Friday, Jan. 6, a date which traditionally was celebrated as the Epiphany, represented a true epiphany for thousands of Catholic school parents and students in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
On that day the Blue Ribbon Commission formed by Cardinal Justin Rigali just one year earlier, formally presented its final report to Archbishop Charles Chaput. While the scope of its recommendations were not unexpected it was nevertheless stunning.
If the recommendations are fully implemented, 45 of the 156 mostly parish-based elementary schools will cease to exist at the end of the present school year as will four of 17 archdiocesan high schools.
In the case of the high schools, West Catholic, Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast, St. Hubert and Conwell-Egan, it is an outright closing, with the students free to choose any other existing high school. Technically the elementary schools are not closing. They are combining with one or more other schools at another location to form an entirely new school, but in the minds and hearts of the parents and students involved, their school is closing.
(See the full list of mergers and closures here.)
The report recommendations were first explained by Blue Ribbon Commission members to pastors, principals and directors of religious education at a morning gathering at Neumann University in Aston.
It was repeated in a shortened version in the afternoon at a packed news conference at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center.
In a letter sent to all parents and guardians, Archbishop Chaput wrote of the trends that are impacting Catholic education in the Archdiocese –declining baptisms, an increase in charter schools and the rising cost of education, which have resulted in higher tuition costs for parents and heavy operating deficits for schools.
Because of this many of the affected schools were forced to eliminate such programs as art, music, foreign language, library, physical education and technology, among others.
At the news conference Archbishop Chaput commended the 16-member Blue Ribbon Commission for its work, and said, “I hope the people in the Archdiocese join me in thanking them because we owe them a debt of gratitude.”
The Commission, he said, “worked very hard to ensure there is a Catholic school alternative for every student affected by this report. It is a critical first step in renewing the health of our Catholic education ministry and in the long term will benefit all of Philadelphia.”
John (Jack) Quindlen, the chair of the Commission and a retired senior vice president and chief financial officer of DuPont, said, “Understandably, much of the focus is on school closings, but closings are just one part of a forward-looking program designed specifically to strengthen remaining schools. The Commission is confident that if the recommendations are implemented the future for Catholic education in the Archdiocese will be immeasurably brighter not for a year or two but for many years to come.”
Figures in the report clearly illustrated why restructuring is necessary. Total enrollment, which peaked at over 250,000 in the 1960s, has dwindled to approximately 68,000.
At this time there are more Catholic children in parish religious education programs (PREP) than there are in the schools. As schools shrink in size, despite higher tuitions the parish subsidy grows, with per-pupil cost in the elementary schools on average more than $1,450 higher than tuition charged. In the secondary schools the average is more than $2,000 higher than tuition.
Today there are 34 elementary schools with an enrollment of less than 200, a figure generally considered a minimum for viability, and 14 of these have fewer than 150. Another 11 schools have more than 200 students, but nevertheless are experiencing a pattern of decreased enrollment and financial deficits.
As explained at the meetings, under the restructuring, not only the parish schools actually closing are affected. The schools with which they combine will also cease to exist as a parish school. They replaced by the new regional school.
In all, restructuring of the elementary schools will affect almost 21,000 children, 1,500 teachers and 85 administrators, according to Mary Rochford, archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools.
In most cases the combined school will draw a faculty from the schools involved, but Rochford could only guess how many will be displaced, perhaps 250. The high school closings will also affect approximately 200 teachers, she said.
Normal retirement will account for saving some jobs and there will be an across the board hiring freeze in all of the archdiocesan schools so that as many teachers as possible displaced by restructuring can be accommodated.
“As an Archdiocese we are going to do absolutely everything possible to assist any who lose their position,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Personally I pledge my support to those who will not be part of the reorganization going forward.”
He has also asked the Office for Catholic Education to work with the archdiocesan Human Resources Office as well as outside agencies to formalize outplacement support from those affected and has asked parish and regional elementary schools to institute a hiring freeze and interview potential candidates from those affected by the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
Unlike the elementary schools, high school teachers are covered by the contract with their union, the Association of Catholic Teachers (ACT).
“The Association will be working very hard over the next several months to make the transition of our high school teachers to their new schools as smooth and painless as possible,” said Rita Schwartz, president of Local 1776, ACT.
With or without a new school, affected teachers are in mourning just as their students are.
At St. Hubert, one of the closing high schools, Dr. Gina MacKenzie has headed the drama program for a decade. She is also a 1993 alum.
“I think this is a tragic day for Catholic education in Philadelphia,” she said. “Here at St. Hubert, Bambi is not a building it is a state of mind. Bambis forever!”
Christine Forrest, a sophomore who must seek a new school, agreed. “You can take away our building but you can’t take away our Bambi pride,” she said.
When Archbishop Chaput accepted the appointment to Philadelphia he was unaware of the ongoing Blue Ribbon study, and under the circumstances asked his council of priests for counsel as to whether it should proceed at the planned pace or be delayed for a year. The council advised it should continue on schedule.
The Commission has “done a wonderful job,” the archbishop said, “they really are an impressive group of people.”
“It’s a sad day, we are losing a part of our history,” said Msgr. Daniel Sullivan, a member of the Council of Priests. “However, it really makes sense. For the last couple of years we have been fighting to stay alive. I believe it is hopeful for the future.”
Although the restructuring of the schools understandably receives most of the attention, the Blue Ribbon Commission also made recommendations in areas of special education, religious education programs, governance of the schools, advocacy for government support and the creation of a new foundation specifically to raise funds for the endowment of the schools.
Perhaps of special note are the recommendations for the Parish Religious Education Programs (PREP) which now have more children than the elementary schools.
Included in the specific recommendations was that every parish employ a trained Director of Religious Education, dedicate a specific space to the program, extend the number of hours for study required each year to 40 hours from the current 30, and delay conferral of the sacrament of confirmation until eighth grade. The last step is expected to keep many of the children in the PREP program for a longer period of time.
Responding to a question during the press conference, the Blue Ribbon Commission members indicated the value of properties affected by school closing were not even considered when preparing the report. As Archbishop Chaput noted, closed parish school buildings remain the property of the parish, not the Archdiocese as a whole.
Also ethnicity or religious affiliation of students was not a consideration. Several of the surviving schools have been designated as mission schools which, because of the level of poverty among the students, will receive special consideration for financial aid.
The full Faith in the Future report can be found at www.faithinthefuture.com as well as information on any changes or updates before