Phila. Archdiocese alters school closure plan

February 17, 2012 9:55:39 PM PST
After hearing appeals, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Friday that it was making changes to its school organization plan and that fewer school buildings in the five-county diocese would be shuttered.

CLICK HERE to read the changes to the list of schools from the archdiocese.

It was good news for many, but a tough day for a few, and the suspense continues for three Catholic high schools that appealed their fate. The Archdiocese says any decision to alter its Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations was given a great deal of consideration.

Schools that felt blindsided disagree.

The chants, signs and tears do not begin to describe the frustrations parents and students of Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic School are feeling.

"Nativity BVM we all know is the model of what a Catholic School should be, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is now destroying it," said Jeff Elefante. "All we want is to present our case. We want to be heard."

The 100 year old school in Media, Delaware County held a candlelight vigil with its church as a backdrop Friday night.

In January, the Blue Ribbon Commission decided to close nearby Saint John Chrysostom and have its students attend Nativity BVM.

But Saint John appealed and won, causing a switch that will now close Nativity BVM.

"This is no disrespect to Saint John's, but the point is we would like some answers, either from the Archdiocese or the pastor. We are looking for answers on what the next step is and what the direction is," said John Daly.

Parents say over the past five years, attendance has gone up 9%, and they have raised more than $1 million for the school that has meant so much to them.

"Because of Mrs. Johnston, our principal, because of Father Bell, our pastor, because of these kids, I and others have been brought back to our faith," said Tom Castaldi.

Students are confused because they thought they were safe.

"It's been really hard on me and my parents, because we're just trying to make a decision about what's right for me and my sister," said Sarah Liney.

"We're just so used to where we've been, I've already fell in love with my school and everything we've done," Stephen Furman said.

After their vigil, dozens marched from the church to the school where they prayed in front of the building they hope will be open past June.

The church also announced it was delaying decisions on appeals from four high schools slated for closure because new information has come forward about potential donors.

Last month, church officials announced plans to close 45 elementary schools and four high schools in response to rising costs and declining enrollment. But on Friday, church officials said they were revising the plan and that now 33 elementary school buildings are slated to close.

The planned closures are based on recommendations made by the archdiocese's Blue Ribbon Commission, a 16-member task force of church officials and laity created in December 2010.

Bishop Michael Fitzgerald said at a news conference that the church altered 18 of those recommendations after hearing 24 appeals, and that it was also trying to find money for more than a dozen elementary schools that could become "mission schools," which would operate with permanent sources of outside funding.

"The past six weeks have been a difficult period," Fitzgerald said, calling the outpouring of community support "clear evidence of the pride people have in their schools."

The changes now mean that 13,000 students will be affected by closures, down from 21,000 affected when the plans were announced last month, according to the archdiocese. The number of teachers affected decreased from 1,500 to 1,200.

While some schools celebrated on Friday, there was stunned silence at Saint John the Evangelist in Lower Makefield. The school had not been on the closure list - in fact, another school was supposed to close and students were supposed to go to Saint John. As it turns out, that school won its appeal.

Shocked parents learned of the school's fate on Thursday night.

"Basically blindsided completely - it was a done deal, we would be closing as of June," said parent Colleen Nawalinski.

Archdiocesan educators say Saint John's top staff were aware and parents should have been informed. However, one parish administrator today walked away from Action News on Friday declining to talk about the situation.

The decision on the four high schools was being delayed, church officials said, after news of potential donors came at the last minute. The diocese declined to say who the potential donors were or how much money was potentially involved.

Overall, the system's current enrollment of 68,000 students is the same number the archdiocese served in 1911 and represents a 35 percent drop in the student population since 2001. Smaller families, shifting demographics, an increase in charter schools and Catholic schools' rising tuition have combined to siphon off many students. The archdiocese already had closed 30 schools during the past five years, leaving 178 schools in the city and four surrounding counties.

Rita Schwartz, president of the local chapter of the Association of Catholic Teachers, said the delay in the decision on the four high schools made her "a little more hopeful." The union represents more than 700 high school teachers, including 129 in the four affected schools.

"I'm hoping that in the week's time that they have that they can do something to keep them all open," Schwartz said.