Holy Spirit High School’s newly refurbished classroom is larger, with a projector, a white board and two large flat screens hanging on the walls.

Nearby hangs a traditional wooden cross, a reminder that while teaching methods may change, the core mission of the school will not.

The past four years for the four local Catholic high schools overseen by the Diocese of Camden have been tumultuous. Two schools, Wildwood Catholic and Sacred Heart in Vineland, were on the brink of closing, and rumors spread that Holy Spirit might also be in trouble.

It took a May letter of support from Bishop Joseph A. Galante saying Holy Spirit is financially secure to quell those rumors, said the Rev. Perry Cherubini, the school president.

With little financial support from the diocese, all four high schools, including St. Joseph in Hammonton, have been forced to rethink how they operate. Enrollment has dipped during the recession, and there is more competition from free vocational and public “choice” schools. Parents can also choose two non-diocesan high schools: the all-girls Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, founded by the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy, and the all-boys St. Augustine College Preparatory School in Buena Vista Township, which is owned by the Order of St. Augustine, Villanova Province.

But supporters are determined to reach out into the community and demonstrate that the value of a Catholic education is worth the cost.

“Financially, we can’t compete with free,” said Nicholas Regina, interim president of St. Joseph High School and executive director of Catholic Schools for the Camden Diocese. “We have to show parents and the public that this is an investment in their children. It is a challenge that makes us step up our game and remind people why we are here.”

All four schools have long histories in their communities and are counting on their legacies, and their alumni, to keep them going.

Holy Spirit has been an institution in Atlantic County for almost a century. Established in Atlantic City in 1922, the school moved to Absecon in 1964, and it has long been considered the de facto high school for students in that city.

Absecon Superintendent James Giaquinto said that traditionally, 85 percent to 90 percent of graduating eighth-graders attend Holy Spirit. But this year, of the 82 eighth-graders that graduated in June, Giaquinto estimates, fewer than 20 will attend Holy Spirit. More students are attending Pleasantville High School, Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point and especially Atlantic County Institute of Technology in Mays Landing.

Sue Werner, Holy Spirit’s director of institutional advancement, said they had looked for new places and news ways to recruit, including Cape May County, the mainland area towns and southern Ocean County. The school is projecting an enrollment of about 550 students in September, about 250 fewer students than a decade ago.

“I think choice is a good thing,” Werner said. “When people have a choice, they will make good critical decisions. There are some things (the public schools) offer we don’t, and some things that they don’t but we do.”

Investments

To stay competitive, the schools are investing in technology and new ways to learn. St. Joseph’s will offer six online classes in 2012-13, including Advanced Placement U.S. History, Latin and Italian. Students will be allowed to take iPads and smartphones to school, and teachers will be encouraged to adapt lessons to use them. Partnerships with Hammonton businesses will provide on-site internships for students.

“We are preparing students with the skill they will need to succeed,” Regina said. The school has also expanded its geographic base to reach more students.

Wildwood Catholic will continue its Friday seminar programs in writing, medicine and law, and it will add two courses with college credit: Real World Technology, through Seton Hall University, and Environmental Sustainability, through Kean University, both taught at the high school by adjunct professors. Students will pay about $250 for the courses.

In response to student requests, Holy Spirit has added technology training for staff and plans to do a physical reassessment to add more computers and technological capability to classrooms. Dozens of faculty members volunteered for a special workshop this month to learn more about the technology.

“We’re closing the gap and getting everyone on par,” said technology consultant Uriah McClain.

Principal Susan Dennen said the goal was to enhance the core college-prep program with programs such as criminal justice, sciences and music technology.

“We want to get students where they need to be, but do it in a way that prepares kids in the world they live in,” she said. “We’re responding to what the kids are telling us they don’t have. We’re doing our best to respond to their world.”

But administrators at all schools emphasized that any changes in curriculum would not affect the core mission.

“Our niche is, we are a Catholic school. We’re not compromising that,” Dennen said. “Our faith-filled mission will serve the students for the rest of their lives.”

Raising more money

Meeting the needs of modern students also takes modern methods of raising money, and fundraising has taken on a new urgency for all four schools.

