The chairman of a commission that had recommended closing 45 Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia lauded an appeals process that will allow nearly a third of those schools to remain open.
"I celebrate the results and pray they all survive in the long term," John J. "Jack" Quindlen, a retired DuPont official, said Saturday. "Neither the commission nor the archdiocese was in a rush to close schools. Our focus was on how to sustain them."
He said the recommendations the blue-ribbon commission made Jan. 6 calling for closing and merging schools as part of a broad restructuring of Catholic education in the region may have helped galvanize some of them. "I have to assume that at least some of the schools there took a look at their situation that we saw as marginal and said, 'If we can get our act together, we can do this.' "
Quindlen made his comments in a phone interview with The Inquirer a day after Bishop Michael Fitzgerald announced that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput had approved 18 of the 24 elementary school appeals of the commission's recommendations.
"Naturally, there will be a strong focus on the final decision resulting from the appeals," Fitzgerald, who oversees education in the archdiocese, said Friday. "But it is also important to realize that today is about taking the next steps in securing sustainability, accessibility, affordability, and continued excellence in the schools in the archdiocese."
The 16-member commission Quindlen led spent 13 months studying Catholic education in the region to develop a plan to halt declining enrollment and rising deficits to ensure the future of Catholic schools.
The commission said that at many of the financially troubled schools where tuition did not cover costs, parishes had to use church money to make up the deficits.
The archdiocese has 49,177 students in 156 elementary schools and 15,172 students at 17 high schools.
Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 38 percent at the elementary schools and 34 percent at the high schools.
In addition to calling for closing 45 elementary schools and creating regional schools, the commission recommended shuttering four Catholic high schools.
Fitzgerald said Friday a decision on the high schools had been delayed a week because the archdiocese was talking with a group of potential donors who had stepped forward to express interest in saving the targeted high schools.
He said the potential benefactors had requested information about all four targeted schools: 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 bishop and other officials said they could not confirm reports the group might donate $10 million to save the high schools.
Fitzgerald also said Friday the archdiocese planned to increase the number of proposed independent "mission schools" from eight to 14.
The commission created that category to ensure Catholic education survives in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.
The mission concept is based on the model of St. Martin de Porres School in North Philadelphia, which has raised substantial money. The school also receives some funding and help from the archdiocese, but it has been overseen by an independent board since 2010.
The goal is for the mission schools to follow that approach, obtain long-term outside financial support, and set up endowments.
"These schools will be Catholic but operated independently," John "Jack" Donnelly, chairman and chief executive officer of L.F. Driscoll Co. and chairman of the board of St. Martin de Porres School, said Friday.
"We hope to replicate it as much as possible. A plan is currently under way to create an independent structure which will enable and hopefully attract dedicated funding for the schools."
Mary Rochford, superintendent of Catholic schools, was so impressed with the mission concept she handed Donnelly a $1,000 personal check Friday to help with the fund-raising effort for the schools.
"Personally, I believed in the hard work that goes on in these schools every day," Rochford said.
The expansion in the number of proposed mission schools saved three parish schools from closing: St. Cyril in East Lansdowne, St. Gabriel in South Philadelphia, and St. Malachy in North Philadelphia.
Dan Pickens, chairman of the Friends of St. Malachy, a nonprofit that helps support that school, said the St. Malachy community was buoyed by the decision.
"I think we're optimistic that it's a new beginning," Pickens said.
Joe Garecht, executive director of the nonprofit Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), said his organization had been working with some of the newly designated mission schools, including St. Malachy and St. Cyril.
BLOCS had believed, he said, those schools "could be viable on their own with some help."
He said the mission school concept had stirred interest among prospective donors who had not traditionally supported Catholic schools.
Garecht said BLOCS expected to announce a multimillion-dollar effort in the coming weeks to help launch the mission schools.
Other schools with large numbers of low-income students that were supposed to become regional schools were added to the mission roster Friday.
And two schools not even mentioned in the commission's recommendations were placed in that category, too: The DePaul Catholic School in Germantown and St. Veronica in the Franklinville section of North Philadelphia.
"I think with mission schools, it ensures that children living in low-income parts of the city have not been forgotten," said Hollie McDonald, who has been involved with raising money for St. Veronica.
Fitzgerald said that although 14 schools were being considered as mission schools, it was not certain all would be transformed. Talks are scheduled with individual schools.
Rochford said the archdiocese would meet with the schools' pastors to make sure they understood specifics of the mission concept.
Pastors now oversee their parish elementary schools. At a mission school, she said, the pastor is a member of the board that runs the school. And the board would rent the school building from the parish.
Six weeks ago, when the commission's recommendations were announced, Chaput had outlined an appeals process for schools that thought the recommendations were based on incorrect information.
Schools that challenged the proposed changes made presentations to archdiocesan review panels.
Because the commission's plan called for renaming and altering the proposed new regional schools, the commission's recommendations would have affected more than half the archdiocese's 156 Catholic elementary schools.
Many of the schools designated to become regional schools filed appeals, too, even though their buildings would not close.
The commission had called for 81 parish schools to form 37 regional schools. As a result of the appeals process, 49 schools will now form 23 regional schools, according to Rochford.
An Inquirer analysis of the appeal decisions found that 14 schools slated to close would remain open as parish or regional schools or as mission schools.
Ten schools that were supposed to become the sites of new, regional schools will remain parish schools and retain their names and identities. Three other schools that were expected to become regional schools will become mission schools and retain their names.
But, as a result of others' successful appeals, two elementary schools that had expected to host regional schools now will close in June. Parents from St. John the Evangelist in Morrisville and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Media said they were blindsided by the news their schools would close.
St. John the Evangelist has fewer than 200 students, and they were told they could transfer to one of several recommended schools.
With the planned merger, St. John's 27 teachers, administrators, and aides were told they would all have to reapply for their jobs, gym teacher Linda Wolff said.
"We were never told what would happen if we didn't merge," she said. "We figured we had a 50-50 chance of getting our jobs back. With no merger, there are no jobs. No one's happy."
In Media Friday night, students, parents, and parishioners from Nativity held a candlelight vigil to express their concerns. Nativity students were told they would attend St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford.
"Folks are tremendously frustrated," said John Daly, 47, of Media. "We'd like an opportunity to state our case. . .. There's a sense of disillusionment and anger. Why can't we have an opportunity to appeal like other schools?"
He said that enrollment at Nativity had increased 9 percent and that the school had raised $1 million in the last five years.
"This came out of left field," Tom Castaldi, 52, of Media, said. "It's not fair for one side to appeal but not the other. When you disrupt a vibrant school, you lose people from their faith."