Corbett shows support for struggling Catholic schools

Governor Tom Corbett addresses kids from different Catholic Schools during a press conference at St. Martin of Tours School on the new educational model for catholic schools around the city, Friday, January 18, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Gov. Tom Corbett was at St. Martin of Tours Elementary School last week to proclaim the value of a Catholic education.

Corbett told the pastors, principals and teachers that they inherited a good educational system from generations before them.

Then, pointing to the children standing behind him, he made the case for additional financial support for ailing Catholic schools.

“We need to turn over an even better system to the generation behind them,” he said during his visit Friday.

Corbett was at St. Martin’s, at 5450 Roosevelt Blvd. in Oxford Circle, one of 16 so-called “mission schools” in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It’s the only one in the Northeast.

Fourteen other mission schools are spread throughout the city and one is in Lansdowne, Delaware County. In all, they serve more than 4,200 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Sixty-three percent of the students are non-Catholic.

All of the schools are located within the boundaries of the 15 percent lowest-achieving public schools.

The non-profit Independence Mission Schools will officially begin managing the schools in September, and the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education will continue to provide services. IMS was formed in early 2012 following the archdiocese’s announcement that some elementary schools in poor neighborhoods would close due to low enrollment and increasing costs.

The money raised by the IMS central office and each school’s board will help lower the cost of tuition and enhance the academic offerings. The hope is that enrollment rises to the point that classrooms operate at or better than 90 percent of capacity.

At one time, Catholic elementary schools flourished. A number of factors — high tuition, changing neighborhoods, the popularity of charter schools — have led to decreased enrollment, which has led to many closed and merged schools.

All of the schools, particularly St. Martin’s and the other 15 mission schools, need help to survive.

In his remarks, Corbett promoted the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarships Tax Credit programs. Both programs allow businesses to make tax-deductible donations to scholarship organizations.

IMS has a goal of raising an endowment of $55 million over the next four years from businesses and individuals. The group touted its plans to manage the money wisely.

“We operate these schools for less than five-thousand dollars a child,” said Brian McElwee, chairman of the IMS board of directors.

Among those in attendance at the event were Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, state Rep. Kevin Boyle and City Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

IMS used the occasion to announce the appointment of Aldo Cavalli as its first president. Cavalli, who has more than 35 years of experience as an administrator and executive for educational and mental health organizations in the public and private sectors, described his new position as the most exciting of his professional life.

The model school for the IMS is St. Martin de Porres, at 23rd Street and Lehigh Avenue, which opened two years ago under private management. Today, according to McElwee, enrollment is rising, standardized test scores are improving and the school’s finances are stabilizing.

McElwee said Catholic schools are in demand, as long as parents can afford them.

“These are anchors in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Mary McDonald will serve as a consultant to the IMS. She led a resurgence in Catholic education in Memphis, even reopening eight schools, including one that had been shuttered for 54 years. She hopes to help do the same in her native Philadelphia, which she pointed out was the home of St. John Neumann, who founded the Catholic school system, and St. Katharine Drexel, who opened schools for the poor and disenfranchised.

James Maguire, founder and chairman emeritus of Philadelphia Consolidated Holding Corp., said the insurance industry will be proactive in supporting the IMS. He hopes other businesses and individuals join the effort to boost the IMS.

“Anybody within shouting distance of my voice ought to look at this program,” he said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com