Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA — Forty-nine Catholic schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese will form 23 regional schools and 10 schools will close outright, according to a Feb. 17 announcement by Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, who oversees the Secretariat for Catholic Education.
At a press briefing the bishop released the final decision on closings or consolidations of elementary schools as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission, which was formed about a year ago.
The decision represents modifications to the commission’s original recommendation that were reached through an appeals process ordered by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
The appeals followed the panel’s Jan. 6 recommendation that one school would close outright and 81 schools would form 37 regional schools.
“These changes are occurring for a number of reasons,” Bishop Fitzgerald said. “Some schools will remain free-standing parish schools because they have demonstrated that they are poised for long-term viability.
“Some schools are closing outright to allow welcoming schools to retain their identity,” he said. “Other schools may still form a regional school but at a different location that may be better.”
A decision on the future of four archdiocesan high schools recommended for closure was postponed for a week because of the emergence of potential donors working to keep them open.
“I recognize how anxious all of those affected by this decision are to hear the final outcome,” Archbishop Chaput said in a statement. “I want to see this resolved too, but this decision is too important to be made without considering absolutely every fact and all serious, substantive proposals even if they don’t fit the time frame originally set. We owe it to our teachers, administrators, students and school families.”
The review committee, which consisted of Blue Ribbon Commission members and archdiocesan administrators, began hearings Jan. 12, with all schools recommended for consolidation or closure given an opportunity to present facts and documentation to support their request that their status be reconsidered.
The announcement of the reconfiguration of the schools is only an initial step, according to Bishop Fitzgerald, who added that it’s “important to realize that today is about taking the next step in securing sustainability and affordability as part of an ongoing process.”
Superintendent of Schools Mary Rochford estimated the revised plans would affect about 13,000 students as opposed to the original 20,000 and 1,100 teachers as opposed to 1,500.
Another initiative announced at the press briefing was the creation of up to 14 mission schools in schools that were slated for consolidation in the original Blue Ribbon Commission proposal. Located in underserved communities, they would replicate the success of a mission school that already exists, St. Martin de Porres School in North Philadelphia.
“Through the concept of mission schools, we may be able to keep open schools which might otherwise close,” said Jack Donnelly, who represents a group attempting to raise funds for the proposed mission schools.
“Mission schools are designed to have a permanent source of funding and to identify and serve the needs of underserved urban communities who desire a Catholic education but are unable to afford one,” he said. “These schools will be Catholic but operated independently.”
Elementary schools that appealed the commission’s original recommendations received the news of any changes the day before Bishop Fitzgerald’s press briefing, and those who were informed they would not become part of a regional school were naturally elated.
At St. Laurentius School in Philadelphia, which has 246 pupils and had been slated to become a regional school based at St. Peter the Apostle, Father Francis A. Gwiazda, the pastor, had not been able to deliver his school’s appeal in person because he was undergoing rehabilitation following knee surgery, so his contribution was prayer, he said.
“I prayed especially to St. John Neumann,” he told The Catholic Standard & Times, the archdiocesan newspaper. “It was St. John Neumann, the Blessed Mother and the good Lord who helped us.”
At Holy Trinity School in Morrisville, which has 226 students and was scheduled to join with St. John the Evangelist, Father John C. Eckert, the pastor, thought his school had a good case because enrollment was stable and tuition was low.
At Our Mother of Consolation in Philadelphia, Father Robert Bazzoli, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, wrote his school community after receiving the news they wouldn’t become a regional school, saying, “Perhaps the hand of God is drawing us closer together and helping us to realize, once again, the gift we have in our parish school, a gift we may not have appreciated as much as we could.”
Across the state, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, school officials announced Feb. 19 that they have initiated a process for developing a similar regional approach “to governing and supporting Catholic elementary schools.”
Starting in the spring, officials said, geographic groups in that diocese will look at three models “to determine which would give them viability for the long term”: the single parish school model, the regional school model and a “consortium model,” which would allow “cost sharing, economies of scale and staff sharing.”