Low enrollment forces closures of Dougherty, North Catholic

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By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA – Cardinal Dougherty High School and Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Philadelphia will close in June 2010 at the conclusion of the school year, due to declining enrollments and rising costs to maintain the schools, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced at a 7 p.m. press conference Oct. 8 at the Archdiocesan Office Center in Center City.

“It is with a heavy heart that I make this announcement this evening,” Cardinal Rigali said.

Cardinal Dougherty High, located in the Olney section of Philadelphia at 6301 N. Second St., currently has 642 students on its roster, although it has a capacity for more than 2,000.

Northeast Catholic, located at 1842 Torresdale Ave. in the city’s Frankford section, has an enrollment of 551 students but a capacity for 1,700.

Throughout the last decade, Dougherty’s enrollment has declined by more than 43 percent and was projected to decline by an additional 34 percent in the next three years. Its physical plant is the third largest of all the archdiocesan high schools. Founded in 1956, the school had a peak enrollment of 5,944 students in 1965.

Founded in 1926, North Catholic has experienced a steady decline in enrollment since 1999-2000, dropping 29 percent in the last 10 years. It was projected to decrease an additional 24 percent in the next three years.

The peak enrollment at North Catholic was 4,410 students in 1953.

“As a junior, it’s kind of depressing because you just expect so much for your senior year to happen and it just can’t happen,” said Caroline Hopkins of Cardinal Dougherty High.

“You have to start anew. You’re almost like a freshman as a senior at a different school.”

The junior class vice president who was also a class officer her freshman and sophomore years said she planned to run for senior class president. “Now, I can’t,” she said, because she’ll be going to a school “that I don’t know and with people who won’t know me….

“Speaking for all my classmates, Dougherty was our home,” she said. “We’re like one big family here.”

Cardinal Dougherty has also been a family affair for the Hopkins family. Caroline is the fourth of eight children of Dougherty alums Frank (’79) and Kathleen (McGuinn, ’84) Hopkins. Her three older sisters are Dougherty graduates and her four younger siblings – including Monica, currently an eighth-grader at St. Hilary of Poitiers School in Rydal – had planned to attend there.

Her father’s five siblings and her mother’s four siblings are also Dougherty alums.

Meanwhile, Caroline is praying that she and her peers find a school in which they all will be comfortable.

“I’m very disappointed – it’s my junior year,” said George R. Werez III of North Catholic.

“North Catholic isn’t a school – it’s a way of life,” added the junior class vice president of publicity for student council. “I’ll miss everything.”

The son of George R. Jr. and Judy Werez said his twin brothers, Nicholas and Matthew, currently eighth-graders at St. Matthew School in Northeast Philadelphia, were planning to join him at North next year as freshmen.

Werez is counting on St. Francis de Sales, the school’s patron, prayer and the Catholic faith to help him reconcile to the situation: “I’m just asking God for help to find a new school.”

The decision followed a one-year comprehensive study that the Archdiocese’s Office of Catholic began in September 2008. Commissioned by the archdiocesan Board of Education, the study examined current and projected enrollments, regional demographic trends, building capacities and the finances of inspanidual archdiocesan Catholic high schools.

The Office of Catholic Education, in consultation with the Board of Education, recommended the closures of the two schools.

“This difficult decision was made after much prayer, study and reflection to ensure proper stewardship of our school system so that Catholic schools can continue to offer affordable, high-quality, academic instruction,” Cardinal Rigali said. “We can do no less for our young people who must be well-equipped to become the leaders of tomorrow.”

Richard McCarron, the Archdiocese’s Secretary for Catholic Education, said that without action, declining enrollment would accelerate tuition increases and compromise the overall quality of the Catholic education system.

“Our archdiocesan high schools have always been so much more than bricks and mortar,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, who assists the Cardinal in overseeing the Secretariat for Catholic Education.

“We cannot be putting our resources into half-empty buildings,” he added.

The Office of Catholic Education is committed to assisting parents place their children in other Catholic high schools, McCarron said.

Both schools held assemblies for the students Oct. 9.

“It was heart-rending to watch the sadness of the teachers and the students,” said Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Nicholas R. Waseline, principal of Northeast Catholic High. “However,” he added, “we left the assembly with a sense of hope.”

The principal said he understands the bigger picture and the necessity to ensure Catholic education for the future.

School pride is evident, even amid the sorrow. North Catholic students held a spontaneous rally on the front steps of the school at the conclusion of the school day on Friday. They chanted “We are NC” and sang the alma mater. The bookstore is practically sold out of North Catholic paraphernalia and souvenirs.

“We have the Salesian tradition here – the tradition of St. Francis de Sales,” Father Waseline said. “As I said to them, this is going to be the best Salesian year we’ve ever had.”

At Cardinal Dougherty High School, “News of the closure was just incredibly saddening,” said Father Carl F. Janicki, president of Cardinal Dougherty.

He commended the teachers and staff for assisting the students at the assembly. He also commended the students for their comportment. “One of the things we talk about is the lasting legacy of the school. We were quick to remind them that they will provide the last legacy for Cardinal Dougherty.”

At the same time, the president said he is relying on the grace of God. “I have a firm belief that everything happens for a reason and that those reasons are revealed in God’s time.”

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or cchicoin@adphila.org.