By Matthew Gambino
Archbishop Charles Chaput announced in dramatic fashion today at a press conference that all four archdiocesan Catholic high schools that had been recommended for closure would remain open.
As the archbishop made the announcement at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Philadelphia, where he was joined with some of the top state legislative leaders and local philanthropists, he made another significant announcement.
A new independent foundation to support Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia called Faith in the Future: The Fund for Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders, has been established with a goal of raising at least $100 million in the next five years.
In January the Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic education had recommended that four high schools – St. Hubert and West Catholic in Philadelphia and Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills and Msgr. Bonner- Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill – close at the end of the school year in June.
“Today I want to announce that all four of these high schools will remain open” Archbishop Chaput said to a round of applause by those in attendance at the conference.
The schools had an opportunity to appeal the recommendation made in January. It was expected that Archbishop Chaput would announce his final decision on the appeals last Friday, Feb. 17, along with announcements on final decisions on the grade schools.
A week went by without an announcement about the high schools.
Meanwhile behind the scenes, school communities, philanthropists and state lawmakers rallied to build support to keep the schools open, especially through fundraising. That support was one reason for the decision to keep the schools open, Archbishop Chaput said.
“The show of support of these schools from alumni, parents and friends in the community has been extraordinary,” he said. “Twenty-thousand donations have come in from everyday working lay people. These people believe in Catholic education and want to fight to make our schools healthy again. We have a long way to go to put these four high schools and our whole school system on a strong footing. But this is the kind of deep, grassroots commitment we need to renew our educational ministry.”
He listed three other reasons for his decision including strong support from state officials for expanded funding for Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) and school vouchers, termed “opportunity scholarships;” major gifts of millions of dollars from philanthropists; and the hard work and creativity of the Blue Ribbon Commission and staff of the Office of Catholic Education over the past week.
Ed Hanway, a member of the commission and the chairman of the new educational foundation, described the day’s announcements as marking “the dawn of a new era of Catholic education in Philadelphia.”
He said the foundation already has cash and pledges of approximately $12 million, “with a near-term goal of $15 million by May 1 of this year. We are committed to raising an additional $15 million by June 2013 and completing an additional endowment of $70 million by 2017.”
Archbishop Chaput told The Catholic Standard and Times that the financial condition of the Catholic school system could be stabilized through the initiatives he announced.
“I wouldn’t have made the decision that I did if I didn’t think so, and hope so,” the archbishop said. “We don’t have enough money to secure the schools indefinitely into the future.
“We need to have enrollment, certainly. We need to have those opportunity scholarships from the Commonwealth, we need to have ongoing interest on the part of the donor community — not only Catholics but people who share our commitment to education — the ongoing support of the Archdiocese of course, and our people and our pastors are all included.
“But I think we have enough to get started. But if we don’t see improvement on all those levels, we won’t be able to continue. We have to keep the goal of constantly increasing support in mind, all the time.”
In addition to providing financial support to Catholic schools, Faith in the Future will provide operational support in the form of development, marketing and help to boost school enrollment.
Hanway also said the foundation’s mission is to provide “active public advocacy for Philadelphia archdiocesan schools.”
Advocacy for Catholic education in the form of political and community support was a theme Archbishop Chaput stressed strongly. Besides recognizing the support of Gov. Tom Corbett for school choice initiatives, the archbishop thanked state officials who were present at the press conference including Lt. Gov. Bruce Cawley – himself a Conwell-Egan High School graduate who pumped his fists in celebration – Sens. Dominic Pileggi and Anthony Williams, and Reps. Michael Vereb, Nicholas Miccarelli, Robert Keller and Michael Turzai.
Turzai, the House majority leader from Pittsburgh, is seen as a crucial supporter of school choice initiatives in the House, while Pileggi, the Senate majority leader representing Delaware County, is seen as a key supporter in the Senate, which last year passed a school choice bill.
Archbishop Chaput praised support for EITC and opportunity scholarships in the legislature, but directed his most urgent appeal to the wider Catholic community. He emphasized and repeated the need for school choice legislation within the current legislative session.
“Otherwise we’ll be right back in a school crisis in the future,” the archbishop said.
“Here’s what this means in a very practical sense,” he said. “Every parent, every president, every principal, every alumnus and alumna of our schools and every pastor in the Archdiocese needs to understand that their active, personal commitment to this issue is crucial.
“We need to work for the passage of expanded educational improvement tax credits and good opportunity scholarship legislation beginning today. Our schools serve the whole metropolitan community of Philadelphia, and the whole community benefits from them.
“If these high schools are forced to close in the future because of finances,” the archbishop said, “I want our people to know which elected officials supported us on opportunity scholarships when we urgently needed them.”