Grant to Philadelphia school will help prepare its students for college

SS.John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia awarded $300,000 grant to prepare students for college March 1. (CNS photo/Matt Gambino, Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

SS.John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia awarded $300,000 grant to prepare students for college March 1. (CNS photo/Matt Gambino, Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

by Matthew Gambino

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — A Philadelphia archdiocesan high school has received a “turnaround grant” to help its students prepare for college.

The Philadelphia School Partnership awarded $300,000 to SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti High School in South Philadelphia. The funds will go toward implementing a “comprehensive transformation strategy” developed with $150,000 from the nonprofit partnership last year, according to a news release.

The partnership is raising $100 million in private funds to provide grants for the transformation, growth and start-up of high-performing public and private schools in Philadelphia, the release said.

The new grant money for Neumann-Goretti will be used for a three-pronged strategy of increasing students’ performance through the use of academic data; helping teachers provide better instruction in the classroom through mentoring; and raising the overall expectations of achievement at the school.

Neumann-Goretti currently enrolls 450 students, according to its website, and 90 percent are Catholic. Slightly less than half are minority and low-income students, and lower academic performance among them is prompting the turnaround effort at the school.

After generations of operating as two separate Catholic high schools for boys and girls in South Philadelphia, the two merged into one co-ed school in 2004.

To raise those students’ grades and close the “achievement gap,” the school has adopted the Common Core State Standards. They emphasize strengthening students’ writing, problem solving and creative thinking skills, which are required by college placement tests such as the SAT.

The school also has eliminated the traditional Catholic high school “tracking” system that places students in groups according to their academic performance.

In an interview with, the archdiocesan news website, the school’s president, Bruce Robinson, explained that previously, if a student began to struggle academically or entered the school at a low level, he or she could be dropped to track three or four, resulting in a “watered-down education.”

“If things get hard, we’ll make it easier” was the approach, and because the student’s grades improved, he and his family were pleased. But doing so does not prepare the student for college.

“Everybody is getting a college-prep curriculum today,” Robinson said of the change of culture at Neumann-Goretti. “They have aspirations of something better.”

By doing away with tracking, all students have broader access to advanced placement and honors courses, and other college preparatory programs.

Even if a student does not want to attend college right after high school graduation, he or she will have a good education, Robinson added.

And if a new student enters Neumann-Goretti with lower achievement, he or she is not simply put in a lower track. “We identify the gaps and use the data to make progress” for the student, Robinson said.

Along with a new assistant principal for data, Neumann-Goretti has hired an assistant principal for transformation, Genevieve Torres, to lead the changes that the new grant will fund. Both positions are unprecedented in the Philadelphia Catholic school system.

As part of the turnaround strategy, teachers also are getting more help. Administrators regularly observe each teacher, then meet with him or her to offer feedback to improve classroom instruction, Robinson explained, all of which helps to better engage students with their teachers.

He sees the changes at his school as a pilot program whose results he is sharing with the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education for the benefit of all the 17 archdiocesan high schools.

Chris Mominey, archdiocesan secretary for Catholic education and chief operating officer for Faith in the Future Foundation, which operates the archdiocesan high schools, said the focus on urban schools like Neumann-Goretti “is a key component of our overall strategy for growth, innovation and change.”

In the past five years, the Philadelphia School Partnership has invested more than $53 million in Philadelphia schools to help some 20,000 students gain access to a high-quality education. These grants include approximately $34 million to public charter schools, $14 million to district schools and $5 million to private schools.

More than a third of all investments, the organization said, have been turnaround grants to help schools improve academic outcomes for all students, especially low-income and minority children.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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