School closings have been very much on the minds of parents these past few months as the nation and the world have battled COVID 19. Fortunately, most schools are expected to reopen for the fall term.
Regretfully two small suburban parochial elementary schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese will not reopen because of expected enrollment dwindling to a point that the schools could not be sustained.
Both in Chester County, they are Sacred Heart School in Oxford, founded in 2002, and St. Cornelius School in Chadds Ford, founded in 1991.
Both had troubling numbers, including pre-registration for this fall of 52 for Sacred Heart and 70 for St. Cornelius. While these numbers would rise in the months ahead, clearly they would not be enough for continued viability. The expected operating deficits would have been too great for the parishes to underwrite.
“Our parish community has spent years struggling to maintain our parish school after the 2008 recession,” Father Michael Hennelly at Sacred Heart wrote in a letter to his parishioners. “Since then we have had a steady decline in enrollment yet a rising cost of living and expenses for families and the parish.”
In his letter, Father Hennelly said the parish would provide participating parish families with scholarship grants to attend another parish or regional Catholic school along with a one-time transfer grant of $1,000 from the Foundation for Catholic Education for each child who transfers to another parish or regional Catholic school.
There is also a parish religious education program available for students in grades one through seven who attend non-Catholic schools.
All of the above also holds for students who attended St. Cornelius School, according to Msgr. David Diamond, the pastor.
While the parish is holding up very well, “the school is not,” he said.
Looking at the history of St. Cornelius School, Msgr. Diamond doesn’t think enrollment ever got higher than 225-230 students.
A general rule of the thumb for the viability of a parish or regional school could be 200 students spread out over the eight elementary school grades or an average of 25 students per grade.
According to published statistics on the archdiocesan website for St. Cornelius Parish and Sacred Heart Parish, annual infant and pre-school baptisms could support that figure if most parents sent their children to the parish school.
Clearly this is not the case, as a number families are choosing free public schools, which are well regarded in that area, or area private schools that might have more amenities or social prestige.
In published statistics for 2018, the latest available on the archdiocesan website, St. Cornelius showed 171 total students but that included 20 in kindergarten and 48 in pre-kindergarten, leaving just 103 in grades 1-8, an average of 13 per grade. That is clearly not enough to a cover expenses.
In fact kindergarten and pre-K, which do not have a deficit, are not affected by the closing and will remain open.
Similarly, Sacred Heart School listed 135 pupils that year but 16 were in kindergarten, leaving 119 or an average of 15 children for each grade 1-8.
This of course is just two little schools in Chester County. When the dust from COVID-19 settles with the financial shortfalls it caused throughout the community, will there be a lingering effect on Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese, as we know them?
As the answer unfolds, Catholic faithful will likely turn to the saintly patrons of Catholic education: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Bosco, pray for us.
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