By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – When you speak with Sister Donna Shallo, I.H.M., and Sister Kathleen Klarich, R.S.M., of Little Flower High School for Girls, the enthusiasm in their voices is almost overwhelming.

They head a leadership team at the school, located in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia, that is both experienced and committed.

Little Flower, which opened Sept. 1, 1939, “as the most modern of the secondary schools and the pride of the Philadelphia Catholic system,” is still going strong despite facing closure in the early 1990s.

“Our current students are our best advertisers,” Sister Donna, the school’s president, said. “The word of mouth is that our students are happy here, and parents want happy teenagers.”

That spirit is the engine that drives the faculty and the students each day, said Sister Donna, who has been at Little Flower for 19 years.

And another key element to Little Flower’s continued success? Commitment to service. The principal, Sister Kathleen, has been at the school for 15 years. Then there are Rita McGovern, assistant principal for academic affairs – 15 years; Marguerite Nicholson-Schenk, assistant principal for student services – 14 years; and Patricia McCaffrey, assistant principal for student affairs – 10 years.

“It is very significant (having the administration in place for such a long period),” Sister Kathleen explained. “Each one is an inspanidual with her own gifts and experiences. We are unified, committed to the mission of the school. We respect one another and communicate effectively.”

That sense of continuity and stability is welcomed by Sister Donna. “We are all interested in the students and embrace the mission of Little Flower,” she said.

According to the school’s web site, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, in order “to express his personal devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, named the school Little Flower confident that as patroness of the school she, in her Little Way, would be a model for the girls who would be educated here.”

In 1953, Little Flower was the largest Catholic girls’ high school in the country, with a student body of 3,312.

Just about 40 years later the school was battling to survive as archdiocesan high schools adopted open enrollment. “Due to the deficit situation” in the Archdiocese, Little Flower and nine other schools were to be closed.

Sister Donna, who came to the school in 1991 as director of activities, remembers. “It was horrible,” she said of the 1992 crisis when enrollment was in the 900s. “All but St. James (Chester) and Bishop Kenrick (Norristown, her alma mater) survived.”

St. James High School closed and Bishop Kenrick merged with Archbishop Kennedy in 1993. Little Flower survived through the efforts of then-principal Marie Gallagher and the great response from the Little Flower alumnae.

“It was a wake-up call for the alumnae,” Sister Donna said. “They came out of the woodwork.”

Today, Little Flower’s enrollment is 738, and the school has an endowment of $2 million thanks to “Friends of Little Flower.”

Sister Donna, who as president is in charge of fundraising and working with the alumnae, can offer scholarship assistance totaling $650,000. More than 400 students receive aid, with 120 students in the merit-based category. The remainder is need-based. The tuition is $5,100.

Little Flower draws from 60 parishes with the majority of students Caucasian (69 percent). The remainder of the population is Hispanic (15 percent), African-American (11 percent) and Asian (4 percent), according to Sister Donna. A good number of students are daughters of alumnae. The freshman class numbers 214. Through SEPTA, 90 percent of the students arrive by bus every day.

There are 36 full-time faculty members; the school boasts state-of-the-art technology (LCD projectors, SmartBoards, wireless classrooms); and its athletic program consists of 11 sports.

Sister Kathleen said, “92 percent of students move on to post-secondary education.” This year, Little Flower students benefited from $9.5 million in college scholarship and grant monies.

The school also offers fine arts – four years of instrumental music, vocal music and art. Dance was recently added.

Another program Sister Kathleen is proud of is the “English Speakers of Other Languages” program for foreign-born girls and boys. There are seven boys and 25 girls representing Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Korea, Poland, Haiti, Ukraine, Vietnam, China and the Dominican Republic.

“These students, who can graduate from Little Flower, add another dimension to our community,” Sister Kathleen said. “They share what they can from their life and their culture.”

Sister Kathleen, who taught business at Little Flower in the 1970s and then returned as principal in 1995, realizes that in today’s climate of financial instability, the hard work is never finished.

“We’re very much alive,” she said. “The day-to-day community is thriving. We have the promise of good enrollment in the future. We have high interest from students in the grade schools.

“We are doing well through the generosity of our alumnae, who are interested in our mission. Sister Donna can offer financial assistance to make it possible for any student who wants to attend to make it a reality. We walk by faith, we believe in the mission. Through St. Therese’s intercession, the school was meant to be,” she said.

Sisters Donna Shallo and Kathleen Klarich said they love coming to work.

“There are wonderful moments every day,” Sister Kathleen said. “It’s hard to describe the spirit of community. It has to be experienced – that spirit of love and care and respect that is enjoyed by students and teachers through God’s love.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.