Parochial Schools Are Coming Back Stronger Than Ever

After a brush with extinction, these institutions have improved their educational standards, putting them on the heels of some of the top prep schools in the Main Line. Do they have what it takes to sustain the momentum?



Frank Fox, the first lay president of Archbishop Carroll High School, with students Mary Tomassetti and Jonathan DeLeon

At a conference table in his spacious office on Archbishop Carroll’s sprawling campus, Frank Fox makes his pitch. Outside, the warm late-May sun beats down on the fields making the “Welcoming Christ” statue that greets visitors as they enter the grounds gleam. Inside, the energy is just as palpable. Fox, a member of the Carroll class of 1977, has such a polished enthusiasm that it rolls forward in waves, especially when it comes to his alma mater.

Spend time with Fox, and you might just start to believe that Carroll is on pace to surpass New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy as the nation’s finest prep school. He’ll point to the construction initiatives that will soon yield a $5 million football stadium, Carroll students’ increased test scores, a growing enrollment (the 2015-16 freshman class will have 330 students, up 118 from 2013-14) and a more capable applicant pool. Fox could go on and on.

And he usually does.

“We may not yet be the finest private school, but we are the hottest,” he says.

That’s big talk from a school that less than five years ago was thought to be a terminal case, thanks to its 60 acres of prime Main Line real estate and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s yawning need for cash. Unlike some of its parochial brethren (R.I.P. Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic), Carroll survived and is now Fox’s personal passion. He made a tidy sum in real estate development, and in 2013, returned to Radnor to attempt a renaissance at Carroll. He’s the first lay president in Carroll’s 47-year history and is one of several new non-clergy administering Archdiocesan high schools.

Fox is not just trying to keep the school chugging along, content to install a couple of Smart Boards and add a few more AP courses to the roster. He has dreams of Carroll competing for the same students as not just St. Joseph’s and Malvern prep schools, but Haverford, Baldwin and Episcopal, as well. “It’s just a matter of time,” he says. It’s quite a goal, and there are many who would call him borderline delusional, largely because those “tier one” independent schools have had a century-plus (230 years in EA’s case) head start on the type of top-shelf educational offering to which Carroll aspires.

But don’t tell Fox that he can’t do it.  Even if Carroll never makes it that far, his efforts have already resulted in a more robust school on nearly every front. And Fox has plenty of people joining him on the path to improvement—and not just on Matsonford Road. The 16 other Philadelphia-area parochial high schools have embarked on similar journeys in attempts to boost student populations, improve their academic profiles and enhance fundraising. Working under the administrative eye of the non-profit Faith in the Future Foundation, the schools have scrapped the antiquated business model that led to their operating at a mere 34 percent of capacity as recently as two years ago, and are pursuing more sophisticated methods of operation.

In the 1960s, there were more than five million students in Catholic schools across the nation. Today, there are fewer than two million. That number has dropped half a million in the past few years, due to a number of factors. Cost is one reason. A lack of momentum is another. And the scandal involving priests didn’t help, either. From 2003-12, enrollment in Philadelphia-area Catholic high schools tumbled from 23,000 to 14,000. 

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that the number of self-identified Catholics is shrinking regionally and nationally. According to CatholicPhilly.com, weekend Mass attendance from 2001-13 fell from 378,794 to 248,814. In the winter of 2013, the Archdiocese was considering closing four of its high schools. “We’ve done two things very, very well in our schools,” says Chris Mominey, the Archdiocese’s secretary of education. “We have passed on the faith, which is why Catholic schools exist. The second thing we have done is a good job on academics. But we have been running this like a mom-and-pop store.

“Father has been running it from next door [in the rectory], and the sisters are running it from the convent. In reality, this is a $100 million corporation, and if we didn’t bring on Faith in the Future, we were going to die on the vine.”

The decision to turn the system over to Faith in the Future was a bold one and marked the first time a U.S. Archdiocese had done so. The foundation has forced the schools to focus on things that they hadn’t before, such as succession planning among administrators and talent management within the faculty. It has been difficult for some but beneficial for the whole.

