'Consortiums' make most of Western Pa. Catholic school resources

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Maura Abel was a tad scared two years ago when her family gave away her gray-blue plaid uniform of the former Word of God School in Swissvale.

Today, the seventh-grader is looking forward to donning her navy blue and red plaid skirt for her third year at East Catholic School in Forest Hills, a product of the merger of Word of God and two other schools in 2012.

“I'm very excited about school because I made more friends in the sixth grade than I did in fifth,” said Maura, 12, of Swisshelm Park. “I'm a lot less shy than I was.”

East Catholic is one of four so-called “consortium” schools established by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh as it closed and merged schools under the pressure of declining enrollment. The newest, the former Brookline Regional Catholic School, last month became St. John Bosco — joining East Catholic, Mon Yough Catholic and Northside Catholic schools.

Consortium schools receive financial help from multiple parishes in their area, which in turn help the schools with governance, student recruitment and marketing. Early returns show that enrollment in the consortium schools, located in areas of declining population, continues to dwindle, but the schools have been able to keep tuition down and offer more sports and clubs.

“It's not a magic bullet, but it's a step in the right direction just to have more cooperation, more support,” said Roy Cartier, the diocese's assistant superintendent for finance.

Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, enrollment dropped from 153 to 145 students at Northside Catholic, 366 to 312 at East Catholic and 294 to 244 at Mon Yough Catholic, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Since 1995, parishes without their own school have given 10 percent of their income to the diocese. Schools received the money based on the number of students they enrolled from outside their parish. Now, half of the subsidy goes to the consortium school, broadening its support and reducing the amount that parishes have to contribute to their own school.

The model has benefitted parishes such as St. Maurice in Forest Hills, whose subsidy fell from $270,000 to $170,000 a year when its school folded into East Catholic. The Rev. John W. Skirtich, pastor of the church, said the parish has been applying its $100,000-a-year savings to paying off its long-term debt on roofs for the church campus and a new gym.

“We used to be able to pay off interest but not principal,” he said. Now, “we'll have it paid off in five years. “

Lynda McFarland, principal of Mon Yough Catholic School in White Oak, likened its opening two years ago to a blended family. It formed with the merger of St. Joseph and St. Angela Merici schools.

“When you have families come together, kids didn't know where they fit in,” she said. “This year, my expectation is the family has blended, and we'll all work in the same direction.”

She expects enrollment to return to 260 students this year, helped in part by lower tuition. In St. Angela Merici's last year, tuition was $3,600 for the first child. This year, tuition at Mon Yough is $3,105 for the first child.

East Catholic's improved finances allowed it to add a robotics club, fine arts club and soccer, all of which the former Word of God lacked.

Maura's sister Skylar also went to East Catholic and graduated in its first eighth-grade class. Their mother, Lisa Abel, said East Catholic's eighth grade was twice as big as Word of God's, increasing social opportunities for the children. Skylar now attends the much larger Allderdice High School.

“I look at it as an investment in the kids,” Abel said. “The Catholic elementaries really prepare them for Allderdice.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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