The Archdiocese of Philadelphia unveiled a sweeping plan Friday to address plummeting Catholic school enrollment that calls for closing four high schools and closing and merging 45 elementary schools in June, and restructuring Catholic education across the region.
"Today is the first day of the future," said John J. Quindlen, a retired senior vice president and chief financial officer of the DuPont Co. who chaired the blue-ribbon commission that spent 13 months examining the future of Catholic education.
At a news conference at the archdiocese's Center City headquarters, the 16 commission members and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said that although school closings are painful, they are a critical component of the comprehensive plan for ensuring that Catholic education remains viable.
"We cannot sustain unsustainable schools," Chaput said.
The announcement means that 28 percent of the archdiocese's 156 elementary schools will close and 24 percent of its 17 high schools. The closings will displace 1,700 teachers, some of whom will not find new jobs with the school system.
And while the 45 elementary schools will close, more than 80 will undergo changes as well, as students from the closed schools transfer to the new regional schools. The archdiocese said the moves would affect 20,993 elementary students.
The plan is aimed at addressing widening deficits at many of the schools - the annual average was $319,162, a 25 percent increase since 2001. The archdiocese and parishes have spent $751 million to support the schools. Quindlen estimated that the closings could save the archdiocese as much as $10 million a year.
At the news conference announcing the commission's findings, Mary Rochford, the superintendent of schools, said archdiocesan officials would meet throughout January with the affected schools to begin building bridges among them. The Office of Catholic Education, she said, hopes that new names will be selected for the schools and principals selected by March 25.
Parents, teachers, students, and alumni from the targeted schools reacted to the news with grief and anger.
At West Philadelphia Catholic, one of the four high schools that will be shuttered, students left the building sobbing and weak-kneed, holding onto one another for support, stunned that the rumors of closing had turned out to be true.
"My future, it's been taken from me," wept Brandi White, 17, a junior from Overbrook. "I won't get this education anywhere else."
At Conwell Egan in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, junior Miranda Mowery, 17, said administrators had delivered the sad news to students Friday after they were called to the auditorium around noon.
"Everyone just cried and cried," she said. "Some people were screaming. It was chaos."
Friday's release of the commission's findings capped a week of anxiety and fear that gripped all the schools in the archdiocese. Rumors had been rampant for weeks about which schools might close. Administrators learned what was in store for their schools at a closed-door meeting at Neumann University on Friday morning.
"It was a very sad meeting," said Rita Schwartz, president of the high school teachers' union, who attended the session.
School administrators then returned to their buildings shortly after noon to inform students and staff.
For some, such as Hollie McDonald, who has been involved in raising funds to help St. Veronica in North Philadelphia, the news came as sweet relief.
"St. V's survives!" McDonald wrote in an e-mail. "They are so happy yet sad for the other schools."
Parents at some of the targeted parish schools said that because their schools had followed half-day schedules Friday, they had to break the news to their children.
A.J. Thomson said he left work early to go to his home in Fishtown to tell his daughter, Julia, a first grader at St. Laurentius in Fishtown, that her school would be closing.
"We just told her," Thomson said Friday afternoon. "She doesn't understand. She put her head in my lap."
As is the case with a majority of the elementary schools being closed, St. Laurentius will combine with another one nearby - St. Peter the Apostle on Girard Avenue. The new school will decide on a new name.
Thomson, who is on his school's development committee, stopped by St. Laurentius on his way home.
"I walked in, and everybody was crying," he said.
While some schools will close, others will be uprooted.
Picking up her son outside St. William Elementary School in Lawncrest, Arnette Green called on a higher power.
"Oh, God!" she exclaimed, after learning that the school, which she had been drawn to since her son was a toddler, would be merging and moving to St. Cecilia's in Fox Chase. Her son, William, is now a first grader at the school that shares his name and sits at the corner of Robbins Street and Rising Sun Avenue.
"I love this school," Green said. She loved the small class sizes and the racial diversity of the students. "And what about the teachers? There won't be jobs for everyone. And he has separation anxiety. Oh, God."
Another overwhelmed parent, standing with her daughter, who wore a navy plaid uniform, had a basic question: "Where is St. Cecilia's?"
At St. Cecilia's, 21/2 miles away on Rhawn Street, green flags tout the school's 100-year anniversary as a "faith community," marked last year.
Although schools will be closed in the suburbs, most of the targeted schools are in Philadelphia. The city will lose not only West Catholic, but St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg, and 33 elementary schools will close to form 14 regional schools.
Mayor Nutter said in a statement that he had talked with Chaput about the announcement, "and I look forward to working with him to ensure that all young people, whether students in parochial or public schools, receive high-quality educations. Economic recession and demographic change have affected any number of institutions in far-reaching ways. It's certainly true for the City of Philadelphia. It's true for the Philadelphia School District, and now the archdiocese faces some very tough decisions."
The School District said it did not expect to feel much impact from the closings. Historically, students displaced from a Catholic school go to other Catholic schools and charter schools before they come to district schools, said Danielle Floyd, deputy for strategic initiatives.
Catholic schools that are closing tend to be in areas with declining populations, Floyd said: "If their schools had excess capacity, more than likely so do ours." The district is in the midst of its own school-closing process to deal with a surplus of 70,000 seats.
In a letter sent to families Friday, Chaput wrote: "Today is a challenging day for all of us with news of the plan to restructure our schools. This plan requires many of our schools throughout the diocese to partner, regionalize, or close in order to fortify and renew Catholic education in our archdiocese. Please be sure of my understanding and support in what may come as difficult news for your family. I'm very grateful for your commitment to Catholic education, especially as we plan for the future."
He said the commission had "provided a blueprint not only to stabilize Catholic education in our archdiocese, but to reinvigorate it."
He said the restructuring plan called for creation of advisory panels that would provide "greater oversight and effectiveness to the management of the schools."
And, the archbishop said, parents' meetings would be held at the elementary and high schools that were partnering or becoming regional "to discuss the next steps."
Chaput said that while he trusted the commission's recommendations, schools that believe they were targeted by mistake could ask for further information from the Office of Catholic Education. He will listen if their concerns are made known, but schools should bring issues to him before March 25.
The fate of the buildings that house the schools is unknown. Chaput said pastors and parish finance councils would decide what happens to shuttered elementary schools. The archdiocese owns the high school buildings. The commission has recommended that at least some of the money be used to support Catholic education if the structures are sold.
The commission's report also calls for the creation of a foundation to raise money for the schools, and for the establishment of an office within the education office that would advocate for vouchers and other government aid to help Catholic schools.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, Chaput's predecessor, established the commission in December 2010 to take a comprehensive look at Catholic education and recommend a plan to address plummeting enrollment and ensure a strong future for Catholic schooling.
The archdiocese has 49,177 students in elementary schools, 15,172 students at high schools, and 212 students at special-education schools.
Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 38 percent in the elementary schools and the 34 percent in high schools. And there are fewer schools to attend. A decade ago there were 214 elementary and 22 high schools.
The commission's report is available at www.faithinthefuture.com
Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Jeff Gammage, Alfred Lubrano, Kia Gregory, Kathy Boccella, and Allison Steele.