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Catholic Schools in Philadelphia Offered a Reprieve

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Both relief and resentment marked community reaction last month to the announcement that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia will merge or close five of its high schools next fall but spare others that had been targeted for restructuring.

The announcement by Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, was generally viewed as a reprieve for the schools. It came slightly more than two months after a consultant's report recommended that for financial reasons six secondary schools be closed and four others merged into two schools. (See Education Week, Dec. 9, 1992.)

"We're overjoyed by the decision,'' said Dennis Glancey, a parent and a co-chair of the Save Our Schools coalition. "We were trying to save all the schools possible.''

Now, just one school--St. James, a 52-year-old boys' school in suburban Chester--is to be closed outright.

The school's shuttering means an uncertain future for about 500 students and 22 lay and three religious teachers, officials said.

But, because veteran teachers may displace less senior faculty members in search of an assignment in the archdiocese, "all 25 high schools have been affected by this,'' said Rita C. Schwartz, the president of Local 1776 of the Association of Catholic Teachers.

The original plan would have displaced some 4,800 students and 225 teachers, officials said.

The Cardinal's decision had been expected in early December but was postponed while the archdiocese considered self-improvement plans by the schools and their alumni groups, said Jay Devine, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

About the same time, the locally based Annenberg Foundation offered a $2 million challenge grant to try to save the schools. In response to that challenge, as well as to earlier meetings with the Cardinal, the Philadelphia business community has contributed $500,000 to the high schools, Mr. Devine said last week.

Over the past 22 years, the high schools have seen their enrollment drop from 58,113 in 29 schools to this year's 24,370 students in 25 schools. The system is also currently $10.4 million in debt.

The Cardinal's decision spared all five targeted schools in the city of Philadelphia. Community members had expressed concern that closing the archdiocese's inner-city high schools would remove the few bastions of hope that remain in otherwise depressed neighborhoods.

Open Enrollment Planned

In an attempt to heal the school system's budgetary and enrollment deficits, Cardinal Bevilacqua also said that, effective next September, the high schools will practice open enrollment, effectively abolishing the system of parish "feeder'' schools. Students will be allowed to attend the high school of their choice anywhere in the archdiocese.

In addition, each high school must commit to a plan, known as a "performance agreement,'' for achieving enrollment stability and financial solvency.

The performance agreement for all-boys' Northeast Catholic in Philadelphia, for example, calls for it to focus on eliminating its $136,000 deficit, on beefing up its recruitment and retention efforts, and on making its 97 percent white student body more culturally diverse, said the Rev. Michael S. Murray, Northeast's principal.

"It's a sober celebration,'' Father Murray said of his school's reprieve. "We've been allowed to cross into the 'Promised Land.' How well we flourish in the 'Promised Land' is yet to be seen.''

The prospect of open enrollment has left some ill at ease. A lack of details in the plan, including how oversubscription of some schools might be handled, has Ms. Schwartz, the union president, "very disturbed,'' she said.

For teachers, questions about mid-year transfers by students, for example, means uncertainty about how many faculty members a given school will need and how many sections of a course officials should create, she said.

Mr. Devine said a survey of students' preferred high schools conducted before the Cardinal's announcement indicated oversubscription will not be a problem.

Other issues, he acknowledged, remain to be worked out.

'Solid' Numbers Not Enough

The St. James community, which had worked to put together a strong plan to save the school, heard the Cardinal label it "unable to provide a feasible proposal'' because of sharp declines in enrollment, "extraordinarily'' large annual deficits, and a great need for capital improvements.

Robert McLaughlin, the president of the St. James Alumni Association and the parent of a freshman there, said reaction amounted to "total disbelief on the part of the community that St. James would be the only school closed,'' especially in light of a "solid presentation of numbers and figures'' about how to save the school.

He said he thought the plan was rejected because it called for St. James to become coeducational and "would probably pull away 450 girls'' from Cardinal O'Hara, a nearby coeducational high school in a larger and newer building.

Alumni hope to keep St. James open, Mr. McLaughlin said, by obtaining the building from the archdiocese and running it as a coeducational Catholic school in partnership with Widener University in Chester.

The upcoming closure of St. James leaves students to attend Cardinal O'Hara--its traditional sports rival--Catholic schools in Delaware, or Chester High School, a public school that has been racked by violence and arrests in recent months.

"The reason we're fighting the battle as hard as we are,'' Mr. McLaughlin said, is that "too many of our parents don't have a choice.''

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