By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

Most parents, (74 percent) who send their children to parochial and archdiocesan high schools in the city of Philadelphia are “very satisfied” with their schools. Another 21 percent are “satisfied,” which leaves only 4 percent less than satisfied.

That’s the good news, and it is very good news, in the just-released Pew Charitable Trusts study, “Philadelphia’s Changing Schools and What Parents Want from Them.”

The bad news is something we already knew: There are a lot less children in the seats in Philadelphia’s Catholic schools than in the past.{{more}}

The Pew Study examines the three largest school systems in Philadelphia – traditional district-run public schools; charter public schools; and Catholic schools, excluding private Catholic schools.

It does not include the suburbs, which now have many more Catholic school children than the city itself.

As to why city Catholic parents chose Catholics schools, the four chief reasons were quality (36 percent), religious grounds/moral values (29 percent), physical safety (21 percent) and level of discipline (9 percent).

“In the poll the Catholic school parents gave their own schools consistently high marks in almost every category,” the Pew report states.

In the list of 17 different areas polled, Catholic school parents rated their school good to excellent across the board with no category having an approval rating under 81 percent.

Highest marks were given for a child’s physical safety (98 percent good or excellent).

“If the children are not being disciplined and you want to learn, you can’t focus. So I just put my kids in Catholic school,” said one Northeast Philadelphia mother quoted in the report.

Having the right amount of emphasis on moral values received a 96 percent favorable rating. Commitment of the teachers received 95 percent.

Creating a positive climate for learning, emphasis on the curriculum, keeping order and discipline in the classroom and giving students a solid background in math and English also received marks of over 90 percent satisfaction.

“It’s affirming to read how grateful parents are for the education their children receive in Catholic schools and for the faith formation we’ve given them,” said Dr. Richard McCarron, archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Education, who called the report, both in its assessment of parental satisfaction and the overall enrollment trends, “very balanced, accurate and realistic.”

He points to the high level of scholarship aid Catholic school students receive toward their college education as an affirmation of the level of the education they received in the schools.

The district-run public schools have by far the lowest parent satisfaction rate according to the Pew report; 40 percent of parents were very satisfied, 37 percent somewhat satisfied. Seventy-two percent of the charter school parents were very satisfied, 21 percent somewhat satisfied.

The Pew report looked at enrollment trends over the span of the past 10 years. The traditional district-run public schools lost 38,773 students, dropping from 200,435 in 2000 to 161,662 students in 2009, or 19 percent.

Catholic schools operated by the Archdiocese lost 17,218 students during the same period, dropping from 47,102 students to 29,884 students.

Although numerically less than the public district’s loss, that is a drop of 37 percent in just 10 years.

The big gainer is the tax-supported charter schools. Starting at near zero a decade ago they are now up to 33,107 students with another 3,109 at home enrolled in cyber charter schools. The Pew report estimates the charter schools have at this time a 30,000-student waiting list.

According to a quoted district school figure, 73 percent of the charter students came from the district schools and the balance from others, including Catholic schools.

“Charter schools have impacted us because they are free,” Dr. McCarron said.

But clearly, tuition is not the only factor contributing to the decline in numbers of Catholic school students in the city, something that has been going on for much longer than the 10 years covered in the Pew report. Mostly because of lower birth rates and Catholic movement to the suburbs, there are fewer Catholics in the city.

The report notes between 2000 and 2008, the latest available figure, the number of registered Catholics in the city declined by 22 percent.

It also quoted data from the archdiocesan Office for Research and Planning that show city baptisms have declined by 38 percent in the past decade and the number of high-school age children by 32 percent.

“It’s important to recognize we have fewer Catholic children in the city of Philadelphia,” said Dr. Robert J. Miller, director of the Office for Research and Planning. “One important element is to recognize we have fewer baptisms. The base is down 38 percent right off the top. That’s nobody’s fault.”

Even though the number of births in Philadelphia appears to be stabilizing, Miller believes we will continue to see declining numbers of school age children, at least in the near future.

There has been another trend at work. The Philadelphia Catholic schools, once virtually 100 percent Catholic in enrollment, are now 25 percent non-Catholic, according to the Pew report.

It cites St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia where only 23 percent of the students are Catholic, and also West Catholic High School, where only 25 percent of the students are Catholic.

One unnamed Catholic official quoted in the Pew report said this has led to “mission schizophrenia” among educators.

“Why do we have Catholic schools?” he asked. “Are we doing it as a social service or doing it as a school? If it is a school it should be about faith formation.”

“It’s not an either-or,” Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, who in recent years has assisted Cardinal Justin Rigali in overseeing the schools, told the Pew Report. “It is faith formation and the primary idea of forming young men and women in the values of the Catholic faith. But there is the other part, that we have a responsibility as Christians to care for our brothers and sisters who are poor. So we have to outreach to those children.”

In its analysis the Pew report suggests the Catholic schools will continue to fade “unless the leaders of the Archdiocese resolve to turn them into a full-fledged alternative system appealing as much to non-Catholics as to members of the Church.”

The author of that rather bleak assessment should read page 32 of the report which features Our Lady of Port Richmond in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, which consolidated three previous neighborhood Catholic schools, and has discovered the increased student population has made many things possible that were previously out of reach for three little schools.

“I can’t imagine our neighborhoods or the city – or the nation for that matter – without Catholic schools,” said the principal, Sister of Christian Charity Mary Ripp. “What we have to offer is a holistic education but one that has a spiritual aspect as well. And we need that today in this country.”

The complete Pew Report on Philadelphia’s Changing Schools can be accessed through

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