Sunday, October 11, 2009

Catholic education: going, going...

During the early morning assembly, Father Carl Janicki, president
of Cardinal Dougherty, asks anyone who is saddened or angry with
the news to raise their hands.

Vatican II's "Declaration on Christian Education" (Gravissimum Educationis), directs Catholic schools to integrate the Christian faith into the whole pattern of human life in all its aspects. It enjoins Catholic educators to strive "to relate all human culture eventually to the news of salvation, so that the life of faith will illumine the knowledge which students gradually gain of the world, of life, and of humankind." ~ Walter Abbott, SJ

In a city of neighborhoods where people traditionally have identified themselves by their parishes, the Catholic high school has been a core institution that has offered life guidance, social instruction, and not a little fun. ~Philadelphia Inquirer

The Ferrises managed to send their youngest, Michael, to North, where the motto is "Be who you are, and be that well." "I feel sad," Ferris, 45, and a member of the Class of '82, said of the school's scheduled closing. "Next to my family, North contributed more to the man that I am today than anything else.

"That motto, that's what we are. You treat everybody with respect. You don't ask for what you don't deserve. And you work for everything you get." Ferris, a former football player who is an active alumnus, runs a blog for the school's sports teams. His hope was that the school would live on and help future generations as it did him. But even now he's taking a cue from his former teachers: "This is a time when being a North Catholic guy really matters. How you conduct yourself in adversity." ~ Philadelphia Daily News

Gone? Or will it soon become the domain of the extremely rich, and extremely poor. The Archdiocese has probably educated more than a million children in Philadelphia. Are they getting out of the business of faith based education? The news of the closing of Northeast Catholic High School and Cardinal Dougherty High School hit their students and alumni the hardest -- but all alums of OUR Catholic schools as well. Point of emphasis is the personal pronoun OUR.

John Dougherty came down to the theatre today to pick up some tickets and before even saying "hello" he looked at me and said "they're closing OUR schools." John went to the Prep but no matter; "OUR schools". He also told me that the electricians union had just installed a state of the art computer lab at North recently -- which I don't think North would have made the investment if they knew of Cardinal Rigali's plans. If the Archdiocese isn't "abandoning the kids in the city"… they might be up for an Oscar nomination for "best portrayal of an archdiocese in abandoning the kids of the city". But given the declining enrollments – do they have a choice?

To be fair I guess there was notice. Back in 1993 my mother and I attended a meeting (rally?) at Archbishop Ryan High School held by Cardinal Bevilaqua concerning the closures of many of OUR schools. On the chopping block that night was Little Flower and North Catholic. I wrote a letter to the Cardinal after that meeting, and personally delivered it to his mansion across from St. Joe's, asking that the schools be given a five year reprieve to find a way to get fiscally solvent and increase their enrollment. He did not close those schools (I'm sure my letter had nothing to do with the decision).

Mariangely Negron, 15, said the seriousness of the closing "really didn't soak in," until yesterday morning, when students arrived at school shortly before 8 a.m. for a meeting with the school's president, the Rev. Carl F. Janick, and from Principal Thomas F. Rooney Jr. "That's when a lot of tears just flowed," Urena said.

After listening to the letter from the Office of Catholic Education that said "the decision is final," "students and teachers all broke down in tears," Urena said. Then, after a few minutes, the student body stood and started singing the school song, Negron said.

