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Four Philly-area Catholic high schools to stay open

After weeks of fevered fund-raising, rallies, and anxiety, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced Friday that thanks to millions of dollars in donations and pledges, all four archdiocesan high schools set to close in June would remain open.

After weeks of fevered fund-raising, rallies, and anxiety, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced Friday that thanks to millions of dollars in donations and pledges, all four archdiocesan high schools set to close in June would remain open.

The archbishop said "close to 20,000 financial donations have come in from everyday working lay people," and that an independent foundation would be established to raise $100 million in the next five years to help Catholic schools.

But he said their continued survival depended on the expansion of the state's educational tax credit program and the passage of voucher legislation in Harrisburg.

"The grassroots efforts to save these schools, coupled with the advocacy of legislators and the generosity of many who wish to make our schools healthy again, brought us to this innovative new model for Catholic secondary education," Chaput said at a news conference that drew several legislators and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley.

But students at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg, Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills, Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, and West Catholic who watched a live stream of the news conference only heard the first few sentences.

Whipsawed for weeks as they campaigned to "preserve Prendie" and "save Bonner," students and staff at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High School howled with delight at the news that their hilltop school in Upper Darby would remain open, reversing the decision to shutter it.

Chaput had hardly announced that the schools on the chopping block would survive when waves of foot-stomping, catcalls, and shrieks of joy drowned out the rest of his televised remarks.

At St. Hubert, all 700 students watching the live stream in the auditorium let out a piercing scream of joy, leaping from their seats, hugging one another and crying.

The students roared and loudly sang the school's alma mater as they left the auditorium, outside which many met their parents or called them immediately.

At Conwell-Egan, about 220 students who watched in the gym leaped to their feet, cheering and hugging. The streaming video of the announcement quickly switched to the song "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey.

Then the students streamed out of the gym to ring the bell in the friary.

By the time Cawley, an alumnus, shouted, "Conwell-Egan, we won!", his old gym was nearly empty.

Dawn Boyle of Secane, a 1991 Prendergast alumna, has two daughters at that school, 17-year-old junior Cierra and freshman Cassidy, 14. Four of their aunts graduated from Prendergast, two of her uncles from Bonner. Now her girls get to carry on the family tradition.

"The fact that Cierra gets to graduate [next year] makes my day," said a teary-eyed Boyle. "After the initial announcement that the school would close, [both] girls were devastated."

A sobbing Brianna Haley, 16, a junior, was supported by her friend Alyssa Aaron, 19, a Prendergast graduate who now attends St. Joseph's University.

Earlier Friday, in a Mass steeped in tradition, Haley and her fellow juniors had received their class rings - gold bands set with large, lustrous garnets. Haley then had no guarantee that she would be able to graduate from the school she loves. When she knew that she could, the tears fell like rain.

Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents the lay teachers at the archdiocesan high schools, said the reprieves would save at least 141 jobs.

"This is a great day for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," she said.

The schools had been in turmoil since Jan. 6, when a blue-ribbon commission recommended closing four of the 17 archdiocesan high schools as part of a plan to ensure the viability of Catholic education.

The schools were targeted based on a history of dropping enrollment, forecasts of continuing decline, and the costs of maintaining underused facilities.

The plans also included recommendations to shutter 45 Catholic elementary schools to create regional schools.

Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 34 percent in archdiocesan high schools and 38 percent in elementary schools.

A week ago, the archdiocese announced that Chaput had approved 18 of the 24 appeals filed by elementary schools challenging recommended closures and mergers.

The high school decisions had been expected at the same time. But Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees education, said they had been delayed about a week by recently received information about potential donors.

Although the presidents of all the targeted high schools had filed appeals, except for West, the school at 4501 Chestnut St. was saved, too.

A group of anonymous donors who emerged during the appeals process with an offer to provide millions to help save the high schools had asked for information about West as well.

Chaput acknowledged that given the commission's January recommendations, the news he delivered Friday was far different and more upbeat than he had expected.

"In the past week we have had wonderful new support for our schools coming forth from the business and philanthropic community," Chaput said. "These are major donors, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who respect the huge value of Catholic schools."

He thanked developer J. Brian O'Neill for organizing and leading the effort. The archbishop said the donors had asked to remain anonymous.

Chaput also thanked the commission members and archdiocesan staff who served on the appeals panels and heard the schools' presentations.

He said they had "done a heroic job of listening to the community, thinking creatively and working exhaustively - even until [Thursday] night."

H. Edward Hanway, a member of the commission and a former chairman and CEO of Cigna, will chair what is being called the Faith in the Future Foundation.

He said $12 million in donations and pledges had been raised toward a goal of $15 million by May 1.

"Today marks the dawn of a new era in Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Hanway told the gathering.

The total, he explained later, includes funds raised by individual schools in the last several weeks, including $5 million by Bonner-Prendergast and $1.3 million by St. Hubert.

"We are very focused on getting the cash in, and converted the pledges to cash," Hanway said, adding that the targeted $15 million would be used for operating funds and to cover the high school deficits.

In addition to raising funds, the foundation will help with marketing and advocating for legislation that would help families send their children to Catholic schools.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) pledged to continue to press for passage of vouchers and the expansion of a program that allows businesses to claim state tax credits for donating to scholarship programs for students at nonpublic schools.

"This is not just a joyous day," Williams said. "It is a miraculous day."

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Michael Matza, Shaj Mathew, and Bill Reed.