The class of 2015 across the 17 schools was the smallest ever, but the incoming freshmen represent a two percent growth from last year and will comprise the largest of the four grades in the system for 2015-16. At the end of the 2013-14 school year, schools had increased their fundraising by a collective $7.6 million. The amount of aid and scholarship monies available to students has swelled by 83.7 percent. The schools are nowhere near where they were 30 years ago, when the trip from parochial grade school to local Catholic high school was de rigueur. Back then, Cardinal O’Hara had nearly 4,000 students; it expects to have just over 1,100 in 2015-16, with 300-plus in the freshman class.  “Our challenge as an organization is to gain market share in a declining market,” Mominey says.  

Parochial high schools are reaching out to alumni in a focused, systematic push to reconnect them and increase donations.

In October 2012, when Samuel Casey Carter was hired as CEO of Faith in the Future, he declared that his mission wasn’t just to revitalize the struggling Philadelphia high schools but to “reinvigorate Catholic education in the United States.” Carter, a former educational consultant and director of a charter school management company, sees the opportunity to recast the area’s parochial high schools as something of a laboratory for educational philosophies and techniques that can travel to other dioceses across the country.

That’s the macro view. For the next several years, however, Faith in the Future must make sure these 17 schools can operate within a model that fosters internal competition that produces overall strength. It’s something of a counterintuitive idea. If the collection of institutions works against itself, how can it possibly grow together? To explain, Carter likens the 17 Archdiocese high schools to divisions within a university. “You have the college of business, the college of arts and sciences, the college of engineering,” he says. “When a family is making a choice about what high school to go to, it can be confident that the core academic program will be excellent everywhere and can then concentrate on individual characteristics of the schools.”

For instance, Cardinal O’Hara in Springfield offers a sports management course that Bonner/Prendergast doesn’t. The students there, however, can amass almost a year’s worth of university credits during their high school careers through courses offered by five area colleges. At Downingtown’s Bishop Shanahan, students can study engineering through Widener University or gain experience in the allied health field. Thanks to the open enrollment policy that has been in effect for over a decade, anybody can enroll in any Catholic high school, allowing students to choose the school right for him or her. Fox reports that Carroll draws from as far away as Collegeville, Wilmington, and even Allentown.

Those choices are getting better thanks to a more sophisticated oversight from Faith in the Future. Although the Archdiocese continues to provide the religious curriculum—a non-negotiable standard of the schools’ mission, whether students are Catholic or not—and some academic guidelines, the schools have been given tremendous latitude to create their own identities. “Our partnership with Faith in the Future is not just about the business side of education,” Mominey says. “It’s about the value proposition of education. What is a school’s particular niche that it can offer to parents?”

Price plays a big part in that equation. On year of high school will cost $31,200 at Malvern Prep in 2015-16, while St. Joseph’s Prep runs $21,550, excluding books, retreats and other fees. Twelfth grade tuition at Haverford School will be $36,800, and similarly at Baldwin School which will cost $35,335. By contrast, O’Hara students will pay $8,150, and Shanahan requires an $8,500 payment (including all fees). At Bonner/Prendie, the cost is $7,200, while Carroll is locking its incoming freshmen into a price of $11,500 for all four years. Even though that is significantly higher than some of its fellow parochial high schools, it is still considerably lower than even St. Joe’s Prep, which is only about 60% as expensive as Haverford.

The value is obvious, but the question remains whether the parochial high schools are offering similar experiences and opportunities as their pricier competitors. For Fox, it’s a resounding yes, based on campus visits from admissions officers at Penn, Princeton and Notre Dame. “If I’m a parent, what am I looking at?” he asks. For those intent on their children having the full independent school experience, the cost is emblematic of superior educational quality and overall institutional excellence.

