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Where Have All the Students Gone?

Catholic school closings are nothing new. Nearly every major city in the U.S. has gone through at least one round of “downsizing.” Waves of ecclesiastical crises — think “priest shortage,” abuse lawsuit payouts, bankruptcies — have kept closures and real-estate sell-offs on the pages of every major American newspaper. So, you’d think, more school closings in yet another city aren’t a big deal. Philadelphia, however, with its proposed closure of forty-eight Catholic schools, deserves renewed attention.

The recently installed Archbishop Charles Chaput — orthodox, clearheaded, and shrewd — inherited a mess of problems. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (Jan. 8), a Blue Ribbon Commission, which had been formed a year earlier by the outgoing archbishop, Justin Cardinal Rigali, examined the troubled school system and made closure recommendations based on declining enrollments in the five-county region. The closure plan, touted to save the archdiocese as much as $10 million a year, mandates layoffs for at least two hundred teachers. After a mere three months at the helm in the City of Brotherly Love, Chaput understandably wondered whether he should put off the massive Catholic school closings. “So I took the question to the priests’ council,” the archbishop said in an interview, “and I asked them if we should postpone it for a year.” His advisory body of senior priests answered no: “They told me, ‘Don’t postpone. We have to do this now.’ So I’m taking the advice of the priests’ council.”

It was the archbishop’s inherited duty to defend the Blue Ribbon Commission in the face of criticism. He explained that its members were “speaking truthfully” about “enrollment and financial realities nobody wants to face” (Catholic News Agency, Jan. 12). “The resource challenges we face in 2012,” he said, “are much harsher than forty or fifty years ago when many of us attended Catholic school. No family can run on nostalgia and red ink.” Enrollment statistics for one high school slated for closure sounds drearily like the stories of other high schools across the nation: 1,800 students a generation ago, fewer than 500 now. Neither the archbishop nor the commission failed to see the burdens that many families and teachers will face from the closures. Chaput made assurances that the archdiocese will try to place students and teachers in new positions, and will assist any laid-off workers.

Shortly after the announcement of closures that would affect four high schools and forty-four elementary schools — displacing nearly 24,000 students — many parents, students, and employees protested. Masses and prayer vigils brought communities together, and rallies garnered media attention. Who can’t sympathize with the parent of an eleventh grader who’ll have to relocate for his final year of high school? Or with a middle-aged teacher who’s about to get downsized? The parents, students, and teachers had their say through the voice of journalists who typically side with the perceived “underdog,” and sometimes gleefully so when the institutional Church is perceived as the antagonist.

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