How to Find the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child

A clear-eyed, judgment-free look at how to get the best education for your kid.

Jose Martinez and Elba Pavia-Martinez, of Northern Liberties, send Alina, 12, Ileana, 11, Angeles, 10, and Gabriella, five, to St. Peter the Apostle. Photography by Christopher Leaman

Jose Martinez and Elba Pavia-Martinez, of Northern Liberties, send Alina, 12, Ileana, 11, Angeles, 10, and Gabriella, five, to St. Peter the Apostle. Photography by Christopher Leaman

How to Find the Best Philadelphia Parochial School

The traditional, time-tested parochial education has a new relevance in the city’s school milieu.
Q. I’m not Catholic. Should I still consider parochial schools?

School choice in Philly is usually framed as public vs. private, but it would be crazy to overlook parochials, a vital option for thousands of families. Take Dorinda O’Donnell, who chose St. Anthony of Padua only after her daughter missed the chance to enroll in charters last year. She turned to St. Anthony’s as a last resort — and now says she couldn’t be happier with the decision: “I love it. They are very warm and inviting, and for the money and education, it’s a great choice.” Her only conflict, she says, “will be when they start the hard-core religious stuff. Then I guess I’ll have to make a serious decision.”

For a non-Catholic (and even some Catholics), the issue of religious instruction is just one of a number of loaded questions to ask when considering Catholic school. The biggies tend to be:

The Viability Question
The year 2012 was a difficult one for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In the wake of a deep decline in Catholic-school enrollment — down 35 percent in the region over 10 years — the archdiocese announced painful school closings and consolidations: 44 elementary schools and four high schools in the five-county area. The drastic cuts affected some 24,000 students … but also ended a financial hemorrhaging that had been going on for years. So at this point, can you be (relatively) sure your first-grader’s school will still be there come fifth grade?

“We’ve right-sized the system,” says Chris Mominey, the archdiocese’s chief operating officer and secretary for Catholic education. “And now we’re experiencing growth — modest growth, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

With those cuts came tuition hikes that were painful for some families at the schools that remain. But Mominey says there are no closures or significant tuition increases in the foreseeable future. “Major hikes, especially in urban areas, would be devastating to our parents,” he says. And that leads to …

The Affordability Question
Tuition for Catholic high schools within the city is $6,800 for Catholic students and $7,800 for non-Catholics. Some 70 percent of students receive financial aid — and most elementary and middle schools are at least partially subsidized by local parishes. The approximate cost to each student at those levels for the 2014 fiscal year was $3,100.

The Quality Question
“Before we sent the girls there, we got nothing but great reviews of their staff, academics and morals,” says Jose Martinez, who has four girls enrolled at St. Peter the Apostle in Northern Liberties. “My oldest is in sixth grade and has been there since kindergarten. The school has exceeded my expectations in every possible way.” More than one parent has cited both academics and the culture of Catholic schools, noting that respect and service are emphasized in a way they’re not at many secular counterparts. And like public and charter options, many schools offer individual experiences that supplement students’ education. At St. Francis de Sales, for example, music students have performed at the Kimmel Center conducted by maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, while Archbishop Ryan kids enjoy a staggering number of extracurriculars and athletics. West Catholic in West Philadelphia has undergone an unexpected renaissance since narrowly escaping closure in 2012, thanks in part to a $1 million gift and a new direction as a college preparatory school, a mission that has been incorporated into its new name: Candidates for West Catholic Preparatory High School are now required to pass an entrance exam.

In terms of quantifiable metrics, in each of the past five years, SAT scores have increased across the archdiocese’s 17 high schools. Meanwhile, the college acceptance rate is at 98 percent. And the most recent graduating class received some $300 million in scholarship offers, which averages out to about $90,000 per graduate. When you consider that the cost of putting a kid through four years of Catholic school in Philadelphia hovers around $30,000, that’s not a bad return on investment. Still, just as with the publics, the key to determining if a school matches your family’s needs is to visit, to talk to the principal, to ask questions.

The Religion Question
When, earlier this fall, the archdiocese asked parents of children enrolled in Catholic schools to sign a new “Catholic identity” pledge requiring that parents accept that in all questions involving Catholic teaching and church law “final determination rests with the Archbishop,” it freaked a lot of people out. The archdiocese insists that the memo was “to simply inform parents that we are Catholic schools, that we will teach the doctrine of the Church,” but the memo has (fairly) planted even more questions for non-Catholics as to what that might look like. So, exactly how Catholic are we talking? Well, faith certainly plays a significant role at every Catholic school, and if you’re actively anti-religion, you probably won’t consider sending your children to Catholic school, and you shouldn’t.

That said, if you look at the region as a whole, the archdiocese’s student population is more than 90 percent Catholic. But in Philly, that drops to around 60 percent, meaning your non-Catholic kid will have company when his Catholic classmates are going through First Holy Communion.

Mass is mandatory at all of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools. High-school students should expect to attend once a month, while some elementary schools celebrate Mass weekly. Non-Catholics aren’t allowed to participate in Communion during Mass, and while your kid can confess his sins if he so desires, there’s no requirement. “They’re just asked to be respectful and participate in whatever they feel comfortable participating in,” Mominey explains.

As for classes, there are required religion courses at every school, and grades are given in theology and other religious content. “But it’s not as if we’re grading them on their faith,” Mominey points out. “God is doing that, and the hope and the prayer is that the teaching will take place in a person’s heart. But we’re not about converting people in Catholic school.” Meantime, if you’re imagining a nun standing at the front of algebra class with a yardstick and a stern glare, think again. There are nuns working in the archdiocese — mostly in administration, auxiliary services and various clerical capacities — but staffing isn’t what it was back in the day. Some schools do have more nuns than others — St. Matthew’s in Northeast Philadelphia has a particularly strong representation, in both classrooms and the main office — but on average, 90 percent or more of the teaching staff are laity.