By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

If they can pull it off – and it’s by no means certain – Philadelphia may be in for an innovative form of niche Catholic secondary education that has proved highly successful in 24 cities around the country.

And the alumni of Northeast Catholic High School will have scored the biggest coup since the Roman Catholic alumni saved their school back in 1986.

The difference is North Catholic will definitely close. It was announced in October that North and Cardinal Dougherty High School would close at the end of the current school year. Both schools suffered dwindling enrollment and rising deficits.

But under a proposal put forth by the alumni and interested community members, in North’s place a Catholic preparatory school allied with the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network might open.

Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Joseph McFadden, who oversees the Catholic schools, have authorized the backers to undertake a feasibility study to see if it is practical.

Cristo Rey would not give permission for a feasibility study if the Archdiocese was opposed to it, Bishop McFadden explained.

“This is a different model, geared toward the poorest of the poor who would not otherwise have a chance to go to a Catholic school,” he said. “We are not opposed to it if it is going to help the mission of the Church.”

The Archdiocese supports any effort to make Catholic education available, but a lot of work needs to be done before this particular effort can be accomplished, he said.

The first Cristo Rey school was founded by Jesuit Father John Foley in Chicago in 1996. Since then a total of 23 additional schools using the Cristo Rey model were founded, all locally owned by either a diocese a religious congregation or other Catholic entity. They focus on children of low or moderate income families.

A sampling of web sites reveals the schools have a demanding course-load averaging seven subjects a semester, a longer school day and a longer year than a typical high school. Their most distinctive feature is that every student, freshman through senior, must spend five full days monthly working in the corporate world in an office setting. These entry-level positions are solicited by the school.

Through this work experience the students gain a sense of responsibility, accountability and self-esteem. But just as important, the money they earn goes directly to the school.

This is critical because operating costs at Cristo Reys on average are in excess of $11,000 per student per year.

A typical Cristo Rey family pays about $1,650, presenters said at a Jan. 7 information meeting with North Catholic parents and students. This figure is probably low; a check of Cristo Rey schools on the Internet shows schools in the $2,500-$2,700 range, but that is still much lower than a diocesan high school tuition and a mere fraction of most private school tuitions.

The backers of the proposed school, which does not even have a name at this time, hope to open for orientation in August and classes in September. The intention is to locate at North Catholic, if details can be worked out with the Archdiocese, but the committee is also pursuing other options if this can’t be done.

Even the ownership is up in the air, but judging from the presenters, it would appear to have a Jesuit influence, along with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the traditional faculty at North, or even other religious communities.

The new school must also hire a president, who will in turn hire a principal and together they will hire a teaching staff. Another committee is working with corporations to obtain the 100 to 125 full-time positions that are needed to supply employment for the 500-600 students they hope to obtain.

All of this sounds impossible to achieve in the short amount of time left before a fall opening, until one looks at the caliber of the people involved.

Among the presenters before the North students and parents were Paul Hondros, class of ’66, the board president at St. Joseph’s University, and John McConnell, board chairman at St. Joseph’s Prep.

The North parents had a number of questions. Would their children be eligible for the school? Yes, all students currently enrolled at North are grandfathered, provided they agree to the school’s rules, including the work-study aspect. But younger family members not yet at North who might want to attend the Cristo Rey would be subject to all entry requirements for the community as a whole, including the limit on family income.

North’s Alumni Association has provided substantial funding to the school for years ($450,000 this year alone, according to treasurer Lenny Knobbs). Many of the underclassman have tuition grants. Will the Alumni Association honor them at the proposed Cristo Rey? The answer is yes.

What about activities? All Cristo Rey students are strongly encouraged to participate in activities and the new school would continue North’s traditions in this area, they were assured.

Whatever the outcome, the proposal appeared to receive enthusiastic support from the families at the well-attended meeting. Many filled out forms indicating interest.

“I thought it was an excellent presentation and it gives hope. It’s a new way to look at Catholic education,” said Colleen Wister, whose son Patrick is a North sophomore. “My brother is a union carpenter and they are getting laid off right and left. My husband got laid off. This is an opportunity for my son to get connected with the business world, which will be a life-long benefit.”

Stewart Abramson, whose son Christopher is a junior, would be inclined to send him to the new school, provided it does not totally lose its North identity. “Our other option is Father Judge,” he said.

Wendell Young III, North ’56 and president emeritus of Local 1776, United Food and Commercial workers, said he would be working to help the school line up employers for the students.

“These are good people involved in this, and it’s going to be a winner. I absolutely support it,” he said.

Nevertheless, the parents were cautioned, “Keep all of your options open.”

Further information on the proposed Cristo Rey School can be found at

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.