Archbishop Charles J. Chaput signed documents Monday designating 14 former parish elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods as Catholic "mission schools" operated by an independent network.

"I'm very, very proud of our mission schools," Chaput said moments before he signed an agreement turning them over to Independence Mission Schools during ceremonies at St. Gabriel School in Grays Ferry.

Amid the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's financial problems, Chaput said, the change will ensure that the schools continue to provide a Catholic education to children in the city's neediest neighborhoods.

"A group of laymen have come to the rescue of these schools," he said.

"After you visit all those schools, it is clear they are sanctuaries in those neighborhoods," Al Cavalli, president of the nonprofit Independence Mission Schools, said last week.

The ceremony was the latest development in the overhaul of education in the five-county archdiocese following recommendations of a blue ribbon commission in early 2012.

The 14 schools enroll approximately 4,200 students from prekindergarten through eighth grade. Sixty-three percent of the students are not Catholic. All but one of the schools - St. Cyril of Alexandria in East Lansdowne - are in Philadelphia.

The mission concept is based on the successful model of the St. Martin de Porres School in North Philadelphia, which has increased enrollment, stabilized finances, and added programs since it became independent nearly three years ago.

Officials said that despite the management change, parents and students won't notice many differences when they return to the new mission schools in September.

"I don't think there will be any change, except there will be more students, which is a very remarkable and noticeable change from everyone's point of view," Chaput said.

"I don't think they will see anything that's different," said Brian McElwee, the mission schools' chairman. "I think what they will see is gradual change over time."

Teachers and other staffers will be back, he said. The schools will continue to receive some services from the archdiocese's Office of Catholic Education and will use its core curriculum. But the mission schools may choose to supplement that program.

A dozen schools have obtained accreditation for their academic programs from the Middle States Association's Commission on Elementary Schools. McElwee said the other two schools are poised to be accredited in the fall.

In preparation for assuming control of the schools this month, Cavalli and Anne McGoldrick, chief financial officer, met with parents and staff and assisted with schools' marketing and enrollment.

While the 14 schools had a 6 percent decline enrollment overall last fall, they are on track to see a 9 percent increase for the 2013-14 academic year. McElwee said it was the first rise in enrollment at the schools since 2006.

The archdiocese embraced the mission model last year as part of a broad restructuring of Catholic education that included closing and consolidating dozens of elementary schools across the region. The goal of the changes was to reverse declining enrollment and shore up the schools' finances.

Monday's signing marked the first time the archdiocese has turned over a group of parish schools to a private organization. Last summer, in a similar move, the archdiocese handed over 17 archdiocesan high schools and three special-education schools to the independent Faith in the Future Foundation.

Since Catholic school supporters and business officials established Independence Mission Schools in 2012, they have raised $1 million from contributions and are working to establish an endowment to support the schools.

The schools are developing individual boards, but the network will be overseen by Independence Mission Schools' board.

Cavalli and McElwee said one of the objectives is to be able to assist the schools with management, recruiting, and finances. McElwee said the idea was to spread the cost of the network's small office across the schools and to put in place professional business management services.

McGoldrick said tuition at the mission schools ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 per child. Between 65 percent and 70 percent of the students are set to receive financial aid from such organizations as Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia and Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS).

A large share of the money comes from Pennsylvania programs that give businesses state tax credits for contributing to approved scholarship programs.

"We are . . . grateful to the State of Pennsylvania for making it possible, because without it," Chaput said, "I don't think our schools would have as much a chance for success as they do now."

Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or