The Catholic School Merger Problem


Got this thoughtful letter from King of Prussia reader Ed Campbell, whose child attends a Philadelphia Archdiocesan elementary school. He wrote in response to my column today about the archdiocese' limiting the school-selection choices of families affected by the school closings and mergers slated for June.

Campbell's letter is on the long side, but he makes such compelling points I don't want to edit it. 

Here it is:

"I am a parent of a child who attends Mother of Divine Providence Catholic School in King of Prussia.   Our school has been 'saved”' from outright closure, but is scheduled to reopen next year under a new name and merged with students and families from Conshohocken Catholic.   Because we have been 'saved' I am supposed to be relieved.  The reality is that I struggle to make sense of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s proposal for Catholic elementary schools.  I am not alone.

"Looking closely at the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report, there is a consistent theme among the schools affected.  With few exceptions the schools affected are at or below 50% of their capacity, and on average, require substantial subsidies from their parish.  Looking at that broad picture, the decision to merge and consolidate schools is compelling and inescapable.  However the same cannot be said about which schools are actually merged together.  Those decisions, to many parents, are outright baffling. 

"There is an existing model for regional education that the Blue Ribbon Commission appears to have ignored completely, and that is our regional public school system.   Merging Catholic elementary schools in a way that roughly mirrors the geographic boundaries of our public school systems would provide efficiencies in busing, curriculum and scheduling.  More importantly, our public-school districts give shape to what many of us consider to be our broader communities.  To many families who will be displaced, moving to a school that is in close proximity and/or within the boundaries of their current school system would provide a sense that they are attending a school within their community.  Reordering our Catholic Schools along the geographical lines of our public school systems would also be consistent with the concept of 'school choice.'  If you elect not to send your child to your local public school, there would be a logical alternative located within your own public-school district. Keeping children in Catholic schools located within existing public- school district boundaries seems like a natural fit. 

"So why was that model ignored?  WEell, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia organizes itself into four administrative Regions (Episcopal Regions).  Each region is assigned an Auxiliary Bishop. Each Region is subdivided into multiple Deaneries.  Each Deanery is subdivided into a handful of Parish Planning Areas (“PPAs”).  Each PPA is comprised of 4-8 parishes.  Who knew?  In a world where Episcopal Regions, Deaneries and PPAs are relevant, the reorganization falls together very nicely…… 

"In that world, it makes sense to merge St. Philip Neri in East Greenville, Montgomery County, with schools in Quakertown, Bucks County, because they are in the same Deanery and PPA.  Or, consider the merger proposed between Conshohocken Catholic (Colonial School District) and Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia (Upper Merion School District), approximately 7 miles away.  Many children from Conshohocken are already migrating to Catholic schools in Plymouth and Lafayette Hill that are within the Colonial School District.  So it would seem to make sense to send children from Conshohocken to schools located within the same public-school district’s boundaries and where many are already migrating. 

"But if you live in the world of Deaneries, you don’t see the world that way. If you see the world as a Deanery, it makes much more sense to send children from Conshohocken to King of Prussia because they are in the same Deanery and PPA.  Similarly, no consideration is given to sending children from St. Theresa in Trooper to Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia (despite their close proximity) because they are in different Deaneries and PPAs.  

"The problem with all of that is obvious.  Episcopal Regions, Deaneries and PPA are irrelevant to most of us showing up in the pews on Sundays and making the sacrifices to send our children to Catholic Schools.  Those arbitrary divisions and territories do not give shape or meaning to our everyday lives.  Using them as a model to reorganize schools results in many merged schools that simply don’t make sense to us down here at the bottom of the ecclesiastical food-chain. 

"One concrete example of the impact of the Archdiocese’ choice policy:

"Conshohocken Catholic has about 200 kids.  They are supposed to go to Mother of Divine Providene  in King of Prussia. The Blue Ribbon Commissions' projection was that Mother of Divine Providence would get about 150-180 of the 200 kids from Conshohocken Catholic.   But the overwhelming majority of Conshohocken Catholic want to go to St. Philip Neri or Epiphany, which are closer and in same public-school district.   The current estimate is that only 35 from Conshohocken will go to Mother of Diviner Providence.  Many think that is wildly optimistic.  The rest will transfer to the pubil- school system. 

"And what about funding that Catholic Schools recieve?  Most programs are administered by school districts and counties.  To the extent that the new regional schools cross school district lines and/or counties, it makes access to the programs that are available much less efficient.

"The Blue Ribbon Commission sent out a survey early on its process.  The Commission knew that they had to close schools, yet they didn’t ask a very simple and fundamental question:  'If your local Catholic elementary school were to close, where would you most likely send your child to school?'  If that question had been asked, I predict that, overwhelmingly, parents would have expressed a desire to send their children to closer Catholic schools and Catholic schools within the public-school catchment area.  More importantly, the Blue Ribbon Commission would have had an invaluable source of information to guide them as they reorganized and regionalized our Catholic schools.   

"Sadly, the failure to ask that simple question, the failure to take into consideration preferences and tendencies of parents with children in Catholic schools and the failure to look at our public-school system’s geographic boundaries as a model will result in many new merged schools that are simply doomed to fail.  The Commission missed an opportunity to create truly sustainable newly merged Catholic schools. It is as if they are setting merged schools up to fail.

"My prayer is that our new Archbishop will have the courage to pause, step back, and look at the need to close and merge elementary schools without regard to Episcopal Regions and Deaneries and instead, look at what mergers might actually work."