Turning the tide
A group of Legates come to the rescue of Philadelphia’s inner-city schools . . .
Embroiled in turmoil and allegations of scandal for much of the past decade, the Philadelphia archdiocese has witnessed a mass exodus of parishioners and staggering deficits.
Appointed in 2011, Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., has overseen property liquidation and last year’s final press run of the archdiocese’s 117-year-old newspaper. Despite budget and staffing cuts, the archdiocese still faces a budget deficit of more than $5 million for the 2013 fiscal year.
Slowly the tide is beginning to turn. Doing their part, Philadelphia Legates are easing the strain by rescuing some of the archdiocese’s poorest inner-city schools under the umbrella of Independence Mission Schools (IMS).
“The Independence Mission Schools effort has been more than innovative, it’s been vital to keeping Catholic education alive in Philadelphia’s economically challenged communities,” Archbishop Chaput told Legatus magazine. “Jack Donnelly, James Broussard, and Bill Curtis have shown extraordinary leadership matched only by their generosity.”
Led by Donnelly, the three Legates serve on the 15-member board of this new nonprofit organization that the archdiocese entrusted last summer with managing 14 elementary schools enrolling some 4,000 students — two-thirds of them non-Catholics.
“We’re doing this because we are Catholic,” explained Donnelly, CEO of a construction management company. “These inner-city children — their public schools are so bad — they have no opportunity to succeed. What we’re doing fills a desperate need.”
Even though “we’re blind to the faith of the students,” Donnelly says the Independence Mission Schools are authentically Catholic, using the archdiocesan-approved religious curriculum and welcoming religious teaching orders. The archdiocese appoints one member to each of the 14 individual IMS boards, which works in tandem with the IMS executive board to promote academic excellence and greater self-sufficiency.
For the three Legates, IMS is a labor of love forged in friendship and collaborative efforts that began far from Philadelphia.
About 10 years ago, fellow Legates from Louisiana introduced Broussard to St. Augustine High School, a top-ranked Catholic school in New Orleans that was then headed by Fr. Joseph Doyle, SSJ, a Legatus chaplain.
When it came time to build an extension, Broussard called upon his friend Donnelly, who regularly made site visits to ensure the school got fair deals from building contractors. After Hurricane Katrina, Broussard, an insurance executive, helped negotiate insurance claims, calling upon the help of Bill Curtis, whom he also introduced to Legatus.
“Jim [Broussard] is a legend in the Philadelphia insurance business,” said Curtis, partner in the insurance brokerage Porter & Curtis. “I was happy to help.”
After all of Donnelly’s assistance, Broussard said he was “indentured to Jack.” So when Donnelly asked Broussard to help with a project closer to home, he was happy to return the favor.
That project was supporting an elementary school, St. Martin de Porres, which Donnelly’s suburban Wayne parish had taken under its wing. Located in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, which is among the poorest in the country, the school was in bad financial straits, straining the already cash-strapped archdiocese.
To help put it in the black, Donnelly founded the Friends of St. Martin de Porres, bringing Broussard and Curtis on board. Five years ago the archdiocese agreed to let the Friends run St. Martin de Porres as an independent school on the condition it remain Catholic.
“The principal is a nun of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and another six nuns are involved in the school, so there was no question about the school’s continuing Catholicity,” Donnelly explained. With the support of the Friends, who have worked with the school’s board to institutionalize fundraising and maintain good business practices, the school now has a $5 million endowment, maximum enrollment at 450, a new preschool program, and its eighth graders are scoring at a 10th grade level in reading and language skills.
“It’s been such a success that when the archdiocese’s ‘Blue Ribbon Commission’ last year slated 13 inner-city schools for closing or merger, Jack asked Archbishop Chaput if we could run them under a structure similar to the Friends of St. Martin de Porres,” Curtis explained. “I said to Jack, I’ll do anything I can to help.” Broussard followed suit, and Independence Mission Schools was created to shepherd these 13 almost-lost schools to greener pastures.
Accountability, ecumenical appeal
The annual IMS budget is about $18 million, of which students’ parents pay about half. IMS gives $4 million in scholarships, most of which is generated by donors taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which allows a company paying state taxes to divert them to scholarships. The rest is raised from individual donors and foundations.
“I’m working on our development initiatives in this area,” said Broussard. “As a former salesman, I always end up on development.” He explained that it’s important to “make this project more ecumenical from the standpoint of contributions.” Some foundations, for example, are wary of supporting causes they see as parochially Catholic. Marketing IMS to non-Catholic sources of funding means stressing the positive impact the schools are having on society, educating poor children in bad neighborhoods, and instilling virtues in them.
“Not only that, but we’re bringing good business practices to these schools,” he said. “We’re bringing an element of accountability that’s important because most of our donors are demanding performance.”
IMS is already having an ecumenical appeal, Broussard noted. A Jewish supporter recently gave $250,000, the Philadelphia School Partnership’s Great Schools Fund has awarded IMS a $500,000 planning grant, and one IMS school received a $600,000 grant to institute the Phaedrus program — a blended-learning model incorporating technology into classroom instruction.
Overseeing day-to-day operations is IMS president Al Cavalli.
“These schools are sanctuaries — the only meaningful way these children will get to the eighth grade academically prepared for high school,” he told Legatus magazine. “We’re also creating quality people who know they have the obligation to be decent human beings.”
Cavalli hopes the IMS model of entrepreneurial lay leadership will be adopted by other dioceses that operate beneficial, yet financially burdensome inner-city schools.
But IMS should not get too much credit, remarked Bill Curtis. “We’re just continuing the efforts of 100 years’ worth of people who have gone before us,” he said. “We’ve been entrusted with a legacy worth saving. We’re just as interested in evangelizing these children as we are in educating them.”
MATTHEW A. RAREY is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.