There are many culprits to blame. The lack of vocations to the religious life would be number one. When the schools were mainly staffed with sisters, brothers, priests and few lay teachers the cost was either free or minimal. Anyone could go if the student or their families sacrificed a bit. That was the main reason my parents gave to Catholic Life 2000. They were appreciative of their 12 years (each) of Catholic education, (St. Columba's/Hallahan/St. Adalbert's/North) basically for free, and wanted to make sure that our schools would be open for future generations. So much for that, although maybe they helped hold off the executioner for a decade.
Secondly many Catholics alums have moved from the neighborhoods that mainly fed those schools, and for whatever reason did not send their children there. Maybe they moved to another neighborhood on Philadelphia and sent their children to that local Catholic high school. Most I would imagine moved to the suburbs, bought a big single house with a three car garage to house their two new foreign cars, have flat screens in every room, fly to their vacation destination when they go go away each year, and figure that since they already pay school taxes that the local public school is just fine. No need to give a faith based education for their children, as their parents gifted them. Too expensive it is deemed, unlike their home, cars, TVs and vacations. I know the Prep's intricate system of buses to the suburbs helped their enrollment, drawing students from non-traditional parishes across the Delaware Valley that may not have given the school consideration, and they now have over 1,000 students. Roman Catholic High School, once slated to be closed, took advantage of open enrollment and its central location and now has over 1,000 students and a waiting list. I don't know if this was tried at either of these schools.

Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh in the above paragraph. So be it. I've talked to enough Catholic educators to know that while the sacrifice may be greater to families these days then in the past... many have far different priorities. One conversation I had was with Msgr. Dominic Bottino when he was pastor at Our Lady of Grace in Somerdale. One family was in the arrears (three years) on their tuition payments for their two children so he made an appointment to visit them to see how that could be reconciled. The first meeting was postponed by the family for their vacation to the Bahamas. The second was postponed for a Phillies game as they had season tickets. When he did visit he found their home to be luxurious, with a satellite dish, two late model cars in the driveway, and an in-ground pool in the back. It wasn't that they couldn't pay (what other families were paying) -- it was that their priorities were different. They eventually pulled their children out of the school after bad-mouthing the parish because they had the audacity to ask for tuition. Oh yes... and they never did pay what they owed.

Thirdly is the the refusal of our Federal and State governments to incorporate tuition voucher programs into their budgets. Remnants of the Blaine Amendment, hostility towards religious institutions, and the dominance of the American Federation of Teachers on the Democratic Party have all contributed to the closing of our schools. Many feel the responsibility of educating children falls upon the parents, not the government. Comical it is that so many Americans look to Canada or Europe for health care ideas but not for educational ideas -- as those countries have voucher programs and/or support both public and private education. There are many great public schools in our country -- though few are in the inner cities. Catholic schools do a tremendous job educating those in the cities... and the government is letting those schools close. They (gov't, AFT) do not care about providing the best education to inner city kids, they only care that they are the only source... no matter how long it takes them to get it right. Generations of poor inner city dwellers have been promised change for 50 years -- and they are still waiting.

Said red-haired Thomas Saunders, 16, a sophomore wearing a red North Catholic hoodie: "It's a second home for us. I don't want to graduate from anywhere else. This whole neighborhood loves North. Cardinal Rigali should have talked to us before he decided to close our school."

Saunders was already planning a fund-raiser, a haunted house for Halloween, to raise money for the school. "We want to fight for our school because we love it," he said. He and his friend Alex Sheldahl, 15, talked about going through freshman orientation as Munchkins. Sheldahl, a sophomore, travels from Pennsauken to attend North, his grandfather's alma mater. "I wanted to come here because he loves this school. As the oldest grandchild, I wanted to carry his tradition on. That it might be closing is pretty lousy."

While students sang school songs and cried on the steps of their schools at North and Dougherty -- last year William Penn High School in North Philadelphia closed without so much of a peep from students or alumni. The school had marvelous facilities -- but was also rated as one of the most dangerous schools in the Commonwealth for the last nine years. The real victims are the children that could be benefiting from a quality faith based education, but aren't. Instead the drop out rate increases, juvenile crime increases, we're left with the highest illiteracy rate for a developed country and instead we devote more money on the budget to build more jails. I liken the voucher/school choice idea to the GI Bill of Rights after WWII, but for parents. As the GI Bill was used to educated millions of returning servicemen at any college (religious or secular -- their choice), so the voucher programs would allow parents (tax payers) to decide where to spend their money to educate their children (religious or secular -- their choice). To be blunt I think all politicians who oppose vouchers, both Republicans and Democrats, at least those who have children, to be hypocrites. They as a privileged group have the money to send their kids to any school regardless of the cost. Poor and middle-class people do not. Wealthy politicians have school choice -- those living in North Philly do not. They are forced to send their children to dismal schools, generation after generation. When the politicians decide to send their children to those same failing schools that they force many of their constituents' children to attend... then I'll stop calling them hypocrites.