For some, cost is not a factor. Those receiving 50 percent tuition assistance will still pay more than twice some of the parochial tuitions, but they don’t care. Name brands can carry weight come college application time, and even later in life. What the Catholic high schools are trying to do is say that, while they have yet to reach the levels of Haverford, Baldwin, EA and the like—and may never get there—their improvements warrant a closer look from families, especially those who are Catholic, than they did five years ago.

“It’s important that all of those families who were using price as a proxy for quality and were sending their children to schools because they were more expensive are now seeing quality,” Carter says.

For now, the independents aren’t feeling too much heat. Malvern head of school Christian Talbot considers his main competition to be St. Joe’s Prep, La Salle, Devon, Salesianum, Episcopal and Haverford. “There’s not a huge number of people cross applying to Malvern and Haverford who are also applying to parochial schools like Carroll and O’Hara,” he says. “Maybe one or two kids are looking at both Malvern and Carroll and O’Hara, among those reporting that kind of information.”

Many of the independent schools report that their biggest competition is coming from top public schools, like Radnor and Conestoga, which cost nothing, and are quite strong academically, especially in their college preparation. Regardless, Main Line families have a tremendous number of available options.

“Families have a wealth of choices,” says Haverford School head John Nagl, who went to Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. “There are some of the best public schools in America, a diversity of Catholic options and the best independent schools in the country.”

You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much. Steve Clement can always tell a Bonner/Prendie candidate. “We know who they are,” says the school’s director of admissions. “We have to remember that we’re a community school.”

Despite some schools’ attempts to draw applicants from areas not traditionally associated with them, there is still a strong regional component involved. It would be nice if Bonner/Prendergast could attract students from West Chester, Paoli and Fort Washington, but that isn’t likely—or at least, too prevalent. It remains important for marketing efforts and admissions outreaches to focus first on the areas surrounding parochial high schools before trying to convince candidates to travel an extra half an hour to school.

To do that, Bonner/Prendergast and fellow Catholic high schools are devoting time and other resources to mining nearby parishes, first for those in their elementary schools, and then for members of families who attend church but go to public schools. It’s great to talk about attracting applicants who might usually pursue pricier independent options, or to concentrate on non-Catholics who comprise larger portions of the high schools’ enrollments than ever before. (Carter estimates that the student high school population is 75 percent Catholic, a number skewed by schools like West Catholic, which is largely non-Catholic.)

But the faithful are the prime targets, even if their numbers are dropping. “I was at a retreat for St. Francis in Springfield, and there were 106 students there,” says O’Hara president Thomas Fertal. “Only 21 of them were in Catholic elementary schools. Eighty-five of them go to public school.”

You may remember Fertal from the “O’Hara Funk” video that went viral in the spring and featured the new president—he took over in June 2014—and several students hyping the school in a variety of different settings in a parody of “Uptown Funk.” If you haven’t, head to YouTube and check it out. It may not be MTV quality, but it’s a creative and effective way of promoting the school by showing its various parts and a student body that seems happy to be there.

Fertal reports that the 2015-16 freshman class will be 20 percent larger than its 2014-15 counterpart. O’Hara won’t get back to the 3,500-4,000 numbers who roamed the halls back in the 1970s, but Fertal says there has been “a major turnaround in terms of interest in the school.”

It’s one thing to put out a video, beef up marketing staffs and attend every high school open house in the region, but the schools need to demonstrate to parents that their academic offerings have improved. At Shanahan, the goal is to provide a “customized learning” experience, according Sister Maureen McDermott, who has been principal for 14 years. Enrollment there in 2014-15 was 1,150 students, but since 330 were freshmen, the school’s goal of reaching a comfortable 1,200-1,300 limit appears quite possible. “The building can hold 1,600, but we would be jammed,” says Sister Maureen.

In order to achieve that custom approach, Shanahan allows its students to pick from a variety of class offerings but also from a roster of real-world experiences, such as the aforementioned health and engineering experiences, along with meeting business experts. Shanahan’s club offerings have expanded and now include a TV studio, to go with stalwarts like mock trial and debate. Sister Maureen says that it would be hard to find two seniors who have identical schedules.

