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New Educational Model Helps Catholic Schools in Philadelphia
Matthew Gambino
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013
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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett talks with students after a press conference Jan. 18.
PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett visited a Philadelphia Catholic grade school Jan. 18 and lauded a new educational model for Catholic schools in the city.

Independence Mission Schools, a management organization for 16 independent Catholic elementary schools located in mostly poor city neighborhoods, also introduced its new president, Al Cavalli.

One of the mission schools, St. Martin of Tours, hosted the news conference and visit by the governor, Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, other members of the organization, parents and Catholic school supporters. Bishop Fitzgerald oversees Catholic education for the archdiocese.

The organization began two years ago when St. Martin de Porres Parish School was struggling to serve the children of its gritty North Philadelphia community. Relieving management of the school from the parish, the group brought together financial support from business leaders plus expertise in school governance and accountability.

The results to this point have been impressive, according to CEO Brian McElwee. "Today it is financially stable with rising academic standards," he said.

He added that the eighth-grade class at the school recently scored at the ninth-grade level in the TerraNova standardized tests used across the country.

The successful model was scaled up and expanded to include 16 schools, mostly in response to the announced closures of dozens of Catholic parish schools early last year.

Most of those closures were the result of declining enrollments in the schools. But to McElwee, that is not the real reason.

"Declining enrollments are the symptom, not the disease," he said. "Affordability is the disease."

He noted recent conversations with people from various socioeconomic backgrounds who wanted a Catholic education for their children but could not afford it.

"There is demand for these schools in a wide spectrum of people in the city or out," McElwee said. "They are anchors in their community. They save (Pennsylvania) taxpayers $40 million every year. Success depends on our ability to offer scholarship dollars to these children."

One of the best sources of such money, he said, is Pennsylvania's long-standing Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the newly enacted Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit.

Corbett has been a supporter of both tax credit programs, through which qualifying businesses can designate up to 90 percent of their state business tax liability to scholarship programs for children in nonpublic schools.

He also has supported different models of educational reform in the state, including the tax credit approach, beyond traditional public school funding.

"Affordability is the issue," he agreed. "Nobody has one solution, one right way of getting our kids educated. We need to look at things in new and different ways, to adapt to the times."

Corbett said his administration will be watching the Independence Mission Schools model "very closely to see how this works to improve education for all."

"We inherited a good system from the generation before us," he said. "We need to turn it over to the people behind us." That included the two dozen children representing the mission schools, standing behind him on the stage.

Philadelphia businessman James Maguire is a supporter not only of Independence Mission Schools but of the tax credit programs. His Philadelphia Insurance Co. applied to the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, was approved the next day, with $444,000 in tax credits going toward educational scholarships.

"It doesn't make sense for businesses not to use it," he said.

Cavalli brings 35 years of educational experience to his role as the new president of the schools organization to bear. That includes a stint as an administrator at a school run by Catholic Social Services for delinquent adjudicated boys in Montgomery County.

"When I heard about the new and dynamic model that the Independence Mission Schools were implementing to educate underserved children in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods, I knew that I wanted to help," he said. "I believe in the life-long benefits that come from Catholic education and believe that, regardless of faith, the mission schools are vital to Philadelphia's children and the neighborhoods they serve."

The 16 mission schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese serve more than 4,200 children in grades prekindergarten to eight. Almost two-thirds of the students are non-Catholic and live in low-income families.

The organization intends to raise $55 million and improve the educational resources of the schools with an emphasis on excellence.

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Gambino is director and general manager of and, the news and magazine websites of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

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