A ‘bittersweet’ start to the new school year at Immaculate Heart of Mary

On the first day of school for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the future of Catholic education for riverside parishes rests in one school – Immaculate Heart of Mary in Andorra.

For Catholics in East Falls, Manayunk, and Roxborough – who once had several immediate neighborhood choices for their children’s education – IHM is the last remaining Archdiocesan elementary school after a series of mergers and the failure of St. Blaise Regional School to meet enrollment goals this spring.

“We had a wonderful first day back to school,” said IHM Principal Joanne Wiess. “Everyone from first through eighth grade found their classroom, teachers and classmates.”

A change of plans 

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As reported by Newsworks, the Archdiocese announced in January that St. Bridget School in East Falls would be merged with Holy Child Regional School in Manayunk, resulting in a renamed regional school – St. Blaise – to be located on the site of Holy Child. 

Support for the new school was limited – especially from St. Bridget parents, many of whom accepted the necessity of the merger but expressed concern over the decision-making process.

In addition, tuition increases – while keeping in line with national trends – priced some parents out of the school, particularly unsubsidized non-parishioners.

Whatever their reasons, parents by-and-large did not enroll, and the still-speculative St. Blaise announced in June that it would not open.

Enrollment numbers and policies 

IHM was one of six alternatives offered by priests in response to the failure of St. Blaise. 

Parents of students enrolled at St. Blaise were told in June that their children would be “met with open arms” and priority would be given to those who previously registered and submitted a registration fee for St. Blaise Regional School.

‘Fully Participating Parishioners’ – a somewhat controversial distinction made for those who attend and give weekly to their home parish – will continue to receive scholarships from their home parishes. 

Once all of the families that previously registered for St. Blaise are accommodated, the announcement said, all other registrations will be considered for the remaining open seats.

Asked if there was any friction owing to this prioritization, Wiess said that, “We welcomed anyone who was enrolled at St. Blaise – most of the students came to IHM.”

Enrollment is in fact up: last year IHM had 434 students. This year, Wiess noted with enthusiasm, the total is 588. However, even with this 35-percent increase in enrollments, that does not fully account for the almost 400 students who were displaced by the June closure.

Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill was the only alternative option in Northwest Philadelphia. OMC Principal Bruce Hagy was not immediately available to comment on enrollment figures.

Susan Canio, former Principal of St. Bridget School and principal designate of fallen St. Blaise, assumed the position of vice-principal at IHM. In addition, other teachers from the merged school were reportedly placed at IHM and other nearby Catholic schools, but administrators were unavailable to confirm how many.

Faith in the Future Foundation 

In August, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Faith in the Future Foundation announced “an agreement in principle,” creating an independently managed Catholic school system encompassing 17 high schools within the Archdiocese as well as its four schools of special education.

The Foundation assumed strategic and operational management of these 21 Archdiocesan schools effective September 1, 2012 and focused on major fundraising, enrollment management, marketing and cultivating best practices in leadership and education, according to a release.

For the 123 elementary schools still under the aegis of the Archdiocese, their inclusion in FITFF is not finalized.

“Although this agreement specifically addresses the Archdiocesan high schools and the schools of special education,” said Meredith Wilson, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese, “the Foundation will work in close partnership with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and will also seek to provide support to the Archdiocesan grade schools.”

In the meantime, IHM will continue to serve as the only immediate option for Catholic School in East Falls, Roxborough, and Manayunk.

“We are working to blend together all of our new faculty and students and to move forward in a positive way,” said Wiess. “We are pleased to have the opportunity to serve even more families in the community.”

‘A brand new start’

While enthusiasm for the new school was high on Wednesday morning, memories of past mergers were evident.

Several vehicles dropping off students bore St. Bridget stickers, and parents of former St. Bridget students – including some who led efforts to save their now-shuttered school – were seen dropping their children off.

Kate Mongan from Roxborough said she was “very excited for a brand new start.”

A veteran of three school mergers, she said she was enthusiastic about achieving stability in her son’s schooling.

“It’s great to know that they’re going to finish here,” she said.

Mary Fresta from Lafayette Hill went from St. John the Baptist School to St. Bridget to IHM. She said she didn’t feel any resentment as a result of the mergers and closures.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Fresta, “but the kids are going to make new friends.”

She praised the IHM community for being extremely welcoming.

“They actually said ‘we’re sorry to hear what happened to you,'” said Mary Beth Malloy of Roxborough. ‘We didn’t hear that from anybody else – they reached out to us.”

“I think it’s better to only have two choices – Catholic or public,” continued Malloy. “If you choose Catholic, it’s just here [at IHM], and that’s it.”

“Now it’s back to its full capacity,” added Fresta. “It’s like it was when we were young.”

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