Catholic schools in Philly archdiocese rebound in a transformed landscape

Teacher Theresa McGill, left, works with student Malik Bonney, right, at West Catholic Preparatory School, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Philadelphia.

 When a blue ribbon commission recommended closing four Catholic high schools and dozens of parish elementaries because of declining enrollment and rising debt five years ago, few schools seemed more vulnerable than West Catholic.

The high school had been a stalwart in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for decades, but enrollment had plummeted in 2012 to 248 students. Its imposing building at 4501 Chestnut St. had once held 900 students. The situation was so dire that West Catholic was the only targeted high school where the president did not file an appeal to remain open.

Fast forward five years. The school has been reborn as West Catholic Preparatory, and it illustrates how the educational landscape  in  the  archdiocese has been transformed.

West’s enrollment has rebounded to 410 students. Working with Drexel University, the school has added an engineering technology academy. It also has expanded arts and music programs, boosted fundraising and established its own board. And as West marks its centennial, it’s envisioning the next century.

"Now we’re at the point where the conversation is not just about fundraising and enrollment,” said Paul Colistra, who joined West Catholic’s administration in 2012 and became president in July. “Those two items always have to be present in the conversation about Catholic education, but I think for too long we allowed those two topics to dominate."

Now,  he said, West can focus on academics.

Colistra and others credit Brother Richard Kestler with West’s revival. Kestler left the presidency of the private LaSalle College High School in July 2012 to lead West for a third time. When he retired last summer, he was succeeded by Colistra, who had followed him from the boys’ school in Wyndmoor.

But in early 2012, the prospects for West and for Catholic schooling across the five-county archdiocese seemed bleak.

After spending a year studying how to ensure Catholic education in the archdiocese could survive,  the commission issued a report that recommended closing 45 of the 156 Catholic elementary schools and merging others; closing four of 17 high schools and creating a foundation to raise money for them.

When the dust settled in late February that year, many elementary schools were saved. West and the other imperiled high schools stayed open after business leaders pledged millions to create the Faith in the Future Foundation. The independent body was charged with implementing business practices and managing the high schools and four special-education schools.

And the Independence Mission Schools network was set up to oversee 15 endangered elementary schools in inner-city neighborhoods. 

“I see a system of schools that is 100 percent stronger than we were five years ago,” said Christopher Mominey, chief operating officer and secretary for Catholic education. “I think we are pretty well stabilized.”

Sister Maureen L. McDermott, superintendent for secondary schools, said the increased attention Catholic schools received and the emotional support the report triggered helped save them.

“I think the commission, along with looking at the financials, made people realize how much they valued Catholic schools,” said McDermott.“There was a real outpouring, not only from the people who attended and their families, but from business people who were not Catholic but valued what Catholic education had been able to do.”

H. Edward Hanway, the former  CEO of Cigna Corp. who chairs the Faith in the Future board, said both enrollment and finances have improved.

High school enrollment is still decreasing, but the rate has moderated. The current total of 12,947 students - down by 422 students from last year -  is better than the 12,173 projected a few years ago.

“We want to grow the enrollment, and we are working hard to do that,” he said.

The high schools have increased the number of foreign students and bumped up their share of  graduates recruited from  Catholic elementary schools.

The foundation has boosted annual fundraising from $11 million to $20.8 million, which helps defray tuition, which averages about $7,800. When aid is factored in, most families paid $5,525 per student last year. Nearly 29 percent of the money  raised is for scholarships funded by businesses that receive state tax credits for their contributions.

As enrollment steadied, operating deficits the commission forecast have not materialized.

“We were able to very quickly eliminate the potential for deficits,” Hanway said. “And over the last couple of years, we have generated a very modest surplus.”

The high schools have improved technology, expanded course offerings and underscored their identities as Catholic  institutions. Each also established a board to set goals and create business plans.

Faith in the Future’s management of the high schools and special education schools has been so successful the contract with the archdiocese was extended last year to 2022.

The mission  model also has been effective.

The  money those 15 inner-city schools raised for scholarships mushroomed from $1.8 million in 2012 to $10 million, and enrollment has grown from 3,800 to 4,865.

The mission network has provided teacher training, enhanced academics and made investments in technology and capital improvements, including a new building for St. Malachy in North Philadelphia.

“I’m thrilled that our financial model...works to make the schools accessible to the kids who need it,” said Anne McGoldrick, president of  Independence Mission Schools.

Mission students come from low-income families. McGoldrick said most families pay about $2,000 of the $4,500 tuition and receive aid for the rest.

Since 2012, only three Catholic elementary schools have closed.  There are now 15 mission schools and 104 parish and regional elementaries.  Total  enrollment is 42,802 from pre-K through 8th grade.  

Roselee Maddaloni, principal of Nativity of our Lord in Warminster, said her parish school has 496 children, including students from nearby schools that closed.  Nativity has attracted students by opening a pre-K program for 3-year-olds, hiring a reading specialist and adding band and arts programs.

The school has a marketing director these days and a staffer to  help raise money and apply for grants.

“We realized that it cannot be the old parish model,” Maddaloni said. “We have to know how to market.”

Colistra, the top official at West Catholic, said his school had been a powerhouse in the community for decades. But times had changed.

“I think the blue ribbon commission…really forced the schools to realize we can no longer sit back,” he said.

West forged partnerships with area Catholic elementaries to recruit more graduates, like senior Erica Watson, 17, who came from St. Cyril in East Lansdowne and plans to study biology at LaSalle University in the fall.

West also now attracts 40 percent of its students from district and charter schools.

Junior Ty’Nief Blakeney, 17, came from Hardy Williams Academy in Southwest Philadelphia to play basketball and won a coveted spot in West’s  engineering  program.

Senior Cyrie Bogg, 17, transferred to West from Bodine, a district magnet school, to play football.

“This is the best decision I made,” said Bogg, who wants to study business in college. “West Catholic has the great balance of  great athletics and great education.”