the strong faculty, they are caught up before they leave. Among the courses offered are advanced writing and advanced math.
Graduates of Gesu go on to some of the top magnet schools in the public school system and even some will be accepted by such premier schools as St. Joseph’s Prep and Merion Mercy Academy. Also, about 90 percent of Gesu grads will persevere through high school, compared to an estimated 52 percent of Philadelphia public high school students who continue to graduation.
Despite the huge non-Catholic presence in the student body, Catholicism is reinforced though the presence of one Jesuit priest and two Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters on the campus.
“We give religion courses, observe all the Catholic holy days, and the children know the order of the Mass when it is celebrated,” Carter said. “Also, our faculty is exposed to Ignatian spirituality. We recognize the opportunity we have to share the faith.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.