One politician I truly admire, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, while running for office, was asked where his daughter would be attending school. His reply -- "public school... where else". Since the Mayor attended Catholic grade school and studied at St. Joseph's Preparatory School on a Gino's Scholarship -- there is an obvious "where else", so I was confused and surprised at his answer, particularly since he speaks at the Prep often is the first to commend the Jesuits for their part in making him the man he has become. I suppose he just was pandering to voters with the comment.

But one only has to look at the raw demographics; Catholics are moving from those neighborhoods near the schools and for the most part are being replaced by a non-Catholic population. Parents are having less children, and due to the divorce rate or having children out of wedlock many are living in single parent households. Some may desire a Catholic education for their children but it is beyond their ability to even dream about it. With each tuition increase (30% in the last 5 years) there were less children able to afford a faith based education -- simple economics.

The plan to close Cardinal Dougherty High School in East Oak Lane and Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Frankford was received yesterday with an intimate grief normally associated with family deaths.

That's not surprising, alumni said, given the emotion, triumph, and hard times that high school can represent, not to mention the importance and influence of two schools that helped shape so many successful Philadelphians.

"High school is a fragile, fearless, hopeful time," said 1971 Dougherty graduate Mary Lou Quinlan, now chief executive officer of the Manhattan women's marketing company Just Ask a Woman but once a high school girl with big dreams. "It's a coming of age. And you can never not be bonded with the people you were with back then. We were all rowhouse kids, pure Philadelphia."

The 6,500 to 600 statistic has been used by many people who may be ignorant of the facts. We as Catholics, sometimes, like to brag. Most Blessed Sacrament in West Philadelphia was once the largest Catholic grade school in the world! Cardinal Dougherty was once the largest Catholic high school in the world! To be honest their enrollments at that time were too large, just as their enrollments today are deemed too small. When my father attended North Catholic (NC '54) he didn't even get to North's building until sophomore year because the freshman classes were educated at local "annexes" since the building couldn't hold everyone. It was called "the factory" at the time. Dougherty may have boasted 6,500 students but again that was not the comfortable size for the school.

But educate they did. North since 1926, Doughery since 1955. And I am proud to count many alums as my friends. To them my deepest sympathy. I feel their pain, as all graduates of Catholic schools do, but obviously not to the depth or breadth. But the statistics are what they are, despite the best efforts of the alumni, and one can’t ignore the numbers. To be fair I won't compare the extreme ends of the enrollment periods, but recent history. In 1970 Cardinal Dougherty's sophomore class was twice as large as this year's entire enrollment -- 1,291 to 642. As recently as 1980 North Catholic had an enrollment of 2,025, and their sophomore class was as large at this year's entire enrollment.

If I ever find the time I will finish my homage piece to a hero of mine; Archbishop Oscar Romero. There is so much to admire about the man's life but a few examples that pertain to this topic. Romero lived humbly three room hermitage in a hospital convent. Romero stopped construction/ renovations on the Cathedral in San Salvador while his people lacked the bare necessities of life. He opened up a vacant seminary to house displaced and homeless campesinos from the country side. I don't think ANY Catholic school should be closed until every fiscal solution has been explored. In the spirit of Romero... why is our archbishop living in a castle when we claim that we don't have enough money to operate our schools? If the logic of his argument is that both schools are too big, and half empty -- when will he be closing St. Charles Seminary? I think that their enrollment decrease must be as severe as Dougherty or North, and the land on City Line and Lancaster Avenues is worth far more than the combined parcels in Olney and Juniata Park.

