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Main Line Parochial Schools Adapt to the Changing Times

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Despite some disquieting numbers, Catholic school administrators in the Philadelphia suburbs are cautiously optimistic for the future.

John Cooke likes to joke that it took a guy from Northeast Philly to lead a Delaware County high school forward. The Archbishop Ryan product and Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast president finds himself surrounded by people with direct connections to the school, which was created by a 2005 merger of two proud Drexel Hill institutions. “We’ve got some good stuff going on,” says Cooke.

In 2012, Bonner-Prendie almost ended up in the same graveyard as several other Philadelphia Archdiocesan high schools. “The threat of closure got more people involved here, and our partnership with local colleges has been huge for our sustainability,” Cooke says. “It’s a good investment, and students get Catholic values at a place where people really care about them. Everybody’s from here but me—but I really love this place.”

trouble in schools

Illustration by Jon Krause

As Bonner-Prendie attempts to increase fundraising, boost enrollment and continue to build relationships capable of attracting and retaining students, it joins its fellow schools in what’s becoming an increasingly difficult fight. Last November, the Archdiocese announced Bishop McDevitt and John W. Hallahan high schools would be closing after the 2020–21 school year. St. Basil, an independent Catholic school in Jenkintown, will also cease operations. They join North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty on the list of recently shuttered institutions. (St. Thomas More, Bishop Kenrick, St. James and others were closed decades ago.) Bonner-Prendie, Conwell-Egan, St. Hubert’s and West Catholic were all supposed to cease operations nine years ago. But last-ditch fundraising campaigns preserved all four.

There’s a variety of reasons for the contraction, but shrinking enrollment is the primary culprit. Hallahan was operating at 36 percent capacity, while McDevitt was at 40. Cooke reports that this year’s freshman class of 220 at Bonner-Prendie was the largest in the Archdiocese, and that the school’s total of 800 students was third highest in the area. But can Bonner-Prendie, Archbishop Carroll, Cardinal O’Hara and Bishop Shanahan survive long-term, given the diminishing number of families who identify as Catholic and a growing need for financial aid? The schools are also sitting on some pretty desirable real estate, and there are other compelling forces working against them.

Forty years ago, the Archdiocese model was quite successful. Parents sent their children to parish grade schools, and those kids moved seamlessly into the regional high schools with areas of recruitment clearly delineated by the Archdiocese. If you lived in Wynnewood, you went to Carroll. Upper Darby kids went to Bonner or Prendie. And so on.

But church attendance has lagged. In 2009, 52 percent of Americans went at least once a month. Ten years later, it was 45, and those identifying as Catholics dipped from 36 to 27 percent of the population during the same period.

Meanwhile, parochial institutions have had to adopt many of the same recruitment methods employed by independent schools. The good news: Their tuitions are substantially lower—about $10,000 a year. The bad news: Resources aren’t always of the same caliber.

And students these days need greater levels of financial assistance. During the 2020–21 school year, requests for tuition aid rose 46 percent, and that includes a large number of families that never sought grants before. As the old model fades, administrators must broaden their sales pitch to include applicants unable to pay all—or any—of the tuition.

As a result, schools must raise more money than ever before to provide the aid. Cooke reports that Bonner brought in $2 million last year, up from $1.8 million in 2019. O’Hara president Mike Connor says his school raised “about $230,000 during a spring giving event.”

“The job of school president focuses on recruitment and raising money,” Connor says. “When I was interviewing for the position, I told the school that fundraising is relationship management. It’s like sales. I have to manage people.”

Connor is an O’Hara alum, graduating in 1985. He spent seven years as O’Hara’s assistant boys’ basketball coach under the legendary Bud Gardler. When Connor graduated from O’Hara, there were 900 in his class. This year, O’Hara had 829 in the entire school. Growing up in Broomall, Connor attended St. Pius X for elementary school, so for him it was either O’Hara or Marple Newtown High School. That’s not the case now. “The high school choice has taken over for the college choice for families,” Connor says. “Choosing a college is still very important, but seventh- and eighth-graders are now facing a lot of pressure. We have to be very creative in how we recruit. We reach out to students in our [parish] schools as early as fifth or sixth grade. We even have to reach out to the public schools.”

