By George Gregory
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA -Of the 20 Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, half are in the city. Students who attend these 10 schools faced a unique challenge getting to school last week as the union representing SEPTA and its workers held a strike that shut down bus and train service in the city.

As approximately 75 percent of archdiocesan school students are eligible for transpasses to ride SEPTA buses and subways to school, attendance during the strike week of Nov. 2- 6 was a major concern to education officials.

But school students who depend on SEPTA for transportation to and from school weren’t left to fend for themselves. People come together when faced with challenges, and this situation was no exception. “Parents, teachers and students wasted no time in finding solutions as to how to get the students to and from school,” said Tom Smith, deputy secretary for Catholic education. “Many parents and staff volunteered to form car-pools, and some students chose to walk to school.”

Mary Rochford, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese, was grateful to all who responded readily to the special needs that last week presented. “I am so proud of our administrators and teachers and, in a special way, of our parents and students for their determined efforts to find alternate means of transportation at this difficult time,” she said. “We have learned, through the years, that it is tough times such as these that bring out the best in our faculty, parents and children.”

Among the schools affected was Roman Catholic High School for Boys, which draws its student body from across the city. Junior DeShawn Fennell displayed extraordinary dedication in walking more than eight miles each way to and from school during the strike. He has never been absent from school from kindergarten to the present, and he was determined not to allow the strike to break his perfect attendance record.

“My perfect attendance means a lot to me, but it means even more to my mother,” Fennell said. “It also looks good on college applications.”

On Nov. 3, the first day of the transit strike, Fennell left his home on foot at 6:50 a.m. and arrived at Roman at 8:30. After classes were dismissed at 2:15 p.m. he set off on foot and arrived at home at 3:45.

Fennell is also a star on the tennis team and walked to and from the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Manayunk for practice, getting home after 10 p.m. Then he did his homework and prepared for the three tests he had to take the next day, as well as the chemistry lab project that was due. He went to bed after midnight and awoke at 6:15 a.m. to study some more.

This was repeated throughout the week. “It isn’t easy at all, but I have to do it,” Fennell said.

He was, however, very happy to learn of the strike settlement on Monday morning.

“It has been extremely gratifying to see that, despite the SEPTA strike, daily attendance figures at archdiocesan high schools in the city have averaged over 90 percent,” said Rochford. “To witness such amazing daily attendance is the best feedback we, as educators, can receive regarding the value placed on Catholic education.”

George Gregory is a parishioner of St. Cecilia Parish in Coatesville.