I also have my doubts about how the Archdiocese spends our money. A personal story: Years ago as my mother was suffering from cancer and was in Frankford-Torresdale Hospital and not having a particularly good week. I called up an old family friend, Msgr. John Jagodzinski, whom I use to serve Mass for and who also taught at Cardinal Dougherty with my father. I had asked him to keep Mom in his prayers but knowing Fr. John -- I knew he would stop by even thought he was stationed in the other end of the city. My parents sat in a small corner solarium as Fr. John walked in. He anointed her, heard her confession, and they chatted a while. At this time the Archdiocese was contemplating building a $500,000 house for the retiring Cardinal Bevilacqua, supposedly with donated funds, although we all know that there might be a few empty rooms already at the seminary. So Mom, still being that same 'cut to the chase' person she always was, asked Fr. John if the Archdiocese would be building him a half-million dollar home as well when he retired. My point is why anyone would even ponder wasting $500K to build a home for one priest when that money could have been earmarked for half-scholarships to North for another 200 boys? What were they thinking? Were they thinking?

Tom Crossett graduated from Northeast Catholic, Class of '75. And for years, he has worked to raise money for the school. He's also an assistant coach for the soccer team, "the defending city champs," he said yesterday. And just Wednesday, the day before the news came that both North Catholic - as Northeast Catholic is known - and Cardinal Dougherty would close at the end of the school year, Crossett was knocking on doors, meeting with other North Catholic alums asking them to support the North Catholic Falcons. Then on Thursday, Crossett learned the schools' fate.

Crossett, who operates a money management firm, said he is upset because many of the 20,000 North Catholic alumni have been working hard to raise money for the school. But Crossett said he believes the archdiocese is "putting its resources in the suburbs" rather than in the city. "If things are so desperate, why are they opening two state-of-the-art schools in the suburbs?" Crossett asked. "They're going where the money is," he said. "They're disenfranchising 1,200 boys and girls in the city."

Adding insult to injury is the clandestine way that the students, faculty, and alumni were informed of the Archdiocese' decision -- after the fact. Some faithful alums were actually out on the streets fund raising for the schools that same week, having no idea that their efforts were in vain. That their passion was misdirected, wasted, and that a Cardinal and his bean counters had already made their decision to close the schools. So if the Vatican II Council defined the Church as "the people of God"... that aggiornamento certainly hasn't given much in the way of decision making to the laity. Surprise… we've decided to close your school. The decision is final.

Sadly we seem to be a generation of Catholics that must get used to soaping up the windows in preparation of closing our churches and schools. Our ancestors, mostly unlettered and blue collared, somehow built beautiful churches and schools with limited resources. Dennis Cardinal Dougherty himself, in the 33 years of his episcopacy, founded or built 110 parishes, 70 churches, 122 grammar schools, three colleges, nine diocesan high schools, fourteen academies, seven hospitals, seven orphanages, seven homes for the aged, and several institutions for various social services and the seminary. Today we specialize in knocking them down. How sad would Cardinal Dougherty be to see his hard work dismantled by his successors -- one parish and one school at a time. That the school named in his honor would close -- insult to injury.

Some say the archdiocese has no choice. Philadelphia's Catholic school system was designed for thousands more students than are currently enrolled. "I think they may have to close more schools," says Mike O'Neill, chairman of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), a group that raises money from the business community to support Catholic schools."The model with which these schools were set up does not work in the city anymore," he said. But O'Neill says it's not due to a lack of interest in Catholic schools. It's all about finances. The cost of attending Catholic high school in Philadelphia has jumped from just over $3,000 earlier this decade to slightly more than $5,000 now.

