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Finances, dwindling enrollment leads to closing of Hallahan, McDevitt high schools in Philadelphia

Philadelphia's John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls' High School is seen in this undated photo. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Nov. 18, 2020, that it will close at the end of the academic year. (CNS photo/Matthew Gambino, CatholicPhilly.com)

PHILADELPHIA — Declining enrollment and underutilized buildings are causing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to close two high schools at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School in Philadelphia and Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote north of the city will cease operations, the archdiocese and Faith in the Future Foundation, which operates the archdiocesan high schools and schools of special education, said in a Nov. 18 statement.

The announcement follows a review that analyzed the sustainability of keeping the schools open by a committee of business executives last summer.

The study looked at current and projected student enrollments, student retention, demographic trends, building capacity and financial solvency for each of the 17 schools across the system.

Faith in the Future leaders, the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and senior archdiocesan leaders recommended the closure of Hallahan and McDevitt, which Archbishop Nelson J. Perez accepted.

Hallahan, located in Philadelphia’s center city, is operating at 36% of building capacity. Bishop McDevitt is at 40% of capacity.

Both schools have seen significant enrollment declines since 2000 after peaking at about 2,000 students 50 years ago. While Hallahan’s enrollment in 2000 stood at 620 and McDevitt’s at 789, enrollment currently hovers at about 400 each.

Enrollment is expected to continue declining, causing tuition costs for families “to accelerate rapidly in order to cover school operating expenses” and leading to “massive debts” at the schools as they provided a quality education, the foundation said.

“Today is one of great sadness,” Archbishop Perez said in a statement, calling the closure of any school “deeply painful.”

“I know that today’s announcement will weigh heavily on every member of the Hallahan and McDevitt school communities. I share in that grief,” he said.

The archbishop said the resources needed to provide “the best educational experience possible” were “depleting rapidly and could not be restored.”

“My prayers are with all of you,” he wrote to the schools’ communities, “and my heartfelt gratitude goes out to our school families for choosing the gift of Catholic education as well as the faculty, administrators and staff working each day to provide it.”

While Archbishop Perez referenced the current health and economic crisis of the coronavirus pandemic as a moment “of extreme difficulty,” it did not cause the schools’ closure but underscores the need for action, according the Faith in the Future.

Throughout the archdiocesan high school system requests for tuition assistance are up 46% over the 2019-2020 academic year, and many families are seeking financial aid for the first time.

“This trend,” said the foundation, “has resulted in a severe strain on available financial aid resources, particularly in schools which are heavily dependent upon it as part of the tuition payment structure.”

Irene Hannan, CEO of Faith in the Future, said the closure of the schools was made “with an eye to strengthening the other schools in the system. Our strong focus is on the future of Catholic secondary education in Philadelphia, ensuring it remains accessible and affordable for all.”

Students at both schools will be invited to enroll at any nearby Catholic high school for next fall’s term, and “individualized transition plans” for each student will assist in their future placement, said Sister Maureen McDermott, a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who is archdiocesan superintendent of secondary schools.

In addition, “best efforts will be made to transition teachers, administrators and staff to other schools throughout the archdiocese where possible,” she said.

Currently 20 lay faculty are teaching at Hallahan and 17 at McDevitt, plus one Sister of St. Joseph.

Bishop McDevitt also is home to a secondary-level program of Our Lady of Confidence Day School for 13 special education students with intellectual disabilities and developmental delays. Those students and their program supports and faculty will continue at a new location.

McDevitt was founded in 1958 and saw its first graduating class in 1961. It reached peak enrollment in 1970 at 2,086.

Hallahan’s history began at the end of the 19th century when several wealthy individuals saw a need to educate Catholic young women. They led the development of five small sites in Philadelphia in 1901. By 1911 the sites had grown into Catholic Girls High School.

Credit to founding what would be the first all-girls diocesan high school in the United States goes to then Father Philip McDevitt, the archdiocesan superintendent of Schools, and benefactor Mary McMichan.

Upon her death and at her request, the name of the school was changed to John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in honor of her brother.