In an unprecedented move in Catholic education in the United States, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Sept. 1 officially turned over the operational management of its 17 high schools and four special education schools to The Faith in The Future Foundation. 

Philly schools
Ed Hanway greets Archbishop Ryan School for the Deaf students on Sept. 5, the first day of school. With him are Jacqueline Coccia, superintendent for elementary education, and Sister Meg Fleming, principal of the school. Photo by Sarah Webb/CatholicPhilly.com

The move, said Meg Kane, communications consultant for the foundation, “has definitely renewed interest and enthusiasm for our schools.” 

It also saved four high schools that were slated for closing. 

“Enrollment has declined fairly precipitously in recent years, and there is clearly a shrinking population within the city,” said Ed Hanway, chairman of the foundation and acting CEO. “Clearly the economy is factored in, particularly in the last several years. The tuition — which tends to be about $6,000 in costs to the parents — has become a barrier for some people.” 

The closings had been recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education, which was appointed in December 2010 by now-retired Cardinal Justin Rigali. Its purpose was to chart the future course of Catholic education in the archdiocese, and in the resultant multiyear strategic planning, the four high schools were to fall under the ax in January. 

Hanway was a member of that commission. “There was a significant outpouring of public support and interest in keeping those schools open,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “So some people established this foundation with the objective to strengthen the overall system, including the four schools that were to be closed.” 

According to the National Catholic Education Association, this will be the first independently run Catholic school system in the country. Hanway calls it “literally, a management agreement” that grew from the original focus of raising money to a focus of assuming operational management. 

“The foundation has the responsibility to manage the schools, and that responsibility is very broad,” he said. “The archdiocese clearly retains the responsibility to ensure that the Catholic faith and Catholic teachings are consistent with what they have always been.” 

A new model

The anticipated break-even operating budget for the 21 schools is around $170 million. The foundation’s funds will be used to offset any operating deficits, Hanway said, and money also will be raised to be applied directly toward tuition assistance. 

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has done an outstanding job of creating a very strong, very successful model of quality Catholic education,” he said. “What we can bring to that model is better marketing, better enrollment management, and certainly a better fund raising focus.” 

One approach is to tap into public financing. For instance, Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, created by Act 85 of 2012, gives tax breaks to eligible businesses contributing to programs that fund scholarships to private, charter and parochial schools. That support enables students to leave low-achieving public schools. 

On July 25, when Gov. Tom Corbett announced the list of 249 low-achieving schools in Pennsylvania, 159 were within the Philadelphia School District. Students in the boundaries of those districts, with family incomes under $60,000, may be eligible for $8,500 in tuition scholarships and $15,000 for special education, regardless of which schools they attend. That will be a boon to the foundation’s goals to boost student enrollment, and student transportation laws in Pennsylvania make the switch from neighborhood schools to Catholic schools convenient. Pennsylvania requires public school districts to bus private school students who live within 10 miles of the school. 

“That’s a benefit to us,” Hanway said. 

Finding the resources

The archdiocese’s schools also receive funding from local school districts that send students to the archdiocese’s special education schools. 

“And there is a philanthropic community in the Philadelphia region that really does understand the value of this Catholic education system,” Hanway said.  

The foundation’s stated mission is to promote educational excellence, critical thinking and spiritual growth, which, he said, is consistent with the mission of Catholic education. 

“What is different here is the commitment to enable any family and child who desires this quality Catholic education to have access to it,” he said. “As a foundation that is completely independent from the archdiocese, we will have some neat opportunities to do that.” 

Public reaction is encouraging and successes are already noted. Registration at 11 of the 17 high schools is over projection, three schools have the largest incoming freshman classes ever, and as of July 1, the foundation had raised $15 million of its five-year goal to raise $100 million. 

“These schools have always delivered outstanding education,” Kane said. “Mr. Hanway and those involved in the foundation have a focus to find new ways to make them even better. Hopefully, they will be laying the groundwork to help create a new model in Catholic education.”  

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.