School Highlight: Remarkable Turnaround in Philadelphia

A leap of faith changes the future of Catholic education in Philadelphia.

By Wayne Sheridan

More than four years ago the Blue Ribbon Commission to study Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced their findings that, of the 17 Catholic high schools in the greater Philadelphia area, four would have to be closed immediately. With newly installed Archbishop Charles Chaput sadly and reluctantly endorsing the proposal, the news was devastating — for students, parents, faculty, and the entire Philadelphia community.

Today the situation is much different. In fact, the remarkable story that follows could provide real, concrete hope for the future of Catholic education throughout the country.

On my first visit to Philadelphia in January 2014, I met Iris Bugg-Reyes, a Honduran native adopted by an American family, who was then a sophomore at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls, one of the four high schools to be closed. She remembers being close to tears as she heard the announcement. “The news was very hard on me and my family. St. Hubert was always my first choice of high schools. Where would I go? How could I start over as a ‘newbie’ somewhere else? I had so many friends here, and the teachers were so loving and supportive. I was really heartbroken.”

But on my recent visit to St. Hubert, the school was abuzz with activity, optimism, and true Christian joy. Iris proudly revealed a mural the students had created honoring great women in history, “Women Who Made a Difference.” It portrayed, among others, Mother Elizabeth Anne Seton and Dorothy Day. Iris enthusiastically walked her guests through the halls and classrooms.

St. Hubert had not closed; nor had any of the other three Catholic high schools: Conwell-Egan Catholic, Monsignor Bonner/Archbishop Prendergast, and West Catholic Preparatory. Today they and the other 13 Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese, along with four specialty schools for the disabled, are not only open, but on sound financial footing, with enrollments stabilized and growing. The future looks even more promising.

Something had happened — something many will consider miraculous.

Laypeople step up

It is a multifaceted story, but simply put, Catholic laypeople in the Philadelphia area stepped up and would not let the schools close.

Ed Hanway, retired chair of Cigna Corporation, had actually been a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission that recommended the closings, but he became one of the laypeople determined to keep the schools open. Ed now chairs the Faith in the Future Foundation, which has had operational management responsibility for all Philadelphia-area Catholic high schools for more than four years. Ed recalls:

I am the grateful product of a Catholic education. It was heartrending to recommend the closings, but there seemed to be no alternative. A combination of dwindling enrollments due to demographic shifts, the rise and popularity of charter schools, and ever-increasing tuition costs had devastated the financial condition of many of the schools, and even threatened the whole Catholic school system.

After the announcement of the closings, there was enormous and rapidly growing support for the four high schools throughout the greater Philadelphia community. The Archbishop said he was open to appeals. I and a few business colleagues decided to get involved in the appeals process.

It seemed to me there just had to be a way to keep those schools open. Would a change in philosophy and a new management approach help save the schools? Could the community energy let loose by the school closing announcements be harnessed in a different, more positive way?

As Ed Hanway and other Philadelphia area Catholic businessmen prayed about and wrestled with the problem, they realized they had only a short time to find a solution — the schools were scheduled to close at the end of the school year, less than five months away.

In our report recommending the closing, we advised setting up a lay-run foundation to help support Catholic education in the future. But what if we could set up such a foundation today? What if we could raise enough money immediately to keep those schools open for at least another year or more? What if we could craft a plan to sustain those schools for the foreseeable future? What if we could completely change the business model for running Catholic schools?

My colleagues and I realized that the new management approach had to encompass all 17 Catholic high schools, not just the four scheduled to be closed. The problems were deeper and broader than those in the four schools, and if they were not solved, others would surely be closed.

We had deep faith in the value of Catholic education, and we were encouraged by the fact that this faith was shared by so many in the community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. [One of our colleagues] set out to raise additional funds over and above those already pledged to help save individual schools. I began discussions with the Archbishop and started drafting the plan.

In a few months the group had raised sufficient funds to keep the schools open for at least a year. Their plan to turn over operational management of all 17 Catholic high schools to a lay-run and controlled foundation was ready to be presented to the Archbishop.

We presented Archbishop Chaput with an innovative plan — perhaps “revolutionary plan” might not be too strong a term — for managing the Catholic high schools through a lay-run foundation we called “Faith in the Future.” The Archbishop asked some penetrating questions, which we answered to the best of our ability. Then he accepted our proposal, provided that we add the operations management of the four special-education schools to our responsibilities. We agreed. I have always thought that the real hero in this story is Archbishop Chaput. It was a real leap of faith on his part.

A leap of faith

It was a leap of faith that was both prescient and well rewarded. Because the Faith in the Future Foundation has been so successful managing the Catholic high schools over the last four years, the Archbishop extended their contract for another five years, two years before the original contract was set to expire.

Ed Hanway believes that principles and practices of the Faith in the Future Foundation and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office of Catholic Education can serve as a template for reinvigorating other Catholic school systems. The following is a summary of those principles.

  • Maintain a strong Catholic identity.

Each of the 17 high schools remains Catholic to the core. Early in the 19th century, St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, founded the archdiocesan school system, the first of its kind in the country. He said, “Since every man of whatever race is endowed with the dignity of a person, he has an inalienable right to an education corresponding to his proper destiny.” That principle remains in effect today. The Archbishop maintains control of the religious education and Catholic culture in the schools.

In the urban Catholic high schools in the archdiocese, 33 percent of students are not Catholic. However, they too benefit from the strong Catholic culture in their schools. In fact, Br. Richard Kestler, FSC, president of West Catholic Prep, says, “On average each year there are 10 or more conversions to Catholicism in our school alone.”

  • Establish lay control of operations and finances.

The board consists of 18 laymen and laywomen, businesspeople and academics, one Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Auxiliary

Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald. Ed Hanway is the chair, and Samuel Casey Carter, a noted expert on educational innovation, is the chief executive officer. The foundation has complete control of operations and finances over the 17 high schools. The chief operating office for Catholic Education in the Archdiocese reports to the foundation.

  • Strive for diversity in unity, and unity in diversity.

Each high school maintains its own identity and culture. Yet they all cooperate to the maximum extent possible, including sharing best practices and personnel with each other. They benefit from economies of scale and fund-raising guidance and help from the foundation and in many other ways too numerous to list here.

  • Incorporate best business practices and technology.

A large school system is also a large business. The foundation has incorporated the latest and best business practices in the management of the schools and is leveraging investments in the latest technology across the system and within each school.

This barely touches upon the principles, practices, and innovations the Faith in the Future Foundation has used to accomplish the remarkable turnaround in the Catholic high schools. With the contract extension, the future looks even brighter. Everyone interested in the future of Catholic education is urged to visit the foundation’s website, and download and read their latest annual report.

Wayne Sheridan is a freelance journalist, poet, and communications consultant to nonprofits. He lives with his wife, Sandra Dutton, on a farm in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City.