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Catholic school year of transition

Officials say current enrollment numbers show promising trends.

Janet Dollard was a few months into her first year as president of Conwell-Egan High School in Fairless Hills when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in January it planned to close the school as part of a broad restructuring of Catholic education.

Ultimately, Conwell-Egan and three other endangered high schools were saved, a foundation was established to manage them, and Dollard's school now has one of its largest freshman classes in years.

"It was a whirlwind, really," Dollard recalled in a recent interview. "This is the most exciting year in Conwell-Egan's history. There's an energy level in the building with the teachers, the kids, the alumni. We're much farther along the trajectory than we had anticipated in our wildest dreams."

As the archdiocese approaches next Sunday's anniversary of the massive school closing announcement, educators, alumni, parents, and students reflected on the upheaval and reform that have rippled across the five counties this year.

Dozens of Catholic elementary schools were closed or consolidated, and a plan was devised to preserve many parish schools in poor areas.

The archdiocese also joined the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, a collaborative effort with the Philadelphia School District and charter schools that aims to add 50,000 seats in high-performing city schools within five years.

"I can't even imagine how much has happened and all the changes that have occurred," said Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents lay teachers at archdiocesan high schools.

The turmoil began when Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced a blue-ribbon panel had recommended closing 45 of the 156 elementary schools and four of the 17 high schools to stem deficits and plunging enrollment.

The panel, which was created by Chaput's predecessor, said such drastic action was needed to strengthen Catholic education in the face of a 38 percent drop in elementary enrollment since 2001 and a 34 percent decline at the high schools.

The commission also urged the archdiocese to consolidate struggling parish schools to create regional schools and set up a foundation to raise money.

Most targeted schools mounted appeals. In the end, 34 fewer Catholic elementary schools opened in September. Many of the 122 that remained became regional schools with their own lay boards.

All the high schools set to close were spared when Chaput announced in late February that businesses and supporters had pledged millions to keep them open and that the Faith in the Future Foundation was being created to raise $100 million over the next five years.

Ian Wanjek, a junior at Conwell-Egan at the time, remembers the euphoria that erupted when students watching Chaput's live news conference learned their school was being spared.

"We were just thrilled," said Wanjek, 17, an athlete and student leader. "We ran outside and rang the victory bell. It wasn't just a few kids. The entire school came out."

As soon as the cheers died down, schools rushed to recruit students. But overall enrollment still fell 7.6 percent - slipping from 64,452 in 2011-12 to 59,510 this fall.

Both the foundation and the archdiocese declined to provide individual school enrollment figures "at this time."

However, officials said that in the current enrollment numbers they saw promising trends.

"There's a positive, upward trajectory," said H. Edward Hanway, former CEO of Cigna who is chairman of the Faith in the Future Foundation, which took over management of the archdiocesan high schools and four special-education schools Sept. 1.

He said that despite the declines, for the first time since 2000, high school enrollment exceeded projections by 3 percent.

"We're pleased with the enrollment picture for the high schools this year," he said, "because we have seen good, relative strength in their freshman classes. They're the largest in a while."

Hanway said increasing the ninth-grade pipeline should help boost overall enrollment as students advance up the ranks.

Samuel Casey Carter, who became the foundation's chief executive in October, agreed.

"They have already turned the tide and have the largest ninth grade across our system in a decade," he said, adding that the increases were especially notable at three of the four high schools that had been slated to close.

Freshman enrollment at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg increased by 26 percent. Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill rose by 30 percent, and Conwell-Egan's ninth-grade enrollment is up 51 percent.

At West Catholic - the only endangered high school that did not file a formal appeal - the numbers were more sobering. Only 51 ninth graders are enrolled, and the schoolwide population totals 248.

But West was without a president for several months after Brother Tim Ahern resigned Feb. 9, saying the atmosphere at the school had become "untenable."

Brother Richard Kestler, who had been West's president from 1999 to 2005, returned July 1, after serving as president of La Salle Catholic High School in Wyndmoor.

Kestler said he was using strategies he learned at that private Catholic boys' school. The school is now emphasizing its music program and strengthening the rigor of its academic program. Kestler said he would add a second admissions staffer next month as the school aims to nearly triple the ninth-grade enrollment next fall and to have total enrollment reach 500 students in four years.

"I'm hoping to demonstrate . . . that we are a vibrant institution and deserve the opportunity to move forward," he said. "It's not the same old West Catholic they're used to."

At Conwell-Egan, Dollard said the freshman class had 138 students. The archdiocese had predicted 85 would enroll.

"We're thrilled," she said, adding that she was confident her school could reach its target of at least 175 ninth graders next fall.

Students said last year's closing scare had made classmates closer and mobilized them to become recruiters. They're visiting parish schools and participating in open houses.

"I think it's very important," said senior Sabrina Gramiak, 18, an athlete and editor of the school newspaper, who is helping with visits.

Schwartz, who heads the high school teachers' union, is ecstatic about the improvements at the schools but has questions about the Faith in the Future Foundation.

She has not seen the agreement Chaput and the foundation signed about the management of the high schools, and foundation officials have not met with the union that represents the 700 lay teachers.

"I'm very concerned going into the new year," Schwartz said, "because I don't know what the game plan is."

Hanway and Carter said that in late January, the foundation expected to present its plan for expanding and enhancing Catholic schools over the next three years.

In the lower grades, some students whose elementary schools closed switched to their local public schools or charters. The majority transferred to other Catholic schools.

Christine Bischoff said that after the initial sadness over the closing of St. Bridget's in East Falls, her children settled in at Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill.

She said Ben, 8, and Jake, 5, were thrilled to find many former classmates at their new school.

"It's been a nice transition," Bischoff said. "They love it."

Steps already have been taken to shore up the finances at 16 elementary schools in poor neighborhoods that were designated "mission schools" - 15 in the city and St. Cyril of Alexandria in East Lansdowne.

Brian McElwee, president of Valley Forge Investment Corp., is chairman of the board of the nonprofit Independence Mission Schools.

He said the 16 schools would become a network of independent Catholic elementary schools with individual boards that will help them marshal financial resources to serve low-income communities.

The concept is based on the successful model of St. Martin de Porres in North Philadelphia, which has increased enrollment, stabilized finances, and added programs.

The Independence Mission Schools board has a goal of raising an endowment of $55 million over the next four years.

McElwee said the system was creating a central office for the network. A president and chief financial officer will begin working full time in January.

at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@