The Archdiocese of Philadelphia preparing to announce sweeping recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission that will alter Catholic education across its five-county region.
Anxious and frightened students, parents, teachers, and staff who returned to school this week after the holidays are bracing for the verdict: Will their school survive?
The archdiocese has devised a tightly controlled schedule to reveal the fates of all 156 elementary schools, 17 high schools, and four schools of special education.
The 16-member commission, which spent a year studying the future of Catholic education in the region, is expected to call for closing from 30 to 40 elementary schools and replacing them with regional schools; changing how those schools are governed; and closing four or five high schools. The move is aimed at dealing with sharply declining enrollment, which has dropped more than 30 percent in 10 years.
The archdiocese plan was to present the commission's findings to school administrators, pastors, and religious-education directors at a closed-door meeting at 10 a.m. at Neumann University in Aston. The day's events will culminate with a 4 p.m. news conference at the archdiocese's headquarters in Center City that will be streamed live at www.archphila.org
In between, administrators are to return to their schools shortly after noon to tell teachers, staff, and students their school's fate. Many schools will follow special half-day schedules and dismiss students at 1 p.m.
Parents, students, and alumni worry that schools that have been cherished for decades and have anchored neighborhoods will be shuttered. And hundreds of teachers and staff, who are paid far less than their public school counterparts, fear they will lose their jobs in June.
Elementary and high school teachers who did not want to be named, saying they were concerned about reprisals, described the atmosphere in the schools as somber and depressed. They said conversations with colleagues have focused on sharing rumors and speculation.
"Everybody is upset," one teaching veteran said.
Another said that when Friday's special schedule was announced, it created panic among students and staff that the school was closing. Then they learned all 17 high schools would follow the same schedule.
"I don't appreciate all the secrecy and drama," the teacher said.
And mothers writing on a Facebook page created for Catholic school parents in the fall posted such comments as "Don't think anyone can sleep soundly till it's announced" and "The wait is just making me sick. I hope there is a leak. I'd rather know now. It would just be easier on everyone."
Vicky Carr, whose daughter is a sixth grader at St. Francis Xavier School in the city's Fairmount section, agreed.
"It's the wait," she said Thursday. "It's the only Catholic school in the neighborhood. I thought it was safe. Nobody is safe. We'll know" Friday.
Even schools not destined to close or consolidate are expected to be affected by the broad recommendations.
"I don't even want to think about Friday," said Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents the high school teachers. "It's going to impact the neighborhoods and so many things. Life as we know it is not going to be there anymore."
The archdiocese has 49,177 students in elementary schools, 15,172 students at high schools, and 212 students at special-education schools.
Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 38 percent in elementary schools and 34 percent in high schools. And there are fewer schools to attend. A decade ago there were 214 elementary and 22 high schools.
The archdiocese has cited the moving of Catholic families to outer-ring suburbs, declining birthrates, rising tuition, and competition from publicly funded charter schools as reasons for the decline.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop, created the blue-ribbon commission in December 2010 to take a comprehensive look at Catholic education and recommend a plan to address the plummeting enrollment and ensure a strong future for Catholic schooling.
Rigali asked John J. Quindlen, a retired senior vice president and chief financial officer at the DuPont Co. and a former chairman of the archdiocese's board of education, to head the panel. Quindlen assembled a group of lay and religious leaders.
In a recent interview, Quindlen said that while the archdiocese's Office of Catholic Education had assisted with the review, the commission acted independently.
"These recommendations are our recommendations," he said.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Rigali's successor, met with the commission shortly after he arrived in September and pledged his support.
In a message posted Thursday on the archdiocese's CatholicPhilly website, Chaput wrote: "News media have already suggested that dozens of poorly attended, financially troubled Catholic schools will be asked to combine or close; but a careful pruning of our educational system for the health of the larger mission is clearly necessary. . . . But the substance of the commission report will be much more comprehensive and much more positive than the closing of specific schools. It will create the foundation for a new and stronger future for Catholic education in the archdiocese."
He will join commission members at the 4 p.m. news conference. The archdiocese said that commission members will discuss their plan and that Chaput "will offer comments on the findings."
Quindlen and other commission members said their goal was making Catholic education stronger and putting schools on solid financial footing so a parent who sends a child to a Catholic school can count on its being there in the years ahead.
While students may have to travel farther in the future, he said, the commission's plan includes a spot for every child now enrolled in a Catholic school.
A letter from the commission sent to parents Wednesday and Thursday said that despite tuition, fees, and fund-raising, the schools increasingly were relying on financial support from the parishes and the archdiocese to cover operating costs. Over the last decade, support from the archdiocese and parishes totaled $751 million, the letter said.
To address the issue, the commission is expected to call for consolidating small elementary schools and creating advisory boards for each elementary school to oversee finances and fund-raising, as is already being done at a few parish schools.
The high schools already have advisory boards and fund-raising strategies.
Union president Schwartz said she feared that earlier decisions by the archdiocese could have jeopardized high schools that will remain open.
The archdiocese prohibited all its high schools from collecting 2012-13 tuition deposits until the blue-ribbon report was released. And the Office of Catholic Education delayed the annual eighth-grade high school visitation day from the fall until Jan. 19.
"I think a lot of parents will already have made decisions by then," Schwartz said.
She also pointed out that job security and using seniority in assignments after school closings and mergers were key issues in the high school teachers' strike in September.
The archdiocese, she said, wanted to be able to lay off teachers and require them to reapply for assignments.
"The ability to lay off everyone was the crux of this strike," Schwartz said.
Even with protection, she said, some teachers could lose their jobs if a large number of high schools are closed.
Schwartz said elementary teachers who are not unionized have no job protection.
She said: "I feel very badly for the elementary teachers."
The commission's report is expected to be posted online at the time of the 4 p.m. news conference at www.faithinthefuture.com