Proposed Closures Prompt Outcry in Phila. Archdiocese

By Millicent Lawton — December 09, 1992 10 min read
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FAIRLESS HILLS, PA.--Even before the raucous chanting of protesters filled the air here one night last month, there was little doubt this was no ordinary community meeting.

Traffic ground to a halt a half-mile from Bishop Egan High School in this quiet Philadelphia suburb, and police directed traffic away from the main parking lot--already full 45 minutes before the event.

Parents, students, teachers, alumni, and concerned citizens packed the high school, one of 25 in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and filled the 1,200-seat auditorium to overflowing. Latecomers had to be satisfied with watching the meeting on closed-circuit television in classrooms.

But it was the noisy crowd on the sidewalk outside that attracted the bright lights of television news camera teams, and embodied the kind of emotion that suffused this meeting and others like it elsewhere in the weeks since the archdiocese announced plans to close or consolidate a number of high schools.

Still wearing their uniform gray skirts and navy-blue sweaters, about 150 students from all-girls’ Bishop Conwell High School in nearby Levittown shouted pep-rally cheers and waved homemade placards with the kind of kinetic energy and decibel power only teenagers can muster.

They had come, they said, to the last of six community meetings to let Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, know that they did not want their beloved school merged with Bishop Egan.

“They don’t understand what Conwell has,’' one of the protesters, a 17-year-old senior named Theresa Pirollo, said. “What we have is a family.’'

The merger was proposed as part of a controversial long-range plan for archdiocesan high schools unveiled in October. Under the proposal, six high schools would be closed outright next fall and four single-sex schools--including Egan and Conwell--would be merged into two coeducational schools.

The situation now facing Philadelphia’s Catholic community has cropped up in other Catholic school systems across the nation, but never in such a large scale, experts say.

If all six schools were closed, it would displace about 4,800 students, according to the plan.

About 225 of the archdiocese’s 900 lay teachers would also be directly affected if the schools were closed, with a possible net loss of 100 jobs across the archdiocese as veteran teachers bump those with less seniority, said Rita C. Schwartz, the president of Local 1776 of the Association of Catholic Teachers.

Cardinal Bevilacqua is expected to make a decision on the plan this week or next, but observers inside and outside the archdiocese think it unlikely that he will order all of the closures or mergers as proposed.

At the Bishop Egan meeting, the Archbishop told the crowd that the need to make the decision is “very painful’’ for him.

“I don’t want to cause anyone pain or sorrow,’' he added.

Debt, Fewer Students

The Philadelphia Catholic school system, with 129,387 students enrolled last school year, is second in size only to that of Chicago. Yet, like many urban Catholic systems, it faces declining enrollment, underutilized school buildings, and a growing deficit. This year, the archdiocesan secondary schools have a budget deficit of $10.4 million.

The debt is projected to stand at $86.4 million by the 1999-2000 school year unless action is taken, according to the October report by the management-consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

But vehement opposition to the plan burst forth immediately on its release and has raged ever since.

Much of the criticism has centered on the high proportion of single-sex schools among those targeted in the report--three for closure, four to merge--considering that the archdiocese’s long-range plan calls for the preservation of single-sex schools where possible.

Critics also question the proposal to close three schools and merge two others that provide a safe haven for youths in poor, inner-city Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Some observers have also decried what they see as poor planning and lack of leadership in the archdiocese. Others said the Catholic Church and the archdiocese in particular have a “mission’’ to provide education to all without focusing so much on the bottom line.

“You can’t run [schools] like a business instead of caring for the ‘sheep,’ '' said Maureen Bendig, the parent spokeswoman for the all-boys’ St. James High School in Chester, which is slated for closure.

‘Sleeping Giant’ Awakens

But, as the metaphor heard often around the archdiocese has it, the consultant’s proposal has “awakened a sleeping giant’’ as students, parents, teachers, alumni, and others turn their anger, disappointment, and shaken faith into action.

They have staged rallies and prayer vigils. Teams of representatives from the schools have spoken at the meetings, as they did here at Bishop Egan, eloquently and emotionally detailing what it would mean to close or merge the schools.

One Bishop Conwell administrator described the potential merger as a “devastating loss’’ for the students there. Others, including students, lamented the possible loss of opportunities for girls to excel academically and take leadership in activities at a single-sex school without competition and distraction from boys.

In response to the Coopers & Lybrand report, each school has submitted a plan for saving itself that includes fund-raising and student-recruitment efforts.

A group called the Save Our Schools coalition has drawn more than 200 parents, teachers, and alumni to its meetings.

The coalition “brings us together and makes us more of a force than we would be separately,’' said Ms. Schwartz of the teachers’ union, who is also a coalition member.

To publicize the coalition’s message, the union has spent $10,000 to rent 20 to 30 billboards for one month to carry the message “Save Taxes, Save Catholic Schools.’'

The need for enrollment and financial stability in the district has also spurred renewed interest in a plan to provide state-funded education vouchers that died in the state legislature last year.

Archdiocesan officials admit that the intensity of the outcry took them somewhat by surprise.

“I never imagined we’d receive such an enthusiastic response from each and every school,’' Cardinal Bevilacqua told those gathered at the Bishop Egan meeting.

