By H. Edward Hanway
and Samuel Casey Carter
Five years ago, a commission studying the state of the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia put forth a dire report. Questions of funding, enrollment challenges, and long-term sustainability defined the commission's lengthy report. Ultimately, it was announced that 45 of the 156 elementary schools would either close or merge with others. Four high schools were also slated for closure.
Plain and simple, Catholic schools in the Philadelphia region were in trouble, and this study shined a light on many issues. It startled the community to action. Spurred by business and civic leaders coming together - and many pledging millions of dollars to stabilize the system - many schools were saved from closing.
While fund-raising certainly helped, the faith and wisdom of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was equally important. He recognized the passion of lay leaders - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - for these schools and he empowered them to take action.
Yet, after the dust settled in spring of 2012, questions remained about whether such financial support could be maintained, even one year later, let alone five years.
Today, many of those questions have been answered thanks to the efforts of key partners, including elected officials who have increased Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC) funding in the commonwealth and established the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). These programs, coupled with ongoing fund-raising and creative leadership, have seen Catholic schools not just saved but growing once again.
The transformation has been remarkable.
Our Mother of Consolation, was slated to close in 2012. It was saved and in 2015 the U.S. Department of Education named it a National Blue Ribbon School. Enrollment is up and the preschool now has a waiting list. Likewise, venerable West Catholic was set to close in 2012. Enrollment had dropped to 248 students, down from a high of more than 900. Five years later, it has been reborn as West Catholic Preparatory High School. Creating a new partnership with Drexel University, the school has added an engineering and technology academy. Its board of directors has helped to boost fund-raising, cultivating a $5 million gift in 2016, and its enrollment has increased to 410 students.
These are just two examples of schools that have found a path forward. And they are not alone. Today, enrollment has stabilized and we are now focused on growing across the system. Instead of losing $6 million a year, Catholic schools now have a modest surplus that is being reinvested to make further improvements to curriculum and physical plant. Fund-raising at the school level has increased from $12.6 million in 2012 to $19.4 million in 2016.
By working together, a dismal situation became a win-win for Catholic schools, their students, and the surrounding neighborhoods. Rallying around these schools has been good for the city and expanded educational opportunities to many families who could not afford to attend the Catholic schools.
Of the Catholic high school graduates in Philadelphia last year, 93 percent went on to two- or four-year colleges, far surpassing the rate of public school graduates. More than 55 percent of Catholic school graduates were awarded at least one scholarship. Three graduates were named Gates Millennial Scholars, which reduces the financial barriers to attending college while also providing scholarships for the pursuit of more advanced degrees.
There are broader benefits to society as well. Studies show Catholic high school graduates are more likely to vote, according to a study by Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University. Catholic school graduates also tend to be more tolerant of diverse views, more committed to service, and more civically engaged.
As schools look to grow, leaders can now use critical resources to invest in the future rather than manage decline. When Catholic schools are strong, so are our neighborhoods and our city. They aren't just a benefit to students - they benefit the entire community, in big and small ways.
Great strides have been made in five years but there is more to be accomplished. While we have established the foundation for long-term success, our focus must now turn to generating more support for efforts like EITC and OSTC, and identifying new ways to help local families gain access to better schools.
As it was a community effort in 2012 that saved these schools, our future will be determined by that same, if not greater, effort.