Hope Rises for Philly Catholic Schools as Enrollment Soars
A renewed agreement between the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Faith in the Future Foundation shows that traditional Catholic education can thrive with a new business model.
PHILADELPHIA — Scribes writing the epitaph for the Catholic school system will have to put away their pens. A new model of school management tested in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is delivering proven results, giving new hope to parents and educators alike for the future of Catholic education.
On Thursday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that its partnership with the Faith in the Future Foundation to pioneer a new model to deliver Catholic education in the United States — an independently managed Catholic secondary-school system — would be renewed and extended to 2022.
Under the agreement, Faith in the Future exercises independent oversight and strategic management of 17 high schools within the archdiocese, as well as its four schools of special education, and oversees the Office of Catholic Education (OCE), providing it best business practices, while OCE focuses on the curriculum, standards and academic and spiritual development side of K-12 education.
The agreement signed in August 2012 is being renewed a full year and a half before its contract expires.
“Extending the management agreement between the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Faith in the Future Foundation underscores the importance of lay leadership in the Church,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput in a statement. “I’m deeply grateful for the willingness of lay leaders — all of whom love Catholic education and its value for the wider public — to step up and support our students in such generous ways.”
Samuel Casey Carter, the foundation’s CEO, told the Register that his organization stabilized the decline of the system of 21 schools and is now seeing “modest growth” in enrollment.
“We’ve demonstrated how to overwhelm the business challenge, and now we have an opportunity to truly demonstrate what the Catholic school system in the 21st century can look like,” Carter said.
“What they actually need is the benefit of some central services, and they need to be able to get the benefit of some basic business practice that will allow them to focus on and continue to enhance their Catholic mission,” he added.
In the case of the 21 schools, Faith in the Future Foundation took the deficit from the schools’ normal operating costs off the table, agreeing to underwrite those costs, as it put them on a better business model. It also professionalized the fundraising and donor development of the schools. What has happened, Carter said, is the system as a whole has moved from an operational deficit to a “cumulative surplus of $5 million” over the last three years.
“That money is now being reinvested to help with enrollment, help with fundraising, help with program enhancements, help with people development and help with technology,” Carter said.
Denise LePera, president of Archbishop Ryan High School in northeast Philadelphia, told the Register that a new feeling of hope and confidence is pulsing through the Catholic high school, thanks to the work of Faith in the Future.
“It’s a better opportunity for us to succeed,” LePera said, adding that the school has a “strong sense of family” now that the fear of the future is gone.
LePera said fundraising has expanded significantly due to the foundation’s procuring a new fundraising database. But she said the foundation has also helped change the schools’ outlook and how they relate to each other: They are now marketing themselves better to compete with private schools. The various Catholic schools also no longer look at each other as competing for the same students, but as part of the same team working to expand their enrollment together.
“We’re hearing [from supporters about] a strong faith in the job our teachers are doing and that we are going to be around for the next 50 years.”
Saving the Schools, Not the System
Schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese — as with most Catholic dioceses — have traditionally run as independent entities supported by the parishes. Many have come to see the model as unsustainable due to the disappearance of free labor that religious teaching orders used to provide and changing demographics.
Chris Mominey, director of the Office for Catholic Education, said that while Catholic schools have had a solid reputation of passing on the faith and delivering “great academic results,” the business side has not been able to sustain them.
“Unfortunately, for a long time, we’ve kind of run the operations side like a mom-and-pop [business],” he said.
However, the business savvy of Faith in the Future’s lay leadership has helped them be better stewards of their resources and optimize them to their advantage.
“They’ve brought to us a style of management that is worthy of the mission,” Mominey said.
He explained that OCE just hired a director of talent management — a position well-known in the corporate world but almost unheard of in Catholic education circles — that is dedicated to professional development of personnel and creating career paths within the education system.
Other changes have included professionalizing the enrollment office and developing better tactical and practical approaches to bringing in more students.
“They teach us how to invest in the center, in people, in enrollment and in technology, in order to make the organization more efficient, more productive and definitely have a different result,” Mominey said.
New Models Inspire
Thomas Burnford, interim president of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), said the organization is studying closely the different new governance models being pioneered across the country in order to help dioceses determine specifically which one best serves their needs. He said the success of Faith in the Future testifies to the “deep passion” the Church and business community (including non-Catholic leaders) have to Catholic education.
“Catholic schools across the country — and dioceses — need to look at a variety of governance models to see what is going to work best for each local area,” he said.
Burnford said the NCEA has followed closely the work of Faith in the Future and awarded its Seton Award to Edward Hanaway, the foundation’s chairman, to honor the efforts.
“The sheer number of new programs, creative governance models, new funding streams, and in some cases the expansion of Catholic schools,” he said, “are all signs of great hope for the growth of Catholic school education in the future.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.