Atlantic Cities

Philadelphia Is Ground Zero in the Fight to Save Catholic Schools

Last winter, St. Huberts Catholic High School for Girls needed a minor miracle. The school was desperate to raise $15,000 to send its robotics team to a championship-round competition in St. Louis.

In the not-so old days, students would have asked their friends and relatives for money, maybe posted a plea on their Facebook page. Not this time.

Instead, the school ran a sophisticated crowd-sourced donation campaign, hitting their target in just seven days. That success came courtesy an independent organization called the Faith in the Future Foundation, says St. Huberts' development director, Robin Nolan. The foundation's two fundraising experts quickly helped Nolan craft a strategy and locate the right tools (in this case, the Give2Gether website).

"We only really know our little corner of Philadelphia," Nolan says. "The experts [at Faith in the Future] have ideas from around the city and around the country. They bring ideas to us, and I can bounce my own thoughts off them."

Faith in the Future is the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's unprecedented response to its education crisis. In 2011, Philadelphia's Catholic school system had reached a breaking point. Enrollment was down 38 percent in its elementary schools and 34 percent at the high schools; all together, the schools had run up a $6 million deficit.

Church leaders considered trying to stem the losses by shuttering 45 out of 156 elementary schools and four of 17 high schools.

Instead, they opted to try something no one has ever done before.

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From the beginning, Faith in the Future had two main goals as it set about becoming the first private organization to run a Catholic school system (its portfolio includes 16,000 students at 17 high schools and four special education schools): instigate a "metrics-driven management structure" and raise $100 million. It set about meeting that first goal immediately, first by centralizing many of the high schools' administrative functions. CEO Samuel Casey Carter, an "education manager" and consultant who speaks almost exclusively in business jargon, likened it to the streamlining a company would do after consultants move through.

The foundation also tried to ease the burden of Catholic school tuition by offering 125 $2,000-a-year scholarships for high school freshmen. (The average Philadelphia Catholic high school costs about $6,000 a year). Because the archdiocese set up Faith in the Future as an independent foundation, scholarship recipients were still eligible to receive state education vouchers.

But the ultimate goal, Casey says, is to help each school develop a unique brand. In St. Hubert's case, that's meant playing up the school's successful athletics program and sky-high college acceptance rate (99 percent of 12th graders are admitted to some type of post-secondary school).

"To be honest, I don't think we've changed our recruiting strategy," Nolan says. "But enrollment is way up now. I think it's because parents aren't worried about their kids' schools closing at the end of every year."

If Faith in the Future succeeds, it will be hailed as Catholic education's savoir. (Since 2000, 2,000 Catholic schools have closed across the U.S.) Early evidence offer some reasons for hope. In just a year, the foundation has trimmed the school system's deficit down to manageable $500,000. And though it has yet to fully rebound, enrollment is indeed 3 percent higher than initially projected.

First Things, a national Catholic magazine, and religious education expert Sean Kennedy cite Faith in the Future as a model that should be replicated across the country. That, Carter says, is precisely the idea.

But to claim real victory, Faith in the Future will have to prove that it can stave off growing competition from public charter schools. If you lump them all together, last year charter schools technically surpassed the Catholic Church as the nation's second largest school system, with over 2.1 million students and growing.

And charters are not just rising up alongside of Catholic schools -- they're taking a gigantic bite out of their potential pupils.

Sister Kathleen Touey, principal at St. Matthews Elementary School in Philadelphia, says that in the past, every one of her graduates would go on to a Catholic high school. Now, a handful are choosing charters instead. "Parents just can't afford it," she says.

Carter isn't blind to this problem. But he believes that the right combination of scholarships and branding will woo families back.

Others aren't so sure. In an expansive Philadelphia Magazine piece last month, Philadelphia Catholic school alum Michael Callahan wondered whether Faith in the Future was making a mistake by focusing on high school recruitment, rather than investing in the schools' best feeder system -- Catholic elementary schools. He writes:

But the truth is, while O’Neill, Carter & Co. are raising both cash and the profile of the local Catholic high schools, the parochial grammar schools—the main feeders for those high schools—have been left to their own devices, with the Joan Stulzes of the archdiocese working feverishly just to keep the lights on and the erasers stocked. Faith in the Future often provides counsel to parish schools like Resso, but it holds no authority to enforce any of its recommendations; how the grammar schools are run lies where it has always lain, with the parish pastors. And as the bludgeoning headlines about the archdiocese’s sex scandals attest, we all know how good they’ve been at managing their fiefdoms these past few decades. And how open they are to advice on how to do it.

It's an interesting argument. But Touey sees it as a specious one. Her school, she says, is thriving -- though enrollment is down from its 1,350 peak, it's now holding steady at 950. St. Matthews is subsidized by its partner church, and a large proportion of parishioners send their children. "People move to this neighborhood to attend this school," she says. "We have tremendous community support." 

It's obvious that Catholic schools are only going to get parents and students to believe in them again when they believe in themselves. The only real lesson we can draw so far from Faith in the Future and schools like St. Matthews may be that dioceses across the country need to back up that faith with aggressive investment and ambitious, workable plans.

Top image: Cynthia Farmer/Shutterstock.com

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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