Will Philadelphia’s Catholic Schools Be Resurrected?

For thousands of Philadelphians, parochial school was more than just a place to learn to read and write. It taught students right from wrong, shaped their character and bound them together. But can the schools survive in an age of lost faith?

Brian O’Neill is one of the region’s top real estate developers, mostly of high-end residential enclaves with lofty names like Highgrove, as well as nondescript office parks. He has some skin in the saving-Catholic-education game, because he’s now the de facto fund-raiser for the archdiocese’s 21 high schools, shaking trees all over town to save a school system that expelled him three different times. Along with former Cigna CEO Edward Hanway and Casey Carter, a hotshot charter-schools honcho brought in from Washington, D.C., he’s the brains behind Faith in the Future, a private nonprofit formed last year to right the Catholic schools’ ship.

O’Neill has been troubled for years about the downward spiral of a parochial system that, as he correctly points out, was once a model for the nation. So last year he went to Charles Chaput, Philadelphia’s archbishop, and asked if he could help save the four high schools slated for closure. Chaput agreed, with the stipulation that O’Neill had to take on all the high schools. After all, these were business guys who believed in the product and would know how to turn it around. The plan was simple: run the schools smarter by cutting out the red-tape bureaucracy of the archdiocese, then raise big money by convincing philanthropists that Catholic schools deliver huge returns on investment in terms of educating at-risk kids cheaper and better than the public schools do.

It all sounds good, I’ll give them that. Though I mention to Brian O’Neill that in any other industry, a shredding of one’s customer base like that which the archdiocese has experienced would lead to one logical conclusion: You’re selling a product nobody wants anymore.

“We Catholics are responsible for the big chunk of that,” he says of the plummeting student rolls. “Because we took it for granted. The general consensus was that the Catholic Church was the wealthiest organization in the world, and they’re not. And that the schools would go on, regardless of whether we supported them. Secondly, what the schools did not do is promote their brand. The focus was on educating children and building character, but they never took the time to tell the world. So now we have to shift to offense.”

O’Neill is one of those peripatetic types, always doodling, always interrupting your next question with a Heisman and a “Hold on, you need to understand this first.” He’s a font of glowing statistics about the pa­rochial-school system here and why it matters, all backed up by impressive data. He points out how his team has already almost wiped out the high schools’ operating deficit (was $6 million a year; now $500,000), and how much transfers from West Philly High to West Catholic improve in reading proficiency. More than ninety-four percent of West Catholic’s graduates go on to college. It’s impressive. “We have a big advantage,” he says of the Catholic school system’s operations. “If the public school system wants to do something, they have to pass it in City Council, go through the school board, deal with the teachers union. We have a very small management team: three people.”

There’s no doubt that the Faith in the Future guys have pumped both a much-needed sense of urgency and much-needed cash into the parochial high schools. And when you talk to Casey Carter, he spits out all the right buzzwords and catchphrases: “holistically centralizing strategy,” “enrollment management,” “outstanding educational outcomes.” He has his talking points memorized, like flash cards hidden in his suit pocket. I have no doubt he’s very smart. “The conversation about ‘saving Catholic schools’ has been mislabeled,” he says. “It’s a very high-quality education system, and I think our success will be at the very center of revivifying the whole educational ecosystem within Philadelphia. The goal here is to use the quality of the Catholic education, to leverage the quality of Catholic schools, to transform the region and bring about the economic prosperity that everyone wants to see.”

That’s a great sound bite. And if this was all going to be decided on MSNBC, that would be fine. But the truth is, while O’Neill, Carter & Co. are raising both cash and the profile of the local Catholic high schools, the parochial grammar schools—the main feeders for those high schools—have been left to their own devices, with the Joan Stulzes of the archdiocese working feverishly just to keep the lights on and the erasers stocked. Faith in the Future often provides counsel to parish schools like Resso, but it holds no authority to enforce any of its recommendations; how the grammar schools are run lies where it has always lain, with the parish pastors. And as the bludgeoning headlines about the archdiocese’s sex scandals attest, we all know how good they’ve been at managing their fiefdoms these past few decades. And how open they are to advice on how to do it.

