The Archdiocese of New York hopes that a pilot program launching in Bedford Park can address pandemic-fueled impacts that led to majors closures of Bronx Catholic schools over the past few years.
The first of these Catholic education and family centers is expanding on education services offered at the 75-year-old St. Philip Neri School, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese told the Bronx Times. The St. Philip Neri Catholic Education and Family Center is aiming to meet educational needs of the nearby population, while also becoming a social hub hoping to address area food insecurity, housing and health issues.
In 2023, six Bronx catholic schools shut their doors, with four other Bronx schools merging into two. The archdiocese said that shifting demographics and lower enrollment rates — made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic — were the reasons behind the closures, which will come at the conclusion of the 2022-2023 school year.
The closures, which also included six in Manhattan and Staten Island, affect roughly 5% of students in the archdiocesan school system. St. Philip Neri, an elementary school, was unaffected by the school closures, and Archdiocese officials say they wanted to “add on” to existing Catholic school infrastructure, rather than plop a school into a district.
“This isn’t about adding something into the community, it’s about working with the community to add on to what we already have,” said Mary Stenson, deputy superintendent of the Archdiocese of New York. “It’s a good school, but all the realities of the past several years and the economic realities of the past several years. … This (program) allows us to put a little fertilizer on some good ground.”
It will take a minimum of three years for full construction of The St. Philip Neri Catholic Education and Family Center — including modernizing the aging building for environment challenges, making window and gym replacements — which carries a total cost of $2.1 million, Archdiocese officials said.
Catholic Charities, a 501(c)3 nonprofit network of charities, will help with housing and job placement, among other services. Archcare, the archdiocesan health component, will offer programs to support mental health and general well-being.
“There are two things the Catholic Church does really well. It’s education and charity,” said TJ McCormack, director of communications for the Archodiocese of New York’s Office of the Superintendent of Schools. “In addition to an educational hub, we also want to meet social needs as well. Members of the community are going to be able to tap into resources, everything from help with housing to legal services to immigration advice, as well as health services.”
The Archdiocese said it launched its plans during a strategic planning process in 2021 for “a high-impact, sustainable course” for its Catholic school network. If successful, the pilot program could expand into other sections of the Bronx and Washington Heights.
“We know that communities evolve and change over time, and that the educational landscape is different than it was even 20 years ago. But most recently, it was the pandemic that significantly impacted families in the Bronx,” said Stenson. “Many families lost loved ones and their livelihoods, remote learning was difficult, and we saw families moving out of the city. In response, the Superintendent of Schools Office launched a schools review effort in the summer of 2021 … for our schools for the next several years. This pilot program is a direct result of that effort.”
The Archdiocese said it conducted a hyperlocal public campaign that included three in-person, bilingual listening sessions held between January and March. There was also a fourth session for current and former students of St. Philip Neri.
Bedford Park was chosen to be the site of the first Catholic education and family center, according to Archdiocese officials, due to a large school-age population and existing Catholic school and parish infrastructure.
As a result of the endeavor, the St. Philip Neri School is set for some building upgrades this summer. The St. Philip Neri Parish is in its 175th year.
“We chose the pilot in this Bronx neighborhood for several reasons; unlike other neighborhoods in the City who are seeing a decline in the number of school age children, almost half of households here have children, many of them under five,” said Stenson. “The parish and school are conveniently located on the Grand Concourse with several nearby transportation options. The school building is large. It needs some upgrades, which we will begin this summer, but the engineer and architect agree that the building is solid.”
Future iterations of the Catholic education and family centers model will be established in other parishes that have schools, as well as school buildings being used by charter schools or parish religious education programs.
The archdiocese invests $45 million in its educational ministry each year. Those in parish schools may receive direct subsidies from the parish, with many students eligible for financial assistance.