O'Neill raised funds to pay for scholarships for city children to attend Catholic schools, said "it's very disappointing" to see two more schools close. "The church is not abandoning the kids in the city," O'Neill said. "We could fill every seat in this city if we raised enough scholarship money. . . . Catholic schools can't survive on the model under which they were created, which depended on large parishes in the city to pay for education.

"It's time for the community to get together to raise the scholarship money to send these children to get a safe, quality education, just like before when the parishes took care of it." Every year, O'Neill says his group receives 50,000 applications for 5,000 scholarships. The key to him is lowering the cost of tuition. To do that, O'Neill says schools need to be more self-sufficient. More students per school is the first place to start.

So North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty now join St. Thomas More, West Catholic High School for Boys, South Catholic/St. John Neumann, Bishop Kenrick and St. James in the obituaries of the Philadelphia Catholic League. They say there is no constant but change. Open enrollent has given way to an Archdiocesan Darwinsim, and only the strong survive. Despite the spin this is not good change. Less children will be educated in Catholic schools. I've read of the Jesuits with their Cristo Rey Schools, and the Christian Brothers with their San Miguel Schools, seeking alternatives to educate today's youth in the inner-city. It seems as is our Archdiocese is out of hope. And that's too bad.

Requiescant in Pace North and Dougherty. You've proudly served over 100,000 alumni.

To everything a season.


The memorial to those alumni lost in combat in Vietnam. Dougherty lost more students in Vietnam than any other Philadelphia high school.

The Catholic Standard & Times:Cardinal Dougherty, Northeast Catholic to close

By Christie L. ChicoineCS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Cardinal Dougherty High School and Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Philadelphia will close in June 2010 at the conclusion of the school year, due to declining enrollments and rising costs to maintain the schools, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced at a 7 p.m. press conference Thursday, Oct. 8 at the Archdiocesan Office Center in Center City.“It is with a heavy heart that I make this announcement this evening,” Cardinal Rigali said. [read more]
More resources on High School closings

Video of announcement press conference
Photo Gallery

Chart of enrollment history of Cardinal Dougherty HS, 1960-2009
Letter to parents of Cardinal Dougherty High School
Chart of enrollment history of Northeast Catholic HS, 1960-2009
Letter to parents of Northeast Catholic High School
Web site of Cardinal Dougherty HS
Web site of Northeast Catholic HS

For more information on BLOCS - Archdiocese of Philadelphia - History

Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools
1001 E. Hector Street, Suite 100
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania 19428
phone (484) 684-1212 · fax (484) 684-1296

To the rest of the alums... please support your schools:

Archbishop Ryan High School
Archbishop Wood Catholic High School
Bishop McDevitt High School
Cardinal Dougherty High School
Conwell-Egan Catholic High School
Father Judge High School
La Salle College High School
Lansdale Catholic High School
Northeast Catholic High School
Saint Hubert High School
Archbishop John Carroll High School
Archbishop Prendergast High School
Cardinal O'Hara High School
John W. Hallahan High School
Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls
Monsignor Bonner High School
Roman Catholic High School for Boys
Saint Joseph's Preparatory School
Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School
West Philadelphia Catholic High School
Kennedy-Kenrick Catholic High School

The post mortem...

At 50th, lasting ties and lessons in loss Philadelphia Inquirer

North: From noisy start to big, glorious years Philadelphia Daily News

Catholic schools shift with the population Philadelphia Inquirer

A Blow To Freedom, Education - The Philadelphia Bulletin

Students, Parents Vow To Fight Decision To Close Catholic High Schools -

Metro - Alumni lament loss at two high schools

School closings end two proud sports traditions Philadelphia Inquirer

'The tradition, the incredible memories' Philadelphia Daily News

Two Philly Catholic High Schools Closing

Cardinal Dougherty, Northeast Catholic To Close - The Philadelphia Bulletin

Anger and sadness over school closings Philadelphia Daily News

Archdiocese says its not abandoning city kids for 'burbs Philadelphia Daily News

My thoughts and prayers to go out to all the students, teachers, and alumni of North and Dougherty, but especially to Mike Prendergast, CD '69, head of Alumni/Development at Cardinal Dougherty.

