Archbishop Charles Chaput announced the agreement with Independence Mission Schools at a ceremonial signing event at St. Gabriel School in south Philadelphia. St. Gabriel is among 13 schools in the city under new management; the 14th is in East Lansdowne in suburban Delaware County.
The cash-strapped parishes that previously operated the schools have been unable to keep up with rising costs, church officials said. Independence Mission Schools seeks to centralize business operations, grow enrollment and increase scholarship money for the K-8 buildings, which serve about 4,100 low-income students.
"It's keeping Catholic education available in the neediest areas," said Jacqueline Coccia, superintendent of elementary education for the archdiocese.
The arrangement echoes the deal struck last year for the locally based Faith in the Future Foundation to manage the church's 17 high schools and four special education schools. That move came after an archdiocesan commission recommended closing dozens of schools because of rising costs and dwindling enrollment; four high schools were spared because of the new management.
The pool of students for Catholic schools has eroded in part because of tuition increases, shifting demographics and a rise in charter schools. But in many poor neighborhoods, parochial education is seen as a haven from public schools that many parents consider less safe and academically inferior.
Tuition costs, which average between $3,000 and $4,000 a year, are often heavily subsidized to allow low-income students to attend. However, such financial aid has become increasingly untenable.
Officials at Wayne-based Independence Mission Schools believe they can make the schools more affordable and sustainable because of their successful work with the once-struggling St. Martin de Porres school.
In 2011, the archdiocese allowed a group of benefactors - mostly well-connected business leaders from the suburbs - to essentially adopt the school in gritty north Philadelphia. An independent board began managing the school's finances, growing its endowment, increasing enrollment and seeking extra resources.
The financial and academic results were impressive enough that group members suggested scaling up the operation to include 13 other schools, some of which were slated for closure, said Brian McElwee, chairman of Independence Mission Schools.
"The fact that we had done one prototype gave everybody the confidence that this can work," McElwee said.
The organization has been working with the 14 chosen schools for the past few months and officially took over July 1. Already, enrollment has already grown from about 3,800 students last year to an expected 4,100 when school opens this fall, McElwee said.
The goal is to grow enrollment to 5,000 within three years, said McElwee. Managers are also seeking to drive more scholarship money into the schools, both through philanthropy and state education tax credits.
Officials insist the schools will retain their religious identity. All educational, religious and professional resources provided to the other 109 parish schools in the archdiocese will be available to the new mission schools, Coccia said.
The church revealed this month that it is recovering from a staggering $39 million deficit. The figure has recently been reduced to under $5 million, excluding one-time costs and depreciation, but officials are still working to erase the red ink.
Independence Mission Schools: www.independencemissionschools.org
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