The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has launched an in-depth look at its 20 elementary schools in an effort, officials said, to make sure Catholic education remains strong and efficient.
The study being conducted by a committee of 14 educators, parents and religious leaders will take a close look at the schools, all but one of which are located in Cambria County, said Tony DeGol, diocesan secretary for communications.
It should not be viewed as the first step in plans to eliminate any of the schools, including the nine in Cambria and one in Somerset County, he said.
“There are no plans to close any schools,” DeGol said.
“We have no idea what this committee is going to find, and their suggestions are just that – suggestions.”
The decision to study the elementary schools was made by Bishop Mark Bartchak.
Bartchak took over as leader of the eight-county diocese in the spring of 2011 following the retirement of longtime Bishop Joseph Adamec.
According to the periodical Catholic World Report, the number of primary grade schools worldwide grew from 86,505 in 1997 to 93,315 in 2008, but similar growth has not been seen among Catholic schools in the United States.
The National Catholic Education Association, a group of Catholic educators worldwide, reports that the number of combined elementary and secondary schools in the United States fell from 8,146 to 6,980 between 2000 and 2010. That’s an enrollment loss of 22 percent.
The same cannot be said for schools in the local diocese, DeGol said. He pointed to last year’s elementary student enrollment, which showed an increase.
“Our enrollment held steady in 2011-12, and we were the only diocese in Pennsylvania to post gains,” he said. “All others had decreases.
The same gain was not reflected this year, when a slight decline from the 2,997 of last year to the current 2,935 was reported.
After assuming the role of bishop, Bartchak visited all of the schools in the diocese, a tour that proved to be an eye-opener, DeGol said.
“He clearly was impressed with the quality of education, the teachers and the parents,” he said.
But the bishop also realizes that Catholic education will face some challenges in the years to come, DeGol said.
Of the 14 people on the study committee, seven are associated with schools or churches in Cambria County and include:
• The Rev. Leo Arnone of St. Francis Xavier Parish, Cresson.
• The Rev. James Crookston, rector of St. John Gualbert Cathedral Parish, Johnstown.
• Frank Montecalvo, vice president of student development and an assistant professor at St. Francis University.
• Ed Phister, president of the school council at St. Michael School, Loretto.
• Renee Phister, St. Michael teacher.
• Sister Mary Lee Przybylski, principal of Northern Cambria Catholic School, Nicktown.
• Kenneth Salem, principal of Bishop McCort High School, Johnstown.
It is anticipated that the committee will take several months to complete its study and prepare a report for the bishop.
Along with the elementary schools, the diocese has four high schools with a combined enrollment of 1,022.
Those schools are Bishop McCort, Johnstown; Bishop Carroll, Ebensburg; Bishop Guilfoyle, Altoona; and St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, Boalsburg.
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