The untold story in the Philly school closings

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It came as no surprise when Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput announced the closing or merger of 48 Catholic schools in the archdiocese last Friday. After all, Catholic schools around the country have been closing for years, and we've all heard that Catholic education is dying a slow death, right?

That's the story many in the media have been telling, which is great, except for the small caveat that it isn't exactly true. Meanwhile, Catholic News Service reports that Philadelphia's detailed plan for the future viability of Catholic schools, which includes merged schools supported by multiple parish communities, "signal(s) a new model of Catholic education." Well, that's not entirely accurate either.

The real reason that Philadelphia's announcement isn't a surprise is that they're just the latest (arch)diocese to join the game of catch up in adjusting their Catholic schools to the realities of the society we live in.

It's been well documented that Catholic education went through a major boom period in the 1960's, and many schools were opened to serve the Catholic population at that time. But 50 years have passed, and there have been major demographic shifts. There are fewer families sending their kids to Catholic schools in urban and inner-city areas (and not surprisingly, that's where most of the Philly closures are taking place) but there has also been growth in suburban areas.

A look at some of the data available through the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that public schools have gone through the same changes. Districts have been consolidated, and between 1940 and 2007, the number of schools nationwide decreased from 247,127 to 98,793. But Catholic schools have been slower to adapt to population shifts or simple declines in the number of school age children, and the result has been not closures or mergers as the need arose, but sweeping changes like the one announced in Philadelphia that come long after individual schools have fallen on hard times.

At the same time, the Catholic population is growing in other parts of the country, most notably in the Southeast and the West. The National Center for Catholic Education reports that in 2010-2011, there were 1,822 Catholic schools in the country with a waiting list for admission, and 34 new schools were opened. So there's still a demand for Catholic education, albeit not necessarily in the same places where there have traditionally been the most schools.

The eagerness to serve the booming population of Catholic children in the 60s may have led to an overgrowth of schools that are no longer sustainable, but the pendulum then swung in the other direction, with the church being hesitant to close schools that were no longer viable and to open new ones in other areas. While the Philadelphia closures are unfortunate for many families, they are in a way long overdue. The good news is that the accompanying plan for the future--like plans developed in many other dioceses--is a sign that the church is finally realizing that it needs to keep up with the times.