PHILADELPHIA — The Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to shutter about a quarter of its Roman Catholic high schools and close or combine nearly 30 percent of its elementary schools mainly because of rising costs and low enrollment, officials said Friday.
The moves spurred by an internal, yearlong analysis of the struggling school system will displace almost 24,000 students and leave the region with four fewer high schools and 44 fewer elementary schools at the beginning of the next academic year.
"We can't afford to fool ourselves," Archbishop Charles Chaput said at a news conference. "We need an honest response to serious losses that have been happening year after year in some of our schools. And this will continue to happen if we do nothing."
The system's current enrollment of 68,000 students is the same number the archdiocese served in 1911. It also represents a 35 percent drop in the student population since 2001.
Smaller families, shifting demographics, an increase in charter schools and Catholic schools' rising tuition have combined to siphon off many students. The archdiocese already had closed 30 schools during the past five years, leaving 178 schools in the city and four surrounding counties.
The closures announced Friday will reduce that number dramatically.
"It's extremely sad," said Rita Schwartz, president of the local chapter of the Association of Catholic Teachers. "Right now, there is a grieving process going on in 44 elementary schools and four high schools."
Officials estimated about 1,700 teachers and 85 administrators would be displaced and have to reapply for positions in newly consolidated schools. Superintendent Mary Rochford estimated that about 300 teachers could be out of jobs once the dust has settled.
The planned closures are technically recommendations made by the archdiocese's Blue Ribbon Commission, a 16-member task force of church officials and laity created in December 2010 by Chaput's predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali.
Officials stressed at the time that the commission's goal was not necessarily to come up with a list of schools to close but to devise a comprehensive plan to ensure high-quality, affordable and accessible religious education.
On Friday, Chaput indicated that he would accept the commission's recommendations, barring any major factual errors in the group's 37-page report.
Catholic education nationwide has suffered for years from the double whammy of rising costs and dwindling enrollment, forcing tuition hikes that make the schools increasingly unaffordable.
In Philadelphia, the commission's analysis revealed that the average parish subsidy to schools had grown from $255,000 to $320,000 over the past 10 years. It also showed that elementary school tuition rates fell $1,500 short of the actual cost of educating each child.
Tuition varies among Catholic schools in Philadelphia, but the mean annual elementary tuition in the U.S. is $3,383, according to the National Catholic Education Association. The mean annual high school tuition is $8,787.
The commission's report also set forth strategies for sustaining the Catholic system for future generations. Philadelphia has the second-highest enrollment among dioceses nationwide, just behind Chicago, according to the education association.
The group called for the establishment of a philanthropic education foundation to help underwrite operations; for benefactors to consider sponsoring troubled schools; and for supporters to push for voucher legislation at the state Capitol.
"These recommendations are not about reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic," said commission member H. Edward Hanway. "Implemented well, these recommendations will fundamentally reposition our schools, making them academically stronger as well as financially more stable, better able to compete and grow – yes, grow – in the years ahead."
Chaput, who was just installed as archbishop a few months ago after Rigali retired, said he was told the commission's proposals could mean the archdiocese might go 10 to 15 years without more school closings.
He also stressed that Catholic school closings affect educational choices for families of all faiths. Especially in troubled urban neighborhoods, Catholic schools are often seen as a safer and more enriching alternative to failing public schools.
Mayor Michael Nutter issued a statement Friday that read in part: "Let's not forget that we are one city, and we're all in this together."
Theresa Keel, who has children at both a Catholic elementary and a high school in the Philadelphia suburbs of Montgomery County, described the day as very emotional even though her daughters' schools will stay open. She said students at Lansdale Catholic cried and prayed in school on Friday.
"As you can imagine, the relief is palpable when you hear it's not your school," Keel said. "But that's tempered by the knowledge that for many other people, it's their worst fear come true."
Some parents are especially upset their 11th-grade children won't get to graduate from schools they've spent years attending, Keel said. And students worry about beloved younger teachers who might lose their jobs to displaced colleagues with more seniority, she said.
"It's affecting everyone, even if your school is still there," Keel said.
Nationwide, Catholic schools have lost more than 587,000 students since 2000, according to the National Catholic Education Association. At least 1,750 schools have closed.
Associated Press writer Patrick Walters contributed to this report.
Blue Ribbon Commission report: www.faithinthefuture.com
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