When my father was to visit Cardinal John Foley last summer we thought he would appreciate a remembrance of his time spent teaching at Dougherty. Mike took me on a tour and gave me some great stuff for Msgr. Foley. Mike IS Cardinal Dougherty, and I am so sorry.


  1. Tom,

    Being a Judge grad, this really hits close to home. I think that your analysis is right on. I think the only thing you left out was the priest molestation scandal that has cost the church millions. It has also made many Catholics reluctant to continue giving to the Church. This combination has hit the church coffers especially hard.


  2. Tom,

    Well there goes my coaching career. Read your blog with great interest, as this one actually hits home. I coached there for over 23 years, and all my daughters were educated there. I read the reasons you stated for the closings. To paraphrase "we have met the enemy and they are us". It's not the government, it's the Catholic people who no longer value the benefit of a Catholic Education. Now granted I am a Catholic School lifer, but many people have disposable incomes that would choke a horse, and do not send their children to the local school. I know this sounds trite, but the number 1 reason to send your child to a Catholic school is to pass the Faith onto the next generation. Oh, and by the way, they will receive a great education.

    Well, that's my two cents. I will soldier on no matter what. I hope that the closings of these schools will indeed lead to a healthier secondary system. I have my doubts, but I have Faith that the Good Lord will show men the way.


  3. Tom,

    The next time you see John Dougherty at WST ask him why he isn't pushing the Dems in Philly and PA for vouchers to help families to "save OUR schools". He serves in a leadership role in the party and they might listen to his voice. Since it has worked with inner schools in other cities, why not try it here? Unfortunately, you have provided the real reason it has not been utilized.


  4. Tom,

    Certainly, that the schools are closing is a tragedy.

    Making a fuss now is like blaming the last Little Leaguer who struck out, for losing the game by 9 runs.

    When I saw the percent of capacity for each of the schools in yesterday’s paper, I was floored.

    I’m not a “blamer”, but it seemed the signs were there for a long while.

    It’s a surprise that the schools stayed open as long as they have.

    The job now is to find a way for many of the kids in the two schools to continue in Catholic education.

    Best regards,


  5. any of the kids displaced can easily go to another catholic HS in the city, assuming they can deal with the travel and logistical issues. I dont really have a problem with closing the schools, its simple finance. I do have an issue if the diocese does not have a plan to move every kid who wants to make the move to a new school. The diocese should have a plan for each kid, the school they recommend, a travel plan to get them there and possible tuition breaks to offset the new costs incurred with switching. That would actually be the catholic, christian thing to do.

  6. Your article was fair and based on a lot of facts. My biggest problem is the abandonment of the city basically from Fishtown to Mount Airy (except for Little Flower-and many of their students are bussed in from NE Philly and beyond.)

    OUR kids as you wrote - in both schools,are devastated but told to accept - when OUR Relgion and teachings are based on justice, caring for the poor and less fortunate and we are always told about the power of prayer and praying for miracles. Stay tuned - ironically today would have been my Dad's 80th Birthday.

    I'll keep in touch,

  7. Tom:

    Thanks for the latest blog!

    You are always on target in the articles you select. But darn you, its going to take me the rest of the week to read all of the latest! "Your a good man, Charlie Brown."

    The closing of N.C. and C.D. (where I did my practice teaching, Spring, '66) reminds me of what we went through 21 yrs ago at West. It was a heart-breaker. Its the alumni that has kept the "new" West Catholic going.... The alumni at N.C. and C.D. have done a magnificent "job" over the years to keep the schools open. They are to be thanked..... They did their best.... What's the presence of the Church in Philadelphia? Same can be asked over here...