And they’re facing considerable competition at every price level. Families looking for an independent Catholic education can choose Malvern, Devon Prep or even St. Joe’s Prep (which runs buses from Main Line and Delaware County locations to campus). Non-denominational independent schools abound in the area and have been more aggressive in recent years with their financial aid awards. This is due in part to Pennsylvania’s EITC program, which allows people to forward their state tax dollars to schools that then use the money for tuition assistance. There’s also the no-cost option, which includes exceptional public schools like Radnor, Conestoga, Unionville and Lower Merion.

Because the student populations of Archdiocesan high schools are no longer exclusively—or in some cases, even half—Catholic, selling the Church isn’t necessarily the best tactic when recruiting enrollees. But parochial high schools aren’t going to abandon their principles. There are still liturgies, religion classes and an overriding commitment to Catholicism. Sometimes, though, it’s packaged a little differently. Irene Hannan is CEO of Faith in the Future, an organization of business and community leaders committed to supporting Archdiocesan high schools. She’s spent considerable time in the banking world, where she ran into many employers who gave Catholic school graduates preference due to their discipline and strong ethical foundations. “People are finding themselves in a polarized secular environment,” Hannan says. “Many want a values-based education for their children. Having strong morals and principles is so important.”

That promise of helping students develop a strong internal compass allows Catholic high schools to justify an annual price tag of nearly $10,000. While that’s substantially lower than other independent schools, it still isn’t affordable for many families. Archdiocesan high schools argue that by coupling the educational foundation with strong character development, the family financial commitment is worth it.

But there has to be more. Many parochial high schools are now offering students the opportunity to accrue college credits before graduation. Carroll students can take classes at nearby Cabrini University. At O’Hara, kids can attend Widener and Neumann. Shanahan is connected with Neumann and Immaculata, and Bonner-Prendie has relationships with Cabrini, Immaculata, Chestnut Hill, Rosemont and Neumann.

Now, Delaware County Community College has purchased the former Archbishop Prendergast property, so there’s a college right next door. “My goal is that our kids will be able to get an associate’s degree from Delaware County Community College before they get a diploma from Bonner-Prendie,” Cooke says. “If a student has a free fifth period, he or she can go over to Delaware County and take a class. This way, they can get a college degree in just two years. This is going to be huge for our school’s future.”

To some, Bishop Shanahan would appear to have an ideal situation. The Downingtown-based high school is in an area where home construction is booming, and parish memberships in the area are strong. “Every school has its up periods and down periods,” says former principal Mike McArdle, who retired at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. “We have to hustle—it doesn’t come easily. We’re surrounded by good public schools and strong independent schools. We have to work hard.”

Shanahan’s 2020–21 enrollment was 968, with a freshman class of 208. Although McArdle expects the 2021–22 crop of newcomers to exceed last year’s freshman number, an ideal number of students is 900. It shows that no parochial high school is immune from enrollment issues, even one that recently added an extension to its main building.

Shanahan’s tuition is $9,450, according to McArdle, making it one of the more expensive Archdiocesan high schools. And for those families willing to pay more for their children’s Catholic education, Malvern Prep, Devon Prep and Villa Maria aren’t too far away. “People are looking at college tuition and are starting to ask whether they want to pay for high school, too,” McArdle says.

In the end, it all boils down to money. The stark decrease in vocations has removed many salary-free teachers and administrators. Add to that the increased need for financial aid from prospective families, and there’s a powerful vise exerting financial pressure. “Cost is the biggest factor,” says Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott, the Archdiocese’s superintendent for secondary schools. “More money would drastically increase enrollment.”

Related: College Students Around the Main Line Adjust to School Amid COVID

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