Times are tough for Catholic education around Philadelphia.

The archdiocese plans to close nine elementary schools this year, after shuttering 11 schools last year. Enrollment in parish elementary schools has fallen 18 percent over five years, and high school enrollment has dropped 20 percent.

But one Catholic elementary school is bucking the trend.

In a small brick building behind St. Katharine Drexel Parish in economically depressed Chester, Drexel Neumann Academy is adding a small ninth-grade class next year and amassing an endowment that will provide long-term economic security.

The secret, according to Sister Maggie Gannon, the school's president, is a new management model that she hopes will serve as an example for other struggling Catholic schools.

"This is different, and it's sustainable," she said.

The school is supported by a partnership involving the parish, the archdiocese, nearby Neumann University, and Sister Maggie's order, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

All four partners help in different ways, she said. Neumann, for example, provides free graduate classes for the academy's teachers.

But "you can't have a mission without money," said Neumann University president Rosalie Mirenda. "No money, no mission."

The $2,300 annual tuition doesn't come close to covering the school's costs, and many families of the 190 or so students can't afford to pay. The archdiocese has given $100,000 a year since the 2009-10 school year.

But Drexel Neumann has amassed an endowment of just more than $1 million, thanks to donations from an independent board of directors and prodigious fund-raising.

Board chairman H. Edward Hanway said the school recently had hired a development director to ramp up fund-raising.

Sister Maggie is quick to point to Drexel Neumann's successes.

She and Sister Cathy McGowan, the principal, try to limit class sizes to 20.

Classes run on an extended day, finishing at 4:30 p.m., and there's a three-week mandatory summer session.

And the core group of students, having attended the school since its founding in 2006, has test scores on par with the Delaware County average - even though the average income for the students' households is less than $19,000 a year.

Vanita Doward sees the results firsthand.

Two of her children are in eighth grade at Drexel Neumann and had attended St. Katharine Drexel, the last parish school in Chester until the archdiocese closed it in 2005. That closing led Hanway and others to found the school to continue Catholic education in the city.

Doward said she had noticed "a dramatic change," saying "the academic level is a whole lot better" at Drexel Neumann.

She's also excited about the virtual high school of eight or nine students that Drexel Neumann will be testing next year. Both her children have been accepted into the program, which she said would provide a smaller classroom setting than they could get elsewhere.

Other schools in the Philadelphia region also provide independent Catholic education.

The Gesu School in North Philadelphia has operated independently since 1993. And Cristo Rey, a national organization of independent Catholic high schools, is opening a school in the city.

The schools represent a trend of Catholic groups - usually led by religious orders - stepping into the vacuum left when diocesan schools close in poor neighborhoods.

Robert Birdsell, president and chief executive officer of Cristo Rey, said the new model "opens up new venues [for fund-raising] that you weren't able to call on before."

While a traditional Catholic school relies mostly on alumni donations, these independent schools can reach out to a wider pool of donors, including non-Catholics, he said.

Sister Cathy, the principal, said that with Drexel Neumann, which educates primarily non-Catholics and boasts a multidenominational board, donors know "they're investing in the future of Chester."

Contact staff writer Anthony Campisi at 215-854-5015 or acampisi@phillynews.com.