West Catholic High gets $1 million gift, new name, fresh philosophy

Last year, West Catholic High was at the brink of closing down. This summer, equipped with a $1 million gift, a new name and a new philosophy, the school is the focus of ambitious plans to bring it back.

The million-dollar gift — from donors who wish to remain anonymous — will help implement the school’s five-year strategic plan. As of Monday, the school at 45th and Chestnut streets changed its name to West Catholic Preparatory High School, Located in University City.

“It’s more than simply a name change,” said Brother Richard Kestler, school president. “It’s really a philosophy change.”

The school raised an additional million over the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Its strategic plan aims to make the institution self-sustaining by 2015.

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New vision

The new name is meant to give off a more positive image to the community, according to Kestler.

At strategic planning meetings, Kestler said, “We came to the conclusion that the term ‘West Philadelphia’ had a negative connotation to the public.”

The “University City,” mentioned in the school’s tagline gives off “a more positive perception,” Kestler said. “And that was tested with our alums, our students and people in the community.”

With its new name in place, West Catholic is looking to improve its academic and extracurricular programs as well as adding a SAT prep program for upperclassmen.

The school is also working with local universities, including Drexel, University of the Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania, on tutoring and career-exploration programs.

David Smith, who graduated from West Catholic in 2009, said that when he was a student, “They didn’t really do a good job preparing you for college. A lot of people just couldn’t handle college because we just weren’t ready.”

With the influx of competitive charter schools, the name change makes sense, Smith said. “That’s why I think they want to put ‘preparatory’ in there,” he said. “It kind of makes it sound more institutional.’

Potential students are required to take a placement exam as part of the application program, but Kestler said  the school is establishing programs to help bring underperforming students interested in attending West Catholic up to speed.

These changes are encompassed in the school’s five-year plan, which outlines goals to improve the school’s curriculum, financial management and governance.

All of these improvements are designed to combat the biggest problem West Catholic and many other Philadelphia Catholic schools have been facing for years: declining enrollment.

Improving enrollment

The decreasing student population, according to Kestler, stems from families moving away or not being able to afford tuition.

West Catholic’s goal, he said, is to increase enrollment from 245 students this past school year to 500 by 2015. The school already expects a total enrollment of 350 for the upcoming school year.

Part of the strategy is increasing outreach to families that aren’t Catholic, according to Casey Carter, CEO of Faith in the Future, the organization that began running schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2011.

As a part of their recruitment plan, West Catholic conducted a demographic study examining the student population by ZIP code.

West Catholic admissions officers are now going to other schools, especially charter schools, and even door-to-door, recruiting new students. West Catholic posters are even plastered on public buses.

Carter said that his foundation and West Catholic also are reaching out to students displaced by the recent public school closures.

“This is an opportunity to serve low-income families,” Carter said. “We’re encouraging those families to take the placement exam and apply for financial aid.”

“We’re going to continue to recruit in what has been out traditional area, West Philadelphia,” said Kestler. “But we’ve decided that we need to spread out to cover the whole region.”

The million-dollar gift, Carter said, is “a strong vote of confidence” that all the changes at West Catholic are working.

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