“It’s something we have to do,” said Francis Reilly, president of the newly formed Board of Limited Jurisdiction, essentially Sacred Heart’s governing school board. The school’s call for help this year raised more than $1.3 million, more than twice the $600,000 needed to ensure the school would stay open in 2011-12.

But now that the initial rush is over, officials say they face what might be an even greater challenge for all of the Catholic schools — finding a way to keep the donations coming.

While plans are still being developed, Reilly said, they would likely involve keeping alumni, parents and the community informed and engaged about Sacred Heart. The school will also reach out more directly to thousands of alumni across the country for donations and other financial help.

Former Cape May County and Camden County Vocational School Superintendent Albert Monillas, recently named Sacred Heart’s new head of school, has the needed financial experience to manage and revive a school that can accommodate 350 students but this past year had just 202. He said that while his job primarily involved increasing enrollment, he believed there was enough enthusiasm in the city about the school’s rebirth to make fundraising easier than in past years.

With high school tuition approaching $8,000 a year, plus fees, support is needed not only for the school, but also for the students who attend.

St. Joseph’s began an annual fund campaign two years ago, which last year raised $131,000. The school hopes to award $230,000 in financial aid this year, plus about 20 scholarships ranging from $750 to $4,000. So far, enrollment is stable at 373 students for 2012-13 in a building that can comfortably handle about 400, development director Anne Liberto said. The freshman class is at 95 students, and the school will start a “guardian angel” program this year in which sophomores will “adopt” a freshman to help them acclimate to the school.

“Success is not just about recruitment,” Liberto said. “We also have to be concerned about retention over four years.”

Holy Spirit is about to begin a fundraising drive for capital improvements as well as offer tuition assistance and scholarships for academic success and dedication to the community. Details are still being worked out, but Cherubini, the school president, said they would seek to raise at least $1 million. The administrators want to refurbish classrooms to bring in new technological equipment with flat screens, iPads and laptops.

As the first threatened with closure, in 2010, Wildwood Catholic’s long-term plans are becoming a model for other schools, Director of Development Kevin Quinn said. The business plan and five-year budget involve better communications with the community, alumni and parents to convince them that Wildwood Catholic is worth supporting financially.

The school has raised the $350,000 needed to cover costs for 2012-13 and, thanks to a few donations in excess of $50,000, even has $100,000 in surplus. Tuition has been kept under $7,000, the lowest in the area.

Quinn said Wildwood Catholic was also basing some of its fundraising methods on college systems, which use foundations and other long-term financial methods to build a financial base.

“The goal is to build an endowment so that we can be self-sufficient,” he said.

The school has 43 freshmen enrolled and expects to meet the goal of 50.

“We are comfortable at about 180 to 200 students,” Quinn said. Sharing the building with Cape Trinity Catholic School has been cost-effective and resulted in new energy in the building.

Wildwood Catholic Principal Tony Degatano said the enrollment was up from 30 students in last year’s freshman class and said the support from the public had helped instill more confidence in the school. Degatano said the school was working on new initiatives such as classes taught by local professionals and creating partnerships with top Catholic schools such as Seton Hall to offer course credit.

Degatano said he and other officials had adopted a new philosophy that was spreading through the school.

“We need to be $7,000 better for every student than the nearby schools,” he said.

Diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said the diocese was at this point happy with the plans being developed by Wildwood Catholic and Sacred Heart.

But the Catholic Teachers Union, which represents teachers at Sacred Heart, Holy Spirit and Wildwood Catholic, remains concerned about the schools’ futures and believes the diocese itself should make a larger financial investment. After a strike in 2009, members agreed to contract concessions that included paying 5 percent of their health-insurance premium. But as enrollment dipped, fewer teachers were needed, and staffing at the three schools has dropped about 20 percent over the last five years. according to CTU data.

“The schools don’t open their books, so we don’t know exactly what the situation is,” said CTU Vice President Christopher Ehrmann. “We have to take them at their word.”

Ehrmann said that many parents were willing to make the financial commitment and that the diocese should also do more to ensure schools stay open and prosper.

“We believe Catholic education is worthwhile,” he said. “The church itself just needs to make a bigger commitment to the schools.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

Contact Joel Landau:

609-272-7215

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