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Because Catholic education in Philadelphia has historically seen its booms and busts, recent closings of Catholic schools may not signal an end to its major influence in the city.

Last Friday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that 45 elementary schools and four high schools in the region will close for the 2012-13 school year. The announcement marked the end of a yearlong process to investigate the region’s Catholic education programs.

In December 2010, a provisional blue-ribbon commission — composed of Archdiocese leaders and financial specialists — began to examine and take note of several trends among its schools, keeping an administrative eye open to opportunities for general improvement and restructuring. They found that the schools suffered from underutilized facilities, declining enrollment rates and heavy budget deficits.

According to an official press release, Archdiocesan schools have seen a 72-percent enrollment rate decrease since 1961, and many schools are filled far below their estimated capacities. For instance, at Conwell-Egan Catholic High School, one of the four Catholic high schools set to close next year, only 38 percent of its facilities are being utilized. At West Philadelphia Catholic High School, which was also closed, the figure was as low as 28 percent.

However, this is not the first time Philadelphia’s Catholic schools have faced declining enrollment rates and closures.

Political Science professor John DiIulio, a Philadelphia native who has served on the board of several independent Catholic schools, has witnessed the changing “population dynamics and financial realities” that often culminate in schools closing or merging.

“The writing has been on the wall,” DiIulio said. “[The Archdiocese] is facing problems they needed to take aboard decades ago.”

Cardinal Dougherty High School enrolled over 6,000 students in the 1960s, DiIulio said, making it the one-time largest Catholic high school in the world. However, the school has since closed, shutting its doors in June 2010.

“We could’ve done more and done better,” he said.

Students and their families have been staging protests at some of the schools to express their discontent toward the current Archdiocese’s decision. However, some believe the closures are backed by reason.

Director of the Newman Center James McGuinn, also a pastor of St. Agatha-St. James Parish located at 37th and Chestnut streets, shares the sentiments of loss and grief with the affected students and families, but supports the Archdiocese’s initiatives.

“Right now, people just see the loss, they see the pain,” he said. “But organizations constantly need to change. The model is unsustainable. Parishes just can’t keep forking over money to those schools.”

“Catholic education is going to continue to evolve,” McGuinn added.

DiIulio agreed, noting that the current Archdiocese is “no more responsible for [its financial situation] than it would be if the Eagles didn’t make the playoffs.”

Students who attended the schools that will close will be reshuffled to other Archdiocesan schools, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For graduates of the affected schools,­ the situation remains bittersweet.

“We were all a family, which makes it even more heartbreaking,” College junior and West Philadelphia Catholic High School graduate Haftom Khasai said. “The sad part is, a long-run plan might have been figured out,” he said, which may have included credit voucher programs and alumni contributions.

Khasai, who is not Catholic, added that a Catholic education “helped me look at myself introspectively.” In terms of his personal development, “it filled in part of a gap.”

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