Catholic Schools in the News: Major Changes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Two big stories about American Catholicism were front page news this weekend:  Archbishop Dolan’s appointment to the College of Cardinals and the news that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is about to close or consolidate 48 schools. Those involved in Catholic education likely won’t be surprised to hear of more school closings. Catholic schools have lost over half of their enrollment since their peak in 1965 and each year since 1965 the total number of schools has declined. In the course of my dissertation research on the causes and consequences of Catholic school closings I have read hundreds of local news stories from dioceses across the nation documenting a school’s closure or consolidation. However, the large number of schools involved in this re-organization is noteworthy.

A couple of years ago (at the end of the 2009-2010) school year the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made local and regional news when Cardinal Dougherty high school closed. At one point this was the largest Catholic school in the world with over 6500 students. Another reason these closures are of note is that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is unique for still having a relatively high percentage of the school aged population enrolled in Catholic schools. Nationally this figure is about 5% but data from the 2005 Official Catholic Directory shows that in the Philadelphia area about 10% of the school aged population was in Catholic schools. This map highlights changes in percentage of the school aged population enrolled in Catholic schools. The other dioceses that stand out on the map for still enrolling a significant portion of the school aged population are Lincoln, NB and New Orleans.

There are a number of potential explanations for Catholic school closures: changing demographics, declining vocations and fewer sisters working in schools, changes in the cost structure of running schools, all of which I’ll explore further in future posts.

Those interested in Catholic school restructuring will want to keep up with the work being done by CARA and press releases from the NCEA. The pioneering work of sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley remains relevant today as does Youniss and Convey’s Catholic Schools at the Crossroads. Those looking for a vivid account of how this might matter in one community should read Patrick McCloskey’s ethnography of Harlem’s Rice High School The Street Stops Here. The 2009 book is not about school closings per se but about the challenges and triumphs of staff and students at this all boys school noted for its basketball team and percentage of students going on to college. Unfortunately, in 2011 it was announced that this school would close amid financial problems.


6 thoughts on “Catholic Schools in the News: Major Changes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

  1. Someone asked me if only 5% of Catholic children attend Catholic schools in the U.S. I explained that it was significantly higher than this.

    So, I think it is important to reiterate that the 5% figure is based on ALL school-aged children– NOT Catholic school aged children. My back of the envelope estimate is that this would mean about 20% of Catholic school aged children attended Catholic schools in 2000 down from about 50% in the 60’s–does that sound about right? It should also be true, that the percentage is slightly higher for elementary school students and slightly lower for high school students.

    I look forward to hearing more about the causes and consequences of this trend. Mostly because I am interested in learning how Catholic schools remain important in students lives and because I want to know what we are up against in changing the direction of the current trend line.

  2. My heart really aches for the people of Philadelphia. When I was on staff with the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana in the early 90’s, I was involved in the closure of Central Catholic High School. Established in 1958 as the only Catholic High School in west-central Indiana, it was met from the beginning with a divided reception. There were those who ardently supported it and those who thought that a Catholic High School was an extravagance that a struggling, young, rural diocese could ill afford.

    That division continued up into the 1990’s, with a third generation of children attending CC, vs those who saw a Diocesan-suppported High School as a drain on the proper work of God’s People. Both were correct, both were convinced of their view, and little dialog was ever proposed to bridge the gap.

    In 1990-91, the Franciscan Sister who was serving as Principal was moved to another ministry. That opened up the Prinicipalship, and many assumed that the Assistant Principal would move into the role.

    The Diocesan Staff at that time had made a drastic change, under the leadership of a forward looking Superintendent, and with the approval of a relatively new Bishop, to change to a Total Catholic Education approach. This total approach merged both the Religious Education and Catholic Schools Offices into one Office of Catechetics. That is why, even though I was the Youth Ministry Consultant for the Diocese, my title of Director of Adolescent Formation involved me in the five-person Pastoral Office of Catechetics.

    Our staff, looking at the need for new leadership at CC, and after studying the finances of the school, recommended to the Bishop that the School be closed for lack of sufficient funding. The Bishop agreed with us, and all we had to do was get all of the Pastors in Lafayette and West Lafayette (who functioned as a Board of Governors even though they rarely if ever met) to agree with our assessment. Many disagreeable discussions followed which led eventually to a final decision to close the school.

    I had no past allegiance to the High School, having only been there for two years, but my son was a Junior there and on track to be the Valedictorian his Senior year. If the school closed, all the seniors would have to find a new school to attend thus eliminating him from Valedictorian status. If the Seniors were grandfathered out and allowed to graduate the following year with everyone knowing the the school would eventually close, there would be a mass exodus and the school would die anyway, only the death would be more painful and prolonged.

    The closing was front page news in the local newspaper for one whole week, as different groups jockeyed to find a way to keep it open. Needless to say, emotions ran high. And this is where I empathize with the people of Philadelphia who are feeling the pain of loss and the disruption of school and parish tradition and history.

    In Lafayette, however, there was a happy ending. A group of lay people met with the Bishop over several evenings and came up with an acceptable plan that the Bishop and Pastors approved and the school was spared from closing. I do not expect that to happen for the people in Philadelphia. For them if is a finality because of the large numbers of schools involved [44 elementary and 4 high schools] and the amount of money saved by the closings.

    My son was fortunately able to graduate and give the Valedictory address, thus saving us from what could have been a mortal wounding of our relationship. No such fairy tale ending in Philly however. Their sorrow and anger are real, and will be with them for quite a while. We need to be praying for them and with them as they deal with this difficult, even if necessary, ripping apart of their social and historical connectedness to the past. My prayers, and my heart, are with them.

  3. The OCD data is very good for enrollment at the diocese level. I have coded each year of data since the 1960s and overall enrollments are missing <1% of the time.

    The school level picture is more patchy. Sometimes individual schools report their enrollment, sometimes they do not.

    The issue I raised in my earlier comment was about the "catholic/non-catholic" enrollment– this is largely unavailable in the OCD.