And then there’s college credit. At Shanahan, it’s accumulated through an array of AP courses. One recent graduate, who now attends Georgia Tech, was told at the end of the second semester of his freshman year that he was being declared a junior the following year, thanks to his AP classes. At Bonner, the school’s juniors and seniors can choose from college courses offered by Neumann, Chestnut Hill, Rosemont, Cabrini and Harcum. At O’Hara, there are partnerships with Cabrini, Neumann and Penn State-Brandywine. Granted, classes completed at those schools don’t transfer everywhere, but for students who want to attend one of those colleges, it can be quite attractive. “As parents look at college tuition, if there kids can polish off a semester or a year of college, at high school prices, that’s enticing,” Fertal says.

College is the primary goal of the parochial schools, even though some still have three tracks. “Track three is the launching ground to track two,” Fertal says.

There is a significant push to make the schools almost entirely college prep. Certainly it is important to serve all students, regardless of whether they want to attend post-secondary schools, but if the high schools want to challenge their independent brethren, they must aim for the top standards.

Improving faculty and boosting technology helps the pursuit of that goal. Pope John Paul II in Royersford has the edge in the tech world, thanks to its youth (the school is five years old) and a commitment to making sure its students are prepared for college. “Ninety-nine percent of our graduates go to college,” says Sister Janet Purcell, the school’s principal.

It’s great that today’s parochial high schools are working to prepare their future grads for big things. But it’s also important that they are reaching out to alumni in a more focused, systematic way. An increasingly sophisticated approach to fundraising has helped reconnect schools with former students, and that has led to an increase in donations, as well as the ability to call on graduates who are business owners to contribute tax dollars to Pennsylvania’s Earned Income Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs. By accumulating these donations through the BLOCS (Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools) organization, the Archdiocese and its member schools can offer financial aid to families that need it. The more money contributed, the more aid that can be distributed, and the more students can attend the schools. Faith in the Future is lobbying hard in Harrisburg to make sure that the EITC/OSTC programs not only continue, but also expand.

There is also a concerted effort by the foundation to reach out to big donors, and it sometimes asks for as much as $500,000 to $1 million from its targets. Carter trumpets the schools’ collective alumni base of 600,000 as a fertile base from which to solicit funds.

Schools are free to launch giving initiatives to serve their own needs, too. Carroll’s $12 million capital campaign is an example of that. It will help the school expand and improve facilities and also provide increased amenities to teachers. Other schools are bolstering their approaches, too. “We have steadily grown our fundraising efforts over the past three years,” says Scott Fremont, Bonner’s director of institutional advancement. “We have a lot of alums between the two schools, and I wish we had started this effort 20 years ago. The alumni are interested in what’s happening at Bonner and Prendie, and a lot of people want to see this school successful."

More than an hour into his pitch, Frank Fox is still at it. He has detailed Carroll50, the school’s umbrella program to improve facilities, academic offerings, fundraising, college placement and the high school’s ministry programs. He has thrown out a collection of statistics designed to demonstrate Carroll’s growth and pending prosperity. There are new clubs for the students, new fundraising markets to be explored. Fox’s passion for his alma mater is obvious. “I feel I have been preparing for this position for years,” he says.

Around the Archdiocese, similarly ardent administrators are working to reverse decades of decline, with the goal of creating a new system of Catholic schools capable of attracting, retaining and preparing students for the future—and taking aim at some pretty formidable competition. Over the first three years, the progress has been encouraging, thanks to increased enrollment and fundraising. In order to reach the goal of being consistently strong competition for independent schools in an area, rich with private offerings, the results must continue. If the current model remains in place, and people like Fox continue their quests, expect the growth to last, and a previously struggling system will keep blooming.

“It’s a 180,” Fox says. “If you can demonstrate positive metrics while sticking to the mission of Catholic education, we can move forward. [The Archdiocese] is looking for visionaries and passion and business people. “They don’t teach business in the seminary, and I don’t teach theology. If we are to compete, we need the latitude to show creativity.”

And sell it to the masses.