Philly Catholic Schools Get the ‘Miracle of Memphis'

Building on the model that revitalized Memphis, Tenn., schools, a group of Catholic investors is taking over 16 elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — A group of Catholic investors in Philadelphia want to save the inner-city’s Catholic schools. They’ve taken over 16 Catholic elementary schools from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and hired the woman who worked the “Miracle in Memphis” and resurrected a long-dead Catholic school system for that city’s poorest and most at-risk communities.

“These schools are essential, particularly in the inner city, where quality education opportunities for these kids are so limited,” Brian McElwee, chairman of the founding Independence Mission Schools (IMS) board, said. “If you’re going to solve the problems of the city, you have to deal with the education of the young folks.”

The Independence Mission Schools is an independent organization that will begin running 16 Catholic schools in the summer. While schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese have run as independent entities supported by the parishes, McElwee said the IMS board will provide these schools with a new central governance and a professional management business model that will make Catholic schools a low-cost alternative to the city’s public schools.

“This is an alternative for families in an area where they don’t have many alternatives,” McElwee said.

The IMS board will focus on keeping the operational cost low, expanding the available funding opportunities to keep tuition low, and delivering a “top-flight” academic performance for 4,100 pre-K through eighth-grade students.

Delivering on the academics, McElwee said, will make the best argument to donors that their money is well-invested in IMS students. He says IMS believes investors will also be more willing to give knowing that their money can have broader reach and help 4,000 students, as opposed to 250 at a parish school.

But IMS wants to bring the magic of Memphis’ Jubilee Catholic Schools to revitalize the elementary schools — with the difference that a lay board, not the diocese, will centrally manage the schools.


Addressing Urban Blight

The rebirth of Catholic education in the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., is called “the miracle of Memphis” for a reason. Over the last decades of the 20th century, in a pattern typical of many American metropolitan areas, that city’s Catholic population had moved out of the inner city into the suburbs, parishes no longer could absorb the cost of covering school tuition, and so the diocese’s schools largely vanished from the inner city, leaving abandoned buildings as tombstones to Catholic education.

But that all changed when Philadelphia native Mary McDonald came to the Memphis Diocese in 1998 as the diocesan schools superintendent. She said Bishop Terry Steib told her on day one that her mission was to find a way to bring the Church back to the inner city.

It’s then that a group of anonymous investors, none of them Catholic, offered her several million dollars in seed money to bring back Catholic schools into the inner city of Memphis “They knew that Catholic education and everything that is involved would make the difference, especially in the inner city of Memphis,” McDonald said.

That year the Jubilee Catholic Schools were born, and first to reopen were a school and a kindergarten. It was a needed change for a diocese that only had 14 Catholic schools left, with five slated to be closed, McDonald recalled.

“Now, we have eight elementary schools that have been reopened,” she said. “There are now 29 Catholic schools in the diocese, with the largest enrollment since 1976.”

McDonald was tapped by IMS to serve on the board as chair of its academic committee. She said she will be overseeing the development of academic best practices, student engagement and teacher effectiveness.


The Memphis Model

McDonald said the Memphis model could give inspiration to other dioceses around the country struggling with keeping a Catholic education presence in the inner city. She said Memphis has one of the poorest zip codes in the country, where gangs roam the streets, prostitutes hang out on corners, and burned out buildings pockmark the city.

“I was told, ‘Nobody would live there, teach there, so what are we doing there?’” McDonald said. “I realized that we didn’t leave buildings behind. We left those children behind there, too. We needed to see their value and their worth. We needed to return.”

Now, McDonald said, the neighborhoods in which the Jubilee schools are located have begun to change for the better, with people starting to go back to church and return to the neighborhood.

Memphis’ Bishop Steib said that Catholic education is a priority because it is a vehicle for evangelizing students, gives them dignity and a chance for a better life.

“Bringing Catholic education back to the poorer areas of the city is our calling and mission as Catholics. It is our Gospel mandate,” Bishop Steib said. “Educating is a good that we have to offer, especially in areas where Catholic education is not affordable but needed.”

Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, executive vice president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said the IMS and Jubilee Schools reflect the Church using its creativity to respond to demographic changes, especially the fact that most schools are no longer run by religious orders.

“A teaching sister made nothing, but now you have teachers who do need salary and benefits,” Brother Roberrt said.

NCEA data from 2011 showed the national average Catholic tuition cost was $3,673, while the average per-pupil cost was $5,387. Brother Robert said parishes traditionally made up the rest of the deficit with collections. But many inner-city parishes lack the resources to make up the difference, let alone have leftover capital that’s needed to invest in maintaining the school property or invest in technology for its students.

“The reality is that it is a new world, and we need to take a look at new solutions and new ways of doing business,” Brother Robert said.

Last August, Archbishop Charles Chaput announced that the management of the archdiocese’s 17 high schools and four special-education schools would be overseen by the Faith in the Future Foundation. The foundation would serve in an advisory capacity to the 123 elementary schools in the archdiocese.


Philadelphia’s Problem

IMS formed in response to Archbishop Chaput’s January 2012 announcement that the archdiocese would follow a blue ribbon commission’s recommendations to close four high schools and 44 elementary schools in Philadelphia. McElwee and fellow investors had success turning around St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in northeast Philadelphia and convinced the archdiocese that giving management of the elementary schools to IMS might be their best shot at keeping Catholic education alive in the inner city.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has shown particular interest in IMS’ goals for Philadelphia, as on Jan. 18 he visited the St. Martin of Tours school.  Earlier in the month, he personally introduced IMS’ new president, Al Cavalli, at a rally for IMS.

Cavalli said the Independent Mission Schools are going to try a new creative approach to solve the challenge Catholic schools in Philadelphia are facing.

“Catholic elementary schools are essential. They must survive,” he said, pointing out that Catholic high schools depend on elementary schools as feeder schools.

“We have good solid business practices, an entrepreneurial spirit and want to focus all our attention and resources on a quality education for children that gives a good, safe environment for teachers and administrators,” he said.

Cavalli has an accounting background and 35 years of experience running schools that serve students with mental disabilities and special needs.


Summertime Start-Up

Cavalli said IMS will take over the schools in the summer. They plan to develop best practices for running the schools and reduce overhead, in some cases by obtaining services at a lower cost than 16 individual schools could.

“We want to build a lean operation and look at academic performance and make sure we have the things we need to build the very best students,” he said.

Cavalli will help form a plan to bring scholarship and fundraising dollars to offset the cost of tuition and make it more affordable for families. IMS can also draw on public funds that diocesan schools are not eligible for. The long-term goal, he said, is to build a substantial endowment (first by raising $55 million in four years) that will also help IMS give higher salaries to Catholic educators.

Like the Jubilee Schools pioneered by McDonald, IMS will provide families a much-reduced tuition, based on what they can afford. But each family will pay a contribution to put their child through school.

The Independence Mission Schools will still have a connection to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic schools.

“They will have our resources, curriculum and services, but have independence in their finances and their government,” said Jacqui Coccia, superintendent of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools.

Coccia said the archdiocese liked IMS’ idea to have a central board of professionals take care of operating the schools and fundraising, because it allows the principal and vice principal of each school to focus on education. She said they hope the success of IMS will offer the archdiocese new ideas to help it renew its commitment and presence to the most at-risk communities.

Said Coccia, “We’re really praying this is successful because we want to see our inner-city schools alive and thriving for all of our families.”

Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.

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