Interest and support has come from all quarters, from the Taco Bell restaurant across from Northeast Catholic that displayed a banner supporting the parents, to the 20 chief executives of local corporations who met with the Cardinal to see what assistance they could offer.

“Perhaps there needed to be a clarion call that these schools need support,’' said Jay Devine, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Challenges Magnified

The problems the Philadelphia archdiocese is facing now--shifting demographics, a declining birth rate, rising costs--are also facing many other diocesan school systems around the country.

But here it is happening on a larger scale. To date, no other diocese has formally considered such a large-scale school closing at one time, said John Convey, an associate professor of education at the Catholic University of America in Washington, who has helped several big-city dioceses develop long-range plans.

The system to come closest, he said, is the Boston archdiocese, which not long ago closed six of its 44 high schools. But that closing displaced only about 1,200 students, Mr. Convey said, far fewer than the Philadelphia action would affect.

In Philadelphia, such factors as the centralized funding of the schools may have created an untenable situation, Mr. Convey said, especially given that tuition at all archdiocesan high schools is fixed at a single rate, currently a relatively modest $2,225 a year.

Under such a system, individual schools meet their different expenses with varying degrees of success, he said.

Vouchers Mulled

Indeed, in its report to the archdiocese, Coopers & Lybrand recommended the creation of a “decentralized federation of schools’’ in which most schools would become financially independent and set their own tuition.

The report also calls for improving academic and activity offerings at the remaining schools and decreasing the pupil-teacher ratio to 19.3 to 1 from the current 24 to 1.

The report notes that the long-range planning project was initiated to reverse the trend of the past 20 years, which has seen the number of secondary school students plummet 58 percent, from 58,113 in 1970 to 24,370 this year, while the number of high schools remained relatively constant, 29 in 1970 and 25 this year.

One way to shore up the base of the archdiocesan schools, some say, would be to enact the type of state-funded vouchers proposed--and rejected--last year in the legislature. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

Although voted down in the Pennsylvania House, the school-choice measure--viewed by some as unconstitutional--was passed by the Senate and is expected to be resurrected, possibly as early as next spring.

The bill would have provided $900 tuition vouchers for each student enrolled in a private or out-of-district public school.

Mr. Devine, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said he does not view vouchers as an immediate help.

“I think we look at it as a long-term financial option, but we have a very short-term financial deficit,’' he said. “We cannot base [this] decision on the passage of [vouchers].’'

Joseph Parker, the president of the Fathers and Mothers Association at all-boys’ Northeast Catholic High School in inner-city Philadelphia, said vouchers are “positively’’ a good idea and could save the school.

“I think if the legislation [debated last year] were to be passed, you’d probably see more people opt to send their boys back to the parochial school system,’' Mr. Parker said.

Supporters Take Action

Meanwhile, others hoping to avert the closure of schools focus on more immediate courses of action.

Dolly Brophy, the president of the alumnae association at Little Flower, an all-girls’ school slated to close, said the graduates have pledged to raise $100,000 a year to help insure the school’s financial stability.

Stepping up previous efforts to solicit donations from the school’s 16,000 alumnae and others, the group has raised $50,000 just in recent weeks, Ms. Brophy said, compared with about $44,000 for all of last year.

Another school, the all-boys’ St. James in Chester, raised a whopping $418,000 from alumni during a recent three-week telephone pledge drive, said Maureen Bendig, the parent spokeswoman at the school.

Like the other targeted schools, St. James has submitted a plan to keep its doors open.

It includes options to admit girls or to become an independent school, either of which could involve a partnership with Widener University in Chester, which has pledged its support and where St. James students take college-level courses.

Coping with Fears

While waiting for the Cardinal’s final decision, parents and others around the archdiocese coped with the uncertain future in different ways.

Many expressed concerns about arranging or paying for transportation to a new school or the trauma for current juniors starting over at a school with no chance to take on positions of leadership.

The proposal has even shaken the Catholic faith of some, said Jane Garbacz, whose son attends one suburban school slated for closure while her husband teaches at another targeted suburban school.

“I see people who are very much devout Catholics who are considering public school’’ for their children, Ms. Garbacz said. These “workhorses of the parish,’' she said, now feel that the Cardinal has mishandled the issue by declining to answer questions directly at community meetings.

As the owner of a delicatessen and a home near both Northeast Catholic and Little Flower, another targeted school, Mr. Parker, the parent at Northeast Catholic, said he fears school closures could destroy property values.

“I can see a mass exit from this neighborhood,’' Mr. Parker said. “If there’s no school for you to go to, why would you come here?’'

Ms. Bendig, the St. James parent whose 11th-grade son plays junior-varsity football, said her son and his teammates “will never be accepted on the varsity teams in any of the Catholic high schools.’'

Any athletic scholarships will also be out of reach, she said, because the boys will not have the playing time to demonstrate their ability.

She said her son could go to Cardinal O’Hara High School in nearby Springfield, but he and his teammates, who are big football rivals of O’Hara, “absolutely refuse to set foot’’ on the O’Hara campus.

Most likely, her 16-year-old will go to a public high school or to a Catholic school in the Wilmington, Del., diocese.

But for now, she said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Proposed Closures Prompt Outcry in Phila. Archdiocese


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