Low enrollment threatens viabilty of St. Blaise Regional School in Manayunk

Late last week, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia released a statement to current and prospective parents of St. Blaise Regional Elementary School in Manayunk indicating that current registration levels for the school are far below those necessary to open in the fall term, and may jeopardize the viability of the school.

As of June 8, 155 students were registered. This is below the approximately 400 students originally predicted to register by the Archdiocese upon the formation of St. Blaise, which will combine students from Holy Child School in Manayunk – the future location of St. Blaise – and St. Bridget School in East Falls, which will cease operations this month.

250 students must enroll in order to meet payroll and run the school with promised programs, according to the statement signed by the priests of the five supporting parishes in East Falls and Manayunk. The statement said that sponsoring parishes do not have the financial means to offset financial losses stemming from underenrollment.

While school officials indicated in the past that late enrollment is a veritable tradition in local Catholic schools – with some families registering as late as August – the statement indicated that the school and the parishes “cannot extend the deadline indefinitely,” and urged all interested parties to take immediate action.

On Monday, June 18, the results of this final registration effort for Saint Blaise Regional School will be announced.

“It is our sincere hope, as it has been from the beginning, that we not only meet our enrollment goal but exceed it,” the priests concluded.

Insufficient enrollment numbers 

St. Blaise Regional School suffered setbacks from its inception, which followed the original merger announcements in January.

As reported by NewsWorks, many families at St. Bridget School leveled criticism at the Archdiocese, citing a lack of transparency in the decision to close their beloved school and to disallow an appeal. A subsequent tuition increase, while keeping with normative rates of Catholic education nationwide, caught many parents off-guard, forcing a scramble for alternative educational options.

By way of contrast, parents at Holy Child were seemingly more accepting of the Archdiocese’s decisions.

However, there were other indicators of trouble for the school, voiced by prominent Archdiocese officials.

Last month, Mary Rochford, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education, told the Inquirer that of the 21 regional schools slated to open in the fall, St. Blaise was the “only one I’m worried about.”

Asked to expand on this statement, Rochford – who is slated to retire at the end of June – told NewsWorks that she has kept “close watch” over all of the newly formed regional schools.

Rochford observed that enrollment numbers at other schools have increased steadily, but St. Blaise remained at the level of approximately 150 students, which she explained is not sufficient for the budget that was determined for the newly forming school.

“Over the years,” she continued, “the elementary tuition has not increased at the level it should have, most especially because the pastors and the parishioners want the parents to be able to afford Catholic education.”

“If this trend continues, the parish funds will be going to one entity only and that would be the school,” said Rochford.

While she noted that this is a great investment for those who make use of the school, “the parishes have other expenses and responsibilities, so large amounts of the parish funds cannot be directed solely to the school.”

Asked what will come next should registration not improve, Rochford said that she will wait until the final tallies are submitted.

Susan Canio, the current principal of St. Bridget slated to head St. Blaise, asked to defer comments until after the Friday deadline.

Families weigh their options 

This announcement comes as no shock to many familiar with the merger process.

“This is almost exactly what we predicted when we challenged the location of the regional school and the closure of St. Bridget,” said Sean Stevens, a St. Bridget parent who was active in efforts to save Catholic classrooms in East Falls.

While expressing sympathy for the families who have enrolled in St. Blaise, Stevens suggested that their numbers might be inflated – some parents might have registered simply to hold a spot, and have since selected other schools.

Christina Spino, a St. Bridget alumna still vigilant in her efforts to save St. Bridget, said a regionalized school is a good idea “only if the community supports it.”

Carol Ann MacGregor, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton University who studies Catholic school closings, observed that merged schools operate at a high risk of failure, particularly in the first ten years of their existence.

“In some cases,” said MacGregor, “it does end up only being a temporary solution to issues like low enrollments and changing demographics.”

She added that other problems can emerge.

Quoting “Archbishop” by Thomas J. Reese, “the problem with everybody’s school is that it is nobody’s school” said MacGregor, echoing Spino’s remarks. “When schools merge there is a loss of local ‘ownership’ over the place.”

Like several East Falls families, parents in Manayunk are weighing their options as well. The head of one Holy Child household, who wished to remain anonymous, said they had read Rochford’s quote in the Inquirer, and in response contacted Archdiocesan personnel, who beseeched the family to stay at St. Blaise. Instead, the family decided to find an alternate Catholic school for their child – one they felt was more sustainable.

“I’m willing to sacrifice and pay more for stability and sustainability,” said the withdrawing parent, adding that in light of pending parish mergers, “it’s been a tough year to be a Catholic in Manayunk.”

While St. Blaise’s registration deadline looms, Stevens noted that its impact might be felt outside of Catholic education – and, indeed, across the city.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “this may only be a preview of what lies ahead for the School Reform Commission.”

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