Regional Catholic schools are seemingly the wave of the future, but one size definitely does not fit all.
Take St. Matthew School in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia. When it was suggested the school should become a regional school two years ago, the parish politely declined.
It had a point. With enrollment still hovering at 900 students, it probably remains the largest Catholic elementary school, parish regional or private, in the archdiocese. Why tinker with success?
“We have a waiting list for our kindergarten, we will only take a hundred,” said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Touey, St. Matthew’s principal. “We are starting a pre-K this year and have 18 children so far.”
Of the students, Sister Kathleen estimates 820 live in St. Matthew Parish and perhaps the remaining 80 come from surrounding parishes that do not have a school – St. Bernard, St. Bartholomew or Our Lady of Consolation.
This year’s first grade class will have 94 children, up from 86 in 2012.
One of the keys to the success of St. Matthew in retaining students is its success in retaining teachers.
“We don’t have one new teacher this year. They stay, they are very stable and dedicated,” Sister Kathleen said.
Clearly, happy teachers contribute to happy parents and students, but another factor is the interest shown by St. Matthew’s pastor, Msgr. Charles McGroarty.
“He is in the school every day, and he is very supportive,” Sister Kathleen said.
Also, she believes the school’s effort in keeping tuition affordable is critical. “I came from a family of 12, and attended Most Blessed Sacrament and West Catholic, and I don’t know how my mom and dad would have been able to keep us in Catholic school today,” she said.
At St. Matthew, this year’s tuition for the children of the parish will be $2,500 for one child, $3,700 for two and $4,700 for three or more, well below the average for elementary schools in the Archdiocese.
It is kept that way through a generous parish subsidy and fundraising from alumni and other sources, for example the Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) given to businesses by the state to cover most of their contributions to schools.
“We received $70,000 in EITC grants last year,” Sister Kathleen said. “I just got two letters from families saying they don’t know how they would have been able to keep their children in the school without this support.”
Another factor in school identity is the continued presence of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
“We have eight sisters on our faculty,” said Advancement Director Barbara Gress. “We are always talking about faith identity. Our children are 100 percent baptized Catholics and we stress practicing the faith. We want to see them in church Sunday and see them in school on Monday.”
Gress can’t emphasize enough the leadership roles of Sister Kathleen and Msgr. McGroarty. She has been principal for 17 years and he has been pastor for 26 years, Gress said.
And Gress practices what she preaches. Her son Timothy is starting second grade at St. Matthew, following in the footsteps of three older siblings who went through the school. “He loves the school and the spirit of it,” she said.
Maureen and Richard Lipscomb put their four children through St. Matthew through eighth grade, and “we have nothing but good things to say about the school,” Maureen said. “The support was very helpful and the faculty is tremendous, they lead by example. Every child is treated with respect and dignity. The personality and the individuality of each child is considered.
“If a parent has a question it is always answered, and the teachers take the time to tutor students who need it.”
The Lipscomb family was a bit unusual – Richard, Elizabeth, Sarah and Alexandra are quadruplets and they all graduated from St. Matthew this past June. The girls are headed for St. Hubert and Richard will go to Father Judge.
There they will continue the type of education the Lipscombs have come to expect – “Faith-based and moral standards stressed,” their mother said.
Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.