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Citing Low Enrollments, Washington Archdiocese To Close 3 High Schools

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The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington will close three of its four high schools as a cost-saving measure in the face of dwindling enrollments.

The controversial move, announced this month by the archbishop, Cardinal James A. Hickey, runs counter to the recommendations last December of a 35-member task force convened to study the future development of the archdiocesan school system. That panel's suggestions included no school closings.

Cardinal Hickey's decision also departs from a recommendation made by the archdiocese's 24-member school board to close only one school.

The four high schools operated by the archdiocese have experienced a 20 percent decline in enrollment over the last two years, officials said.

In another development that underscores the financial plight of many of the nation's Catholic school systems, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced last month the largest dollar increase in tuition since it began charging annual student fees 22 years ago.

The increase of $195 brings annual tuition for students enrolled in the archdiocese's schools to $1,450. Officials said the action was taken as part of an effort to pare an accumulated deficit of $5 million.

Angry Reaction

The announcement of the impending Washington closings drew angry reactions. Students at one of the targeted schools threatened to picket the archdiocese's offices, and a local pastor denounced the decision as "racist to the core."

Blacks, many of them non-Catholic, constitute a majority of the students at the affected schools.

Though Cardinal Hickey expressed empathy with parents and students at the schools, he argued that consolidation would strengthen the system's secondary-school program.

The three closings will allow the archdiocese to concentrate its resources at its remaining secondary institution, Archbishop Carroll High4School, said Jerome R. Porath, the system's superintendent of schools.

"The economic point is important, but the educational point is also important," he said.

Cardinal Hickey has pledged to spend the $500,000 the archdiocese expects to save by the closings to improve academic programs at Archbishop Carroll.

Under the plan, Archbishop Carroll, which currently enrolls only boys, will draw both boys and girls from the other three schools beginning next fall. The three schools, scheduled to close in June, are also sex-segregated.

The archdiocese also operates 27 elementary schools in Washington and Maryland.

In a separate move, two independent Catholic schools in the archdiocese also announced this month that they would close at the end of the school year. They are the Academy of Notre Dame, a girls' high school in Washington founded 115 years ago, and Regina High School, located in suburban Maryland.

Minnesota Campaign

Meanwhile, Catholic educators in Minnesota are undertaking a multi-media campaign to promote the value of their schools.

More than 110 new billboards in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis display such messages as "More than a school system: a value system" and "Finally, a school system you can place your faith in."

The campaign, begun last month, also includes radio spots and direct-mail advertising. The archdiocesan schools have sent an eight-page mailer to 80,000 households deemed likely to have school-age children.

The use of advertising to help boost Catholic-school enrollments is not unique to Minnesota, and such promotions have sometimes sparked controversy. A campaign for archdiocesan schools in Milwaukee last fall led to charges that Catholic educators were attacking the public-school system.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul campaign is a long-overdue effort offering a strictly "upbeat" message, accord8ing to Greg Presnail, religious-education coordinator for the archdiocese's Catholic Education Center.

"Catholic schools historically have been very, very modest about telling the community about what their accomplishments are and about their contributions to the community," he said.

'Trend Toward Change'

Officials of the National Catholic Educational Association said last week that the developments in Washington and Philadelphia typified trends among urban Catholic schools.

"There certainly is a trend to change [in Catholic education] that is related to population trends," said Frederick H. Brigham Jr., executive assistant to the president and director of research for the ncea

Because of the same demographic factors, he added, "similar things are happening in public schools," such as school consolidations and closings.

He noted that some 2.5 million children were enrolled in precollegiate Catholic schools last year, slightly fewer than half of the 5.6 million students who attended in 1964, when enrollments peaked.

Mr. Brigham said that while 108 Catholic elementary schools closed or were merged nationwide in the 1987-88 school year, the church also opened 16 new elementary schools that year. During the same year, he said, seven new Catholic high schools opened, and 25 closed or were merged.

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