By Erik Zygmont
Following an 18-month study, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has announced a 10-year plan to invest $86 million in 19 of the 22 schools it currently operates in Baltimore City and the immediate surrounding area, including two that will be merged.
James B. Sellinger, archdiocesan chancellor for education, said the plan is “all about investment.”
“We are committed to safeguarding the legacy of Catholic education in Baltimore and enhancing its quality in preparing for future generations of students,” he said, noting the average age of Baltimore-area Catholic school facilities is 61 years.
The plan also includes, upon the completion of the 2016-17 academic year, the closures of three schools – John Paul Regional Catholic School in Woodlawn, St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School in Hampden and The Seton Keough High School in Baltimore.
According to the archdiocese, Seton Keough’s enrollment, currently at 186, has declined 66 percent over the last 10 years. Seton Keough currently has 47 seniors; in 2007, by comparison, it had 123 graduates. John Paul Regional’s enrollment has fallen from 227 in 2006-07 to 150 for 2016-17, and St. Thomas Aquinas has dropped from 173 to 90 over the same time period.
St. Clement Mary Hofbauer School in Rosedale will merge with St. Michael the Archangel School, on the latter’s Overlea campus.
With the exception of Seton Keough, the affected institutions serve students from pre-kindergarten to grade 8.
Were they to remain open, the four campuses would require a combined total of $32 million for necessary facility condition and educational improvements, according to the archdiocese.
“No one wants to close schools,” Sellinger said. “We really want to retain our presence everywhere, but, when you think about the outcome of the study and the analysis that was done … there were four schools that were identified for merger or closure.”
In a statement in a press release from the archdiocese, Sellinger said the decisions “will allow us to invest dollars in areas that will keep Catholic schools competitive, attractive and successful – such as facilities, technology and tuition assistance.”
The study – by consulting firms Ayers Saint Gross, DataStory and Fielding Nair International – is the most recent push of a sustained effort to bring archdiocesan schools into the 21st century, according to Dr. Barbara McGraw Edmondson, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools.
In 2009, the Blue Ribbon Committee on Catholic Schools first met at the behest of Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, then-archbishop of Baltimore, and later produced a strategic plan.
Sellinger noted improvements have been made since the Blue Ribbon study – in marketing, advancement, technology, enrollment and management. Enrollment stabilized between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years at approximately 17,000 students across all archdiocesan schools.
However, Edmondson noted, “We came to a point where we said, ‘Our facilities aren’t where we need to be; we need to take a next step in strategic planning.’”
In addition to facilities, Sellinger identified increasing operational costs and changing demographics in Baltimore as current challenges.
“If we’re going to be able to maintain highly enrolled schools that are accessible and that are desirable for students to attend in the future, we had to address these three challenges,” he said.
In a letter to priests of the archdiocese Oct. 26, Archbishop William E. Lori said, “We know that this change will be difficult and we deeply regret any distress this creates for our families, employees, and community. We do envision an improved Catholic school system that better serves the needs of our students by making more effective use of the limited resources available to us.
“Working together, we can continue to prepare our students for a future that is full of hope, promise, and fulfillment,” the archbishop said.
The quantitative and qualitative study analyzed the 19 elementary schools and three high schools in the study area in and around Baltimore with regard to their Catholic identity; their students’ demographics and geographic locations relative to the schools; the condition of their buildings and infrastructure; and the schools’ abilities to support their educational mission.
The final criterion assumed sound, safe, weatherproof facilities and went a step further, asking, “Is the design of the current facility effective in supporting the goals?” according to an overview of the vision and master plan provided by Sellinger and Edmondson.
While closures are a part of the plan and vision, so are potential openings of new schools on the west and east sides of Baltimore, as study areas showed areas of projected demographic/population growth where a Catholic school might serve a high concentration of Catholic families immediately southwest and northeast of Baltimore.
Two new regional Catholic schools, serving students from preschool to grade 8, are proposed to accommodate some of that growing need. Sellinger noted this is aspirational at this point, and he emphasized that no concrete locations had been identified. The proposed facilities could cost approximately $31 million, in addition to the $86 million in investments identified in existing schools.
“We don’t want to take enrollment from other schools,” Sellinger said. “We want to capitalize on the demographic growth in those areas.”
The three closing schools are currently educating 426 students; of those, 28 will be completing grade 8 and 47 will graduate from high school. The archdiocese will assist the remaining 355 in re-enrolling in new schools, starting with personal phone calls to affected families.
According to a press release from the archdiocese, receiving schools will be expected to honor the tuition rate of the students’ former schools, at least through the 2017-18 school year.
The archdiocese will also, according to the press release, make every effort to place the 102 employees affected by the closures within the Catholic school system, or help them find employment outside of it, if necessary.
“These are always painful decisions; I made them related to public schools,” said Nancy Grasmick, former state superintendent of schools and a member of the archdiocesan school board for about four years.
She emphasized that news of a school closing always hits students and parents quite hard. However, she added, “I find that after the decisions are made and the students are migrated to new schools, they’re adjusted in about a month.”
Edmondson said that poor financial health is just one consequence of low enrollment.
“It’s going to affect educational programming,” she said. “You can’t afford certain things, but also your classroom size gets so small that the collaborative nature of learning – it doesn’t happen.”
“You want to make sure your school has the kind of enrollment that allows for a wide breadth of experiences, both socially for the children as well as programmatically,” said Edmondson.
The Seton Keough High School is one of seven all-girls high schools within or just outside the Baltimore Beltway; in that same area, there are four high schools for boys.
Holy Angels Catholic School, an elementary school which has been sharing facilities with Seton Keough, along with Operation Teach, a program for young Catholic teachers who live in community on the Seton Keough campus, will be relocated prior to the sale of the campus, according to the archdiocesan press release. There are 27 archdiocesan schools outside the geographical range of the 10-year plan.
“We do have an expectation that there will be ongoing improvement across all the schools,” said Joshua Smith, school board member and dean of Loyola University Maryland’s School of Education. “I expect that, as a board, we’ll be asking some challenging questions of schools outside.”
The process will continue for the foreseeable future.
“One of the things I’ve been impressed about this board is it is thinking of continuous improvement in a way I haven’t experienced in other larger organizations,” Smith said.