Saturday, July 12, 2014
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Conwell-Egan students ring victory bell for school's reprieve

Students, parents, faculty and alumni waited anxiously in the gym for the news, then erupted as they got the word via streaming video.

Conwell-Egan students ring victory bell for school's reprieve

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Senior-class president Emily Gilmour. (Bill Reed/Staff)

At Conwell-Egan High School, about 220 students, hushed in the gym Friday for the archdiocese’s announcement of their fate, leapt to their feet, cheering and hugging, at the news that the school will stay open.

The streaming video of the news conference quickly switched to the soundtrack of "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey. Then the students streamed out of the gym to ring the bell in the friary.

By the time alumnus Lt. Gov. James Cawley announced, "Conwell Egan, we won," at the Center City news conference, his old gym was nearly empty.

“This is the strongest spirit we’ve ever had,” senior-class president Emily Gilmour said as the “victory” bell rang and students, parents, faculty and alumni beamed in the parking lot. “I hope it keeps up.”

 One mother, Nancy Bill, was “very excited” for her sophomore son, Tyler.

“He’ll be driving 10 minutes to school next year instead of 50,” she said, referring to the commute he faced to attend Archbishop Wood High School. “He loves this school.”

Principal Kathleen Herpich said the next step is “to go out and get students to come to Conwell-Egan. They’re out there. Many have been waiting for the announcement. Even if they’ve registered at other schools, I think they’ll come back.”

The Fairless Hills school had been told to hold off on registering students pending the appeal of the archdiocese’s decision in January to close it and three other high schools. “Now, we can open up registration and host some 8th-grade visits, and see where we come out,” Herpich said.

This year’s enrollment is 570. “It will always be a small school – small schools are good for students,” the principal said. “I can see it reaching no more than 800 to 900, realistically. That could take a few years.”

Alumnus Steve Schweiker was more optimistic.

“We’re going to fill this place,” said Schweiker, class of 1985, recalling his days when 1,600 students filled the four grades.

How?

“Through a grassroots effort to provide a private-school education at an affordable price,” said Schweiker, the brother of former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker and four other Conwell-Egan graduates. “We’re going to create a meaningful endowment funded by alumni.”

Alumni have raised more than $3 million since January to keep the school open, alumni board member Chris Pinto said, “and more, substantial pledges are coming.”

“We need to engage the community in a much bigger way,” Pinto said. “We need to contact every single alumnus, who is successful because of this [school]. We want to bring them back.”

All day, the school was anxiously awaiting the 3 p.m. announcement. Cheryl Toby, Bishop Conwell class of 1980, dropped off her son, Jarrett, at 7:30 a.m. and couldn’t leave.

“It was something I had to do for my son,” she said, holding back tears as she waited for the announcement, refusing to believe news reports of the reprieve.

“It didn’t feel right walking into other schools,” Toby said about visiting places her son could transfer to for his senior year. “The teachers have been here so long – many have taught us, the parents.”

Cass Loveless, a 1961 graduate of the original Bishop Egan High School on Levittown Parkway, cited the Rev. Fidelis Weber. The priest was a teacher and assistant football coach at the co-ed school before it moved to today's Wistar Road site as a boy's school in the mid-1960s. He is still serving as a guidance counselor at the school that became Conwell-Egan in 1993. 

The school’s reprieve means many students won’t have to make tough choices about transferring, parents said.

“My 9th-grade son was facing a big decision,” said Lin Daniels, who also has a son set to graduate Conwell-Egan this year. “Wood was too far, and public school was not our first choice.”

Her younger son, Patrick, would have attended Neshaminy High School, Daniels said.

“This year, instead of worrying about where my senior son is going to college, I’ve been worrying about where my 9th-grader is going to school next year,” Daniels said.

Minutes later, Archbishop Chaput announced the good news, and those worries were over.

About this blog
Chris Palmer covers Bucks County for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His previous work has appeared in the New York Times and on several Times blogs, including City Room, the Local East Village and SchoolBook (which has since been taken over by WNYC). Contact him at cpalmer@phillynews.com, 610 313 8212 or on Twitter, @cs_palmer.

Ben Finley covers Bucks County for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He previously worked for The Associated Press, FactCheck.org and the Bucks County Courier Times, where he won more than a dozen journalism awards from organizations including the Education Writers Association, the Society for Features Journalism and the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio and graduated with honors from The Ohio State University with a degree in journalism. Contact him at bfinley@phillynews.com, 610-313-8118 or on Twitter, @Ben_Finley.

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