Our Mother of Consolation Parish School

by Paula M. Riley
with additional reporting by Pete Mazzaccaro

Part of this story appeared on chestnuthilllocal.com on Friday.

When the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) study of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced last Friday that Our Mother of Consolation and Holy Cross parish schools will merge to establish a new, regional school on OMC’s campus, no one was more shocked than OMC’s pastor, the Rev. Bob Bazzoli, OSFS.

Bazzoli said he considered his school to be “healthy and thriving” and expected that it would be deemed sustainable by the BRC, thus escaping placement on the list of affected schools.

“I am surprised as you are at the recommendation of the BRC,” Bazzoli wrote in an email to parishioners last weekend. “Over the past seven years, we have: secured a five-year financial plan, increased our fundraising, augmented our academic offerings, developed and implemented a strategic plan, assisted our teachers in advancing their degrees and professional competencies, established a School Advisory Board, completed major renovations to the building, and made a number of other improvements to our school and programming.”

Despite these accomplishments, the BRC restructuring plan includes the consolidation of OMC and Holy Cross. Currently Holy Cross’ enrollment is 145 students and OMC’s is 179. An enrollment of 200 was one criterion for a school being “sustainable” by the commission. OMC is located at 17 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., and Holy Cross is at 144 E. Mt. Airy Avenue.

Documents provided in the BRC’s report demonstrate the need to merge the schools. A report on OMC’s enrollment shows a decline of total student population from 224 to 177 between 2005 and 2010, a 22 percent decline. In the same period, Holy Cross’ student enrollment shrank from 206 to 169, a 16 percent decline. Though its decline was not as steep, Holy Cross had only 58 percent of its available seats filled. OMC had 74 percent of its seats filled.

Elementary schools seemed to be particularly challenged in the archdiocese. According to the report, of 156 elementary schools “40 to 45” are unsustainable.

From the report:

“Those schools burdened by serious annual operating deficits are often in parishes with heavy accumulated debts. Most of those schools have small enrollments and do not offer the key elements of a 21st century curriculum. A detailed review of these challenged schools reveals that in K through Grade 8, 34 schools have enrollments fewer than 200 and of these, 14 have fewer than 150. Eleven other schools across the Archdiocese have more than 200 students but have demonstrated a pattern of decreasing enrollments and financial deficits and are therefore considered challenged. We urge that a partnering and regionalizing plan for these schools be implemented as soon as possible.”

In response to the news, a group of OMC parents released a letter on Saturday expressing conviction in the face of uncertainty.

A sign on the sidewalk at OMC, Monday, expressed support for the school and its staff.

“While we recognize that there are questions and details that will need to be answered and worked out over the coming months,” the parents wrote, “our school will still be here at OMC, and we have faith and confidence that it will continue to be the strong, vibrant, and healthy school that we all know and love.”

The letter, like Bazzoli’s, outlined many of the school’s strengths adding, “We have been ahead of the curve in all of the ways that the Blue Ribbon Commission recommends (strategic planning, sound financial planning, advancement of our academic programming, etc.), and we believe that we are a model of success (along with a commitment to continuous improvement).”

Although more details of forming a regional school are being presented to pastors, principals, staff and parents this week, the BRC did include general guidelines. A committee made up of pastors/parishioners from both parishes, representatives from the Office of Catholic Education (OCE), and other professionals will be charged with the formation of a regional school (with a new name) to open in September of 2012 at the OMC site.

Faculty and administrators from OMC and Holy Cross schools will have the opportunity to apply for a position at the newly formed regional school. Students enrolled in OMC and Holy Cross will enroll in the Regional School, but since OMC’s site capacity is only 230, first priority will be given to parishioners of OMC and Holy Cross.

“I am already moving forward with our plan to make an appeal based upon what are factual inaccuracies on which the BRC’s decision was based,” Bazzoli said.

While the appeal plays out, Bazzoli will follow the recommendation of the panel’s instructions to move forward with the implementation of the regional school.

When pressed for an illustration of the specific factual basis for OMC’s appeal Bazzoli replied, “I want to make our appeal directly to the archbishop and not through the press.”

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Holy Cross’ pastor, the Rev. James M Cox, plans to appeal as well. He did not return a phone call from the Local seeking comment.

Bazzoli said he expected that by the beginning of February, he would have a better understanding of where OMC stands in the appeal process, but he remains hopeful for the future.

“What the future holds is uncertain, but I assure you, no matter what form our school takes, we will continue to maintain the academic excellence, small class size, diversity, family atmosphere and Catholic traditions that are the hallmarks of our parish school,” he said.

OMC parent leaders agree.

“Either way [whether or not the appeal is successful], the school our children walk into at OMC in September will be stronger than ever,” they said.