49 Philly-area Catholic schools to close or merge

January 15, 2012 3:13:56 PM PST
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to close four Roman Catholic high schools and close or combine 44 elementary schools due to rising costs and low enrollment, officials said Friday.

The archdiocese will close four high schools in June: Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Pendergrast, which share a campus in Drexel Hill, Delaware County; Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, and two Philadelphia high schools, West Catholic and St. Hubert.

Dozens of other schools are recommended to be part of a consolidation plan.

Parishes will be able to appeal the closings, but they must be able to present compelling evidence of something overlooked. It will take a lot more than just a petition drive, officials said.

They have until March, and then the list will be implemented.

RELATED: List of Catholic schools targeted for closure, consolidation

The recommendations by an archdiocesan task force stem from a yearlong analysis of the struggling Catholic education system, which includes 178 schools in the city and four suburban counties.

"We can no longer avoid dealing with enrollment and financial realities that have been building in our schools for many years," Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a statement released at an afternoon news conference. "The restructuring proposed in the commission's report is a critical first step in renewing the health of our Catholic education ministry."

The closings come on top of 30 other schools shut over the past five years as higher tuition, shifting demographics and an increase in charter schools have siphoned off students. Current enrollment stands at about 68,000 students, a 35 percent drop since 2001.

Officials also estimate that 1,700 teachers will be displaced and have to reapply for jobs in newly consolidated schools.

The 16-member Blue Ribbon Commission of church officials and laity was created in December 2010 by Cardinal Justin Rigali - then head of the archdiocese - and charged with examining the sustainability of local Catholic schools.

Officials stressed at the time that the goal was not necessarily to come up with a list of schools to close, but to devise a comprehensive plan to ensure high-quality, affordable and accessible religious education.

But commission members released an update in August warning that shifting demographics threatened the system in its current form.

Church officials say parish subsidies to the schools have increased by 25 percent in the past 10 years.

"While the restructuring of our schools was necessary to ensure their future, our plan is much broader," said John Quindlen, the commission's chairman. "This plan is designed to develop stronger schools that are better positioned to deliver the high quality education that parents want and students need in order to compete in the 21st century."

Catholic education nationwide has suffered for years from the double whammy of rising costs and dwindling enrollment, forcing tuition hikes that make the schools increasingly unaffordable.

Nationwide, Catholic schools have lost more than 587,000 students since 2000, according to the National Catholic Education Association. At least 1,750 schools have closed.