Holy Cross Academy in South Jersey, facing closure, seeks to reinvent itself

Holy Cross Academy students take part in an Ash Wednesday mass at the Delran, NJ based Roman Catholic high school on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. Holy Cross is the only Roman Catholic high school in Burlington County, NJ, and is closing at the end of the school year. A group of alumni are working on a plan to keep it open as an independent Catholic school. Avi Steinhardt / For the Philadelphia Inquirer

Months before the official announcement, there were signs that Holy Cross Academy in South Jersey would likely close its doors at the end of the school year.

In December, Bishop David M. O’Connell confirmed what many had already suspected: The Trenton Diocese was pulling its annual $500,000 subsidy to the only Roman Catholic high school in Burlington County. Instead of the anxiety that typically follows such an announcement, there was resolve by a staunch alumni group to keep the school open.

Located on a sprawling, 94-acre campus on Route 130 in Delran, Holy Cross will remain open as an independent Catholic school. O’Connell gave his blessing to allow an alumni board, comprised of business and academic leaders, to take over the school beginning July 1.

The school has educated high school students for 60 years.

“We don’t see letting it fail as an option,” said Dennis Murawski, president of the founding board “Holy Cross 2.0,” which will operate the new school. “It’s something we feel we have to do.”

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
Holy Cross Academy Alumni president Dennis Murawski in front of a wall of vintage photographs celebrating the school’s 60th anniversary.

Murawski, 67, of Cinnaminson, a 1968 graduate of Holy Cross, is part of a five-member group of experts that quickly rallied to develop a plan to save their alma mater. They pulled together a 22-member transition team and a strategic plan to reinvent the school and seek funds and boost declining enrollment.

With only about four months until the current school closes on June 30, the transition has been seemingly smooth. The alumni board began working on its plan in October after O’Connell released a letter that foreshadowed the Holy Cross closing. By January, the plan was in full swing with a new independent board of trustees that will oversee the new school.

“At first I was kind of shocked,” said Dominic Decker, 17, of Marlton, a junior in his third year at Holy Cross.  But now, “I’m really excited about the future of the school.”

Currently, Holy Cross enrolls nearly 400 students in ninth through 12th grade. During its heyday, it had as many as 1,600 students who filled the 160,000-square-foot school and its 40 classrooms. The school has graduated more than 16,000 students since it opened in 1957.

Kellie Kiefner, a 1987 graduate, has three daughters at Holy Cross: Brenna, 17, a senior, and twins Caitlin and Ciara, 15, sophomores. Another daughter, Mary, 19, graduated in 2016.

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
Holy Cross Academy parent Kellie Kiefner walks down a hall at Holy Across Academy with daughters (from left) Brenna, 17, and twins Caitlin and Ciara, 15.

“I love having them all here,” said Kiefner, 48, of Mount Laurel, a CPA at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “I have ordinary kids who get to do extraordinary things because they’re here.”

Like many Catholic schools around the region, Holy Cross has suffered from a declining enrollment, escalating costs, and rising tuition that has put a parochial education out of reach for some families, even the most faithful. About 70 percent of its students identify as Catholic. The diocese said it has pumped $14 million in the school in recent years and can no longer afford to subsidize its operation.

In his annual state of the diocese pronouncement this week, Bishop O’Connell, defended his decision to pull funding from Holy Cross and cited shifting demographics, competition from public schools, and a growing secularization. Holy Cross once had 20 feeder schools to attract students from, but today only about eight remain.

“I believe we are doing everything possible to sustain our Catholic schools, including providing tuition assistance and financial aid to the extent the diocese is able. The job is not easy. Neither are the decisions that sometimes I must make,” he wrote.

Elsewhere in Burlington County, St. Paul School in Burlington City faced a similar fate several years ago. After the diocese said it would close the 148-year-old school, which is part of the Parish of St. Katharine Drexel, officials raised $250,000 to keep it open.  The school has become more financially stable largely by increasing its preschool enrollment and fund-raising by parents, officials say.

“These people are prepared to make sure we don’t get to where it was before,” said Deacon Joseph Rafferty, the school’s principal.

In Philadelphia, a blue-ribbon commission issued a report in 2012 that recommended closing 45 of 156 Catholic elementary schools, merging others, and closing four high schools, as a drastic measure to ensure that Catholic education in the archdiocese could survive. Many of those schools were eventually saved, in part after a foundation was set up to raise money for schools. The diocese has also recruited foreign students to help fill seats.

Although Holy Cross is the only Catholic high school in Burlington County,  it faces tough competition from nearby Catholic schools, where in some cases the tuition is lower. About 160 students who live in the county attend school elsewhere, including Bishop Eustace, Camden Catholic and Paul VI in Camden County, St. Augustine Prep in Atlantic County, and St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, officials say.

Murawski said the board hopes to recruit those students to return to the county. It also plans to target parents who desire a Christian-based education for their children and other faith-based schools and private schools in the region. Appeals, with financial incentives, are also being made at Catholic parish schools in the county, he said.

Junior class president Alyssa Damico, 16, of Riverside, said she plans to return for the 2018-2019 school year. Her father and an older sister graduated from Holy Cross and she wanted to keep up the family tradition.

“You really get to know every student. I know everyone in my grade,” said Damico, who aspires to be a speech pathologist.

Kecia Cook, of Willingboro, whose son, Miles, 18 is a senior, said her son had a good experience at Holy Cross, but the family, which is black, each year debated whether to send him to a more diverse school. Holy Cross is 77 percent white, 11 percent black, 7 percent Asian, and 3 percent Hispanic.

Camera icon Kecia Cook
Miles Cook, 18, of Willingboro, is a senior at Holy Cross.

“I was surprised to hear that they were closing. We’ll see what happens,” said Cook, a kindergarten teacher in the Willingboro schools.

Murawski said tuition for the coming year will remain at $10,600 for incoming freshmen who attend the school for four years. A $500 registration fee, unlike the past, when parents paid a deposition in addition to tuition, will be credited toward the balance, he said. The board hopes to eventually boost enrollment to about 500 students.

The new school will be known as Holy Cross, although its legal name will be the Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, Murawski said. There will be a new principal and possibly changes in the classroom. The 22-member teaching staff and administrators must reapply for their positions. The terms of employment for teachers could change, but Murawski said salaries and benefits would be competitive. The school has 40 employees.

Murawski said curriculum changes will likely come later, but block scheduling, popular among students, will remain. There are also plans to convert antiquated classrooms into lecture-style layouts. Holy Cross is also negotiating a deal with Drexel University that would provide admission help for students interested in engineering.

The board has commitment for about $500,000 toward its fund-raising campaign and hopes to secure an additional $250,000 by May, Murawski. The school has a $4 million annual budget, with tuition generating about 90 percent of that. The board set up two nonprofits to handle finances, one for day-to-day operations and the Lancer Fund, as the fund-raising arm and plans to create an endowment.

Murawski, a retired electrical engineer,  said heading a school was not on his “bucket list,” but welcomed the chance to save Holy Cross. His four children are also alums.

“When I look back at my life and everything that I’ve been given and how well I’ve been blessed, it’s now my time to do something,” he said. “I feel the need to help.”

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
Holy Cross Academy Alumni president Dennis Murawski as he appeared in the Class of 1968 yearbook (center, right).