By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Roughly one in four Catholic schools in the Philadelphia area will be shuttered at the end of this academic year, hit by falling enrollment and rising tuition costs, the archdiocese said on Friday.
The closing of 44 of the 156 grade schools and 4 of the 17 high schools serving 68,000 students was announced by Archbishop Charles Chaput at a news conference to release recommendations by a school review commission.
"No archbishop and no administrator ever wants to see a school close," said Chaput, the leader of the nation's sixth largest Catholic diocese, with 1.5 million Catholics. "But we can't afford to fool ourselves."
Smaller family size, increasing tuition costs and alternative forms of education such as charter schools were blamed for a 72 percent drop in enrollment since 1961 when there were 250,000 students in the system, said commission member Edward Hanway.
The shutdown of some schools and consolidation of others in the five counties around Philadelphia means an estimated 250 elementary school teachers and 50 high school teachers will lose their jobs, said Mary Rochford, superintendent of the Catholic school system.
Ritz Schwartz, head of the Association of Catholic Teachers, expressed disappointment.
"I thought we were more than about the bottom line," Schwartz said.
The plan was live-streamed on the archdiocese website. Outraged parents immediately posted their opposition to it on a Facebook page called Catholic Parents Respond.
"First the archdiocese makes a mockery of our faith and now adds insult to injury by closing schools which will make it very hard and in some families impossible to choose Catholic education," one parent wrote on Facebook.
Hanway said the current enrollment of 68,000 students is the same as the schools recorded in 1911. He said the average gap between tuition and actual cost is $1,500 per student.
The average first-child tuition is $3,000 per year for elementary schools and $5,600 per year for high schools, with siblings paying less, Rochford said.
Commission chairman John Quindlen said the move spelled an "immeasurably brighter" future for the remaining schools.
"Today is the first day of the future," Quindlen said. "I think we are about to grow again."
The blue-ribbon commission was appointed in December 2010 by Chaput's predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired in July after suspending dozens of priests being investigated in a child sexual abuse scandal.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Tim Gaynor and Peter Bohan)