On Thursday, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien announced a reorganization… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
While Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien declared "a new era of Catholic education" on Thursday, angry families vowed to fight his plan to close 13 schools at the end of the academic year.
A group of nearly 50 students and alumni from the Cardinal Gibbons School went to the downtown headquarters of the Archdiocese of Baltimore on Thursday morning to protest, and parents were planning rallies and fundraisers to save the high school.
The archdiocese has scheduled public meetings next week to explain the reorganization, which will displace 2,152 students and 325 employees. Officials can expect unhappy crowds.
"It's more than just a school to us," said Gibbons senior Dominic Fratantuono, one of the group at the Catholic Center. "It's a home. It's a family. We'll do anything to get it back."
The archdiocese has received a "steady number of calls, most of them are angry" since telling employees and families of the closings on Wednesday, said Monsignor Bob Hartnett, who headed the school consolidation effort.
O'Brien has emphasized that he understands the closings are agonizing. But he said efforts by the archdiocese dating to the 1990s to address rising costs and falling enrollments have not worked, and now a "perfect storm" of the recent recession on top of chronic difficulties has left the school system millions of dollars in debt and operating at two-thirds' capacity.
Wearing matching buttons and standing before a banner that announced the slogan of the day - "Catholic Schools/A Place to Grow" - O'Brien and other officials outlined a future of schools operating under a fresh management approach, with more innovative programs and tuition assistance while intensifying the commitment to the Catholic character of instruction.
"Education is central to the mission of the Catholic Church," O'Brien said, and would remain so. He said the archdiocese is not abandoning Baltimore, despite closing 10 of the city's 30 Catholic schools. The three other schools due to close are in Baltimore County.
All displaced students have been guaranteed spots in other schools within the system. Families may choose to send their children to any other school, but the archdiocese has designated 24 "receiver schools" likeliest to receive the bulk of the displaced students. No receiver schools have yet been identified for Cardinal Gibbons, the only high school to be closed.
The archdiocese has also offered help placing the 231 teachers and 94 staff and administrators who will lose their positions in the reorganization. History suggests many of the displaced employees will be able to find new jobs in the system. In each of the past three summers, the archdiocese has hired about 300 teachers and staff for the following school year.
Archdiocesan staff were dispatched in two-person teams Thursday to all 13 schools to answer questions and to "talk to any students who are upset," Hartnett said. He said the teams could return to the schools if needed. The teams and the public meetings next week are part of an effort to respond to the concerns of families and students in the short term and to keep students in the system in the long term. In its months of work on the consolidation plan, Hartnett's staff looked at the experiences of archdioceses around the country that have closed schools recently.
Catholic school systems in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia retained 80 percent and 75 percent, respectively, of their students through such reorganizations, Hartnett said, and attributed that rate to the work officials in those archdioceses did listening to families and helping them through the transition to new schools. While the goal is to not lose any of the 22,700 students now enrolled, he said he would consider 80 percent or 75 percent a success.
A measure of the discontent with the system might be taken Monday evening, as archdiocesan officials hold public meetings simultaneously at Cardinal Gibbons and Mount St. Joseph High School on the west side and Catholic High School of Baltimore on the east side. The sessions open at 7 p.m.
"I think we need to listen to all those concerns," Hartnett said. However, he said, "I don't see us changing any of our decisions."
Gibbons parents have that sort of change in mind as they mount efforts for a protest rally at the Wilkens Avenue campus on Saturday and a campaign to pay off what the archdiocese says is $1.3 million in debt.
"We know this will be difficult, but we have to try," said Chris Schene, whose son Gregory is a junior at Cardinal Gibbons.
Their plans mirror efforts made by parents, students and alumni at Towson Catholic High School last summer.
When church officials announced in July that they would not reopen the independent school in September, supporters held rallies, raised money and filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the decision. They were unsuccessful.