Roman Catholic high schools in the Philadelphia area will soon be managed by a private foundation, a historic arrangement that could reinvigorate a system decimated by high costs and low enrollment, church officials announced Tuesday.

Archbishop Charles Chaput said the church-affiliated Faith in the Future Foundation will oversee 17 secondary and four special education schools starting Sept. 1, creating a new independent Catholic school system.

"While this decision reflects a paradigm shift, it serves to change the organizational structure for Catholic education, not its mission," Chaput said.

The archdiocese helped establish the lay foundation six months ago following an outpouring of support for four high schools targeted for closure. Impromptu fundraising of about $12 million eventually led Chaput to keep the buildings open.

The foundation's original mission was to strengthen local Catholic secondary schools through fundraising and marketing. Now, the group will do that and manage a new school system that serves about 15,000 students on a $128 million budget.

Foundation chairman Edward Hanway described it as marrying "an outstanding educational system with 21st-century business management techniques." Responsibilities will include enrollment, marketing, fundraising and instilling best practices in leadership and education.

"It's time to embrace a new future and this new model for Catholic education," said Hanway, the former CEO of Cigna Corp.

Until now, the Philadelphia-area high schools have been overseen by the archdiocese's Office of Catholic Education. Under the new agreement, the schools will still get religious and academic curricula from that office, but administrators will report to the foundation, said Hanway.

The National Catholic Educational Association was unaware of any similar arrangement in the U.S.

"This seems like a creative way of ensuring that Catholic secondary schools thrive and continue to grow in the future, because it allows for systematic and continued planning," said Philip Robey, executive director of the association's secondary schools department. "We hope that the new system in Philadelphia will prove useful."

Nationwide, Catholic schools have lost more than 587,000 students since 2000, according to the association. At least 1,750 schools have closed due to a combination of shifting demographics, smaller families, rising tuition and declining enrollment.

St. Hubert's all-girls high school in northeast Philadelphia was almost a casualty as well. Instead, Chaput and Hanway held a ceremonial signing of an "agreement-in-principle" on Tuesday at the school, which will soon be under the auspices of the Faith in the Future Foundation.

Officials said the eventual contract will be for five years, and that the foundation will not be paid. The foundation has agreed to absorb the schools' deficits, which Hanway said have been reduced since January and are now "very manageable." Secondary enrollment is also slightly up this fall.

Rita Schwartz, president of the union representing about 750 high school teachers in the archdiocese, said Tuesday that she had no idea the system's management was about to change hands. While hopeful that the arrangement will be beneficial, Schwartz said she wants to see the final paperwork.

"Right now, it's still very much a concept," Schwartz said.

Hanway is also serving as the foundation's interim CEO until a permanent leader is named. The foundation's executive board is not yet fully formed, but he noted Chaput gets to name one-third of its members. All board seats should be filled by early fall, Hanway said.

Chaput noted the agreement does not affect the 49,000 elementary students in the archdiocese. Those schools are run by local parishes.


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