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Staff writer Michael Matza reports from inside Bonner-Prendergast:
Death sentence … reprieve … jubilation!
Whipsawed for weeks as they campaigned to “preserve Prendie” and “save Bonner,” students and staff at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High School howled with delight Friday at the announcement that the hilltop school in Upper Darby would remain open, reversing the earlier decision to shutter it.
Archbishop Charles Chaput had barely announced that the four diocesan high schools on the chopping block would survive, when waves of foot-stomping, catcalls, and shrieks of joy drowned out the rest of his televised remarks.
Dawn Boyle, of Secane, a 1991 Prendie alumna, has two daughters at the school, 17-year-old junior Cierra, and freshman Cassidy, 14. Four of their aunts graduated from Prendergast; two of her uncles, from Bonner. Now Boyle’s girls get to carry on the family tradition.
“The fact that Cierra gets to graduate [next year] makes my day,” said a teary-eyed Boyle. “After the initial announcement that the school would close [both] girls were devastated.”
Sobbing uncontrollably, Brianna Haley, 16, a junior, was supported by her friend, Alyssa Aaron, 19, a Prendie grad who now attends St. Joseph’s University. On Friday, in a Mass steeped in tradition, Haley and her fellow juniors received their class rings _ gold bands set with large, lustrous garnets. Haley had no guarantee that she would be able to graduate from the school she loves. Now she knows that she can and the tears fell like rain.
Another happy parent was Amy Reynolds, of Drexel Hill, also a Prendie alumna. Her daughter Ali, 17, is a senior. But her younger daughter Emily is an eighth grader at Drexel Hill Middle School and was on pins and needles waiting to see if Prendie would be around for her to attend. Dressed in a Prendie sweatshirt, she snuck in (as if she were already enrolled) and took a seat ecstatically among her older sister’s friends.
Reynolds said the threat of closure had forced her to explore the possibility of other arrangements for Emily’s schooling, but now, gratefully, she can enroll her at Prendie.
“This changes everything,” said Reynolds. “I wish [the Archdiocese] had been able to give us a number, I wish they could have said that we’ll be around for like another 10 years. It is hard to trust them still. But I am very excited.”
About an hour before the announcement, Principal William Brannick had used the school’s public-address system to say that the news conference would be live-streamed into the Bonner auditorium at 3 p.m. At that point, with the school’s fate still unknown, you could hear a pin drop in the hallways.
“While it is after school, and the beginning of the weekend, seven weeks have been too long and to hard not to be able to get this news together as a community,” he said.
In the school’s administrative office, staff immediately called local politicians who had supported the campaign to invite them to the auditorium. Among those who came out were: state representatives, township council members, and Upper Darby Mayor Tom Micozzie.
The campaign to save the school included email blasts to 7,000 supporters, and postcards emblazoned “Every dollar counts” sent to 32,000 alumni.” Fifty volunteers made fundraising calls from home and from phone banks. In less than two months, the effort reportedly netted $5 million.
“We could not have stopped it if we tried,” said Kimberly Kelly, senior coordinator for stewardship. “People were knocking down our doors to give us money. That’s how important this was to them.”
Father James Olson, president of the school, told the students that going forward the girls from Prendie would move into the Bonner building and that the school would retain single-gender homerooms. Chestnut Hill College is slated to rent and offer some courses in the Prendie building. There is the possibility that high school students can earn credits there.
Currently, the high school has about 550 boys assigned to Bonner and 490 girls to Prendergast.
Adding to the carnival atmosphere Father Olson and principal Williams Brannick called to the stage a trio of costumed mascots: the Prendie Panda, the Bonner Friar, and a new addition, the Chestnut Hill College Griffin.
Throwing his arms in the air, Rocky-style, Father Olson crowed: “We’re here. We are going to stay here. And we’re going to be better than ever.”
Watching the grey plumed, winged Griffin cavort, a tearful Boyle said that to her it looks “more like an eagle, with angel wings.”
As the sun went down, students began placing electric candles in every window of the early 20th century Prendergast building. The only other time they do that is at Christmas.
“It looks so beautiful,” said student council president Jessica Borders, 17, and a senior.
Staff writers Kia Gregory and Bill Reed report from inside the high schools:
At West Catholic, Archbishop Chaput's press conference, watched via livestream was drowned out within seconds after the words "West Catholic" were uttered among those of the saved schools. Students cried, clapped, hugged and jumped up and down. Among the tearful was junior Haeley Horan, who has had three generation of family attend West Catholic. She had been walking around in a daze for the last few weeks, trying to process the prosepct of the school closing. "Oh my God, this is the best day of my life, I can stay at home, I can stay with my family," she said of her extended school clan.
At Conwell Egan, about 220 students, hushed for the announcement, leapt to their feet in the gym, cheering and hugging. The streaming video of the announcement 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 alum Lt Gov James Cawley announced, "Conwell Egan, we won," at the news conference, his old gym was nearly empty.
Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents the high school lay teachers, was jubilant when an Inquirer reporter told her that all four schools would remain open.
"If all remain open, I’m ecstatic!” Schwartz said. "I’m so happy for everybody who worked so hard to keep them open. And I thank the archbishop. He made the right decision. Now we have to keep these school open, and that means people have to work hard.”
Schwartz said 141 teachers and administrators would have been displaced if the four schools closed.
The schools had been in turmoil since Jan. 6 when a blue ribbon commission studying the viability of Catholic education in the region recommended closing St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg, Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills, Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, and West Catholic. All but West had appealed the recommendations.
The proposal to close four of the 17 archdiocesan high schools had been part of the commission’s recommendations for altering educational landscape to ensure the viability of Catholic education in the future.
All four high schools will be saved, sources say. A number of people have stepped up with gifts small and large to keep all the schools, including West Catholic, open for the forseeable future.
Financing is in place for at least the next several years, with a renewed push for vouchers to help keep the momentum going, sources say.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput will make a 3 p.m. announcement on the fate of four Catholic high schools. A blue ribbon commission had recommended closing West Catholic, St. Hubert, Conwell-Egan and Bonner-Prendergast High Schools; all but West Catholic had appealed.
Last week, news that potential financial benefactors had emerged with a plan to keep all four schools open surfaced. Chaput will announce his final decisions on the closures, the Archdiocese said in a statement.
The Archdiocese last week granted the appeals of 18 elementary schools that had been slated to close.
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