Historic Catholic High School May Close

By Vernon Loeb — February 12, 1986 3 min read

A decision to close Roman Catholic High School, the oldest Catholic Diocesan high school for boys in the United States, could come as early as this week after years of enrollment declines and financial crises.

Cardinal John Krol and other officials of the Philadelphia Archdiocese are tentatively scheduled to meet Feb. 10 with trustees of the Thomas E. Cahill estate, which has been underwriting part of Roman’s operating expense since the school was founded in 1890.

At that meeting, the officials could announce their intention to close the school-an option they first asked the Cahill trustees to consider last month.

“Cardinal Krol said that if we did not vote for the Archdiosan proposal for selling the building and in effect closing the school, then he would close the school by not sending students or teachers there,” according to Nicholas M. D’Alessandro, a judge of Philadelphia’s common pleas court who graduated from Roman in 1952 and now sits on the board of the Cahill estate.

Nonetheless, Mr. D’Alessandro and members of the school’s alumni association have been leading a fight to save the school in recent weeks, advocating a number of strategies to reverse Roman’s enrollment and fiscal decline-from turning it into a citywide magnet school, to selling its center-city site to a developer who would dedicate the first three floors of a new high-rise to the school.

“From the viewpoint of the archdiocese,” Mr. D’Alessandro said last week in an interview, “it should be a showcase for Catholic education.” Officially, the closing of Roman Catholic is still in the “discussion stages” by archdiocesan officials, according to Rosemary Bruno, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Ninth-Largest System

The nation’s ninth-largest school system, the archdiocese operates a total of 29 high schools in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and educates one of every three schoolchildren in the city itself. While the system has increased high-school tuition for the past 11 years, the city’s corporate community has raised $29 million for the Catholic schools since 1981, and Msgr. Paul F. Curran, archdiocesan vicar for education, recently proclaimed that the system’s future was bright.

The issue at Roman, Ms. Bruno said last week, is clearly one of whether the archdiocese and the Cahill estate should continue “channeling money into a school where the enrollment has dropped so sharply.”

Located in a distinctive white granite gothic building at the intersection of two major downtown streets, Roman Catholic’s 550 students find the school caught in a vicious cycle.

Since rumors of Roman’s closing have been around since 1974, when it had more than 1,000 students, many parents have gradually lost confidence in the school’s future and sent their children elsewhere. But that only increased the natural enrollment decline, which made it more difficult for the school to offer a full array of elective courses. And that, in turn, accelerated the enrollment decline.

Reasons for Decline

But the reasons for the decline, many Roman supporters contend, go deeper than that. Many of the white ethnic parishes that once fed students into the school have become largely black with fewer Catholics; the archdiocese has cut the overall number of parishes feeding Roman from 19 to 13, and parents in some of those parishes are allowed to choose between Roman downtown and Archbishop Kennedy High School in suburban Conshohocken.

''There just aren’t enough students,” said the former Philadelphia city controller, Thomas A. Leonard, a Roman alumnus and member of the school’s board of trustees, “and the fixed costs remain fixed. When you lose a student, that doesn’t necessarily mean you lose a teacher.”

One possible strategy for revitalizing the school, Mr. Leonard said, would be to make it coeducational by merging it with nearby John W. Hallahan High School for girls. He noted that Central High School, the city’s elite, formerly all-boys public high school, has experienced a rebirth since it began admitting girls in 1983.

“Roman is a school with a great academic tradition,” Mr. Leonard said. “It’s a school that has traditionally turned out men who have become leaders in various areas in Philadelphia. It is a center-city school that is accessible by mass transit from almost anywhere in Philadelphia.”

“I’m not optimistic,” Mr. Leonard said, “but we’re going to continue to use our best efforts to persuade the Cardinal to keep Roman open.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week