 

About a mile away from Resurrection is St. Matthew’s, whose principal is Sister Kathleen Touey. Sister Kathleen reminds you of Julie Andrews’s Sister Maria if she’d never left the convent for the baron. With pale blue eyes that almost twinkle, she’s sunny and funny and salt-of-the-earth in a world gone low-sodium.

Sister Kathleen knows from Catholic schools. Before she became a principal, she taught in them for 15 years—at St. Gabriel’s in South Philly, St. Francis Xavier in Fairmount, others in Feasterville and Jersey. Today her enrollment at St. Matt’s is 915, down from its historic peak of around 1,350 but holding steady.

I ask her what she thinks, aside from practical measures (such as hiring a development director to raise dollars from grammar-school alumni), she’s doing right. Because she’s doing something right; St. Matt’s parents, if you’ve ever met any, border on the evangelical when they talk about the school.

Sister Kathleen starts talking about something really interesting. And that is, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, that you can’t always get you want. Education is not only about idealism, she says, but realism.

“I think sometimes in life, kids are a little overly sensitive,” she says. “They have to learn that in life, people aren’t always sweet-sweet. You have to learn how to handle adversity. Not everyone is going to love you for who you are. We ask them to respect the uniqueness of each person, which I think is very important. But they have to learn that sometimes you need a thick skin in life. Through high school, out in the work world, your boss isn’t always going to tell you, ‘You’re the greatest.’ You have to affirm with kids when they do good things. But you can’t make them soft. You can’t praise mediocrity.”

I think about her words for days after I leave. It strikes me that not only did I not appreciate the nuns’ shared sacrifice; I also didn’t appreciate that they were tough.

I was a flake when I walked into my school in 1969. I wasn’t when I walked out. Some of that is the natural process of growing up. But without the militaristic order under which Resso operated, I wonder how dif­ferently—and how lost—I might have ended up.

Rigor is the Catholic schools’ biggest selling point, but as a weapon in its marketing arsenal, I don’t see it being used very effectively. And we need it more than ever. The “You’re special,” everybody-gets-a-blue-ribbon culture that now misguides so many of our children leaves them overindulged and unprepared for the real world that lies outside the school doors. The notes and remonstrations, walking in corridors in enforced silence, mass detentions, tough tests and high standards, an insistence on reverence for something that was bigger than you—these taught me as much as, if not more than, any academics. Even being forced to fend for myself in a schoolyard pocked with bullies like land mines allowed me to develop keen social survival skills that proved invaluable later. Catholic school taught me impulse control, respect for authority and negotiating tactics. How many of our schools today teach those? But I worry that today, the parish school appears anachronistic, the modern equivalent of the little red schoolhouse. Something everyone wants, but dismisses as un-modern.

FITF’s lean and mean management team can’t fix the breakdown of the nuclear American family, which has led to too many at-risk kids without the guidance to get to their schools; the rise of secularism and a population in which one in 10 people now describe themselves as “former Catholics”; and increasing competition from a charter-school boom whose free schools tend to be new and flashy, not musty and baronial. How do you fill 15,000 empty desks in your high schools against those kinds of headwinds?

And all of the fund-raising and marketing in the world won’t erase the deep bitterness so many people feel over the archdiocese’s botched cover-ups of its sex-abuse cases. Or the resentment over the fact that while the archdiocese bemoans its multimillion-dollar debt, we turn on our televisions and see the buckets of money spent on the over-the-top pomp and pageantry of Vatican rituals like the recent papal election—money that could be making a huge difference here, to help more kids go to our schools, to get the education we did. Then there is the frustration so many of us feel about the Church’s stubborn, dictator-like decision-making, from the hymns we sing to whether we’re even allowed to have eulogies at our funerals (up to individual pastors, in case you didn’t know).

If the archdiocese doesn’t get its own house in order, the Catholic schools are doomed, period. I could tell you horror stories about trying to deal with the archdiocese to get interviews lined up for this story, which only illustrates the problem: too much red tape, too much piety and righteousness and haughtiness at the top. It’s up to Chaput to convince prospective parents not only that his schools are a great deal, but that he’s doing everything possible to make them affordable, and that his pastors are open to new ideas on ways to run them. And he has to convince the city at large that it, too, has a stake in keeping them alive.

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