Steering the ship

Two Port Richmond Catholic schools will operate independently as of July.

Second-grade students celebrated the important leaders in their lives by dressing up as them during Catholic Schools Week. Some students even dressed up as their teachers. PHOTO COURTESY OF REBECCA KUTTERBACH

By Melissa Komar

Under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since their inception, two Port Richmond Catholic schools will answer next school year to a new boss: themselves.

Beginning in July, Mother of Divine Grace School and Saint George School will operate independently.

In layman’s terms, they will no longer be financially connected to their respective parish churches. The schools will remain archdiocesan schools following the archdiocesan calendar and curriculum. The principals and teachers will continue to participate in archdiocesan training.

“It means the school, financially, will support itself. There will be no support from the parish,” said Jane Lockhart, principal at Mother of Divine Grace. “We will be in charge of all fundraising, paying all our bills, paying our teachers. So, we’ll focus more on development and fundraising.”

“It means the school will be independent in its finances and its governance,” said Rebecca Kutterbach, principal at Saint George. “It will still operate as a Catholic school with approval and support from the archdiocese, but it will be governed by a Board of Limited Jurisdiction. So, this board will replace the old system of sort of just having a pastor make decisions.”

The Rev. James Olson will still be involved with the schools as the priest delegate, according to Lockhart.

Formed prior to Kutterbach becoming principal, the board represents all different walks of life within the community, from parents of students, to lifelong parishioners, to alumni, to residents not associated with the parish.

An identical board formed at Mother of Divine Grace in 2017

At MDG, one of the members is a public school teacher.

“It’s someone from the neighborhood who is a public school teacher who doesn’t have children of her own,” Lockhart said. “It’s people who really want to see Catholic education remain in the Port Richmond area.”

“We want other people from the community who really have skill sets we can work with. …So our goal is to have a mixed population on the board to cover all our bases,” Kutterbach added.

The board is strictly in charge of decisions related to the school, not the parish church.

The schools will officially become independent schools on July 1, according to Lockhart.

The principals will continue to oversee curriculum and the day-to-day operations at the school such as faculty, but will work closely with the board.

Essentially, nothing will change other than the behind-the-scenes operation.

The move to operate independently is a result of the recommendation of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Pastoral Planning for Pastoral Planning Area 570 to condense to one parish school and one parish in Port Richmond, according to Kutterbach and Lockhart.

The announcement was made to the parishes at the end of November.

In June 2016, Mother of Divine Grace and Saint George partnered and partnered again in June 2017 with the merged Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Our Lady Help of Christians parishes. Saint Adalbert remained a freestanding parish.

“Myself and my staff decided we needed to do something because MDG has always been viable and will continue to be viable in the future. So, we decided, with Father’s blessing, to move forward to move toward becoming an interparochial school,” Lockhart said.

“One of the things I didn’t expect after the announcement was made was our students’ reactions,” Kutterbach said. “So, the now seventh-graders came to me and said, ‘Miss K, are we going to graduate next year?’ And, I told them, yes, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure you graduate [from Saint George]. I never expected these students to be that concerned for their school. For them to think about next year, it motivates me.”

While there was no guarantee, Kutterbach was determined to see those students graduate from Saint George and every child enrolled below them.

“As a community at Saint George, we felt like we had something to offer that we’ve been offering our students, and we didn’t want to see that go away,” Kutterbach said. “We felt we could sustain ourselves. When our families and parishioners found out about the Pastoral Planning decision, they were very upset, so we moved as quickly as we could to become independent to make sure we would have the community support.”

Decisions made regarding the respective churches will not impact the schools with their newly formed independent operation.

To gain support from the archdiocese, the schools had to meet certain criteria with an emphasis on showing financial viability, according to Kutterbach and Lockhart.

Income for the schools to operate is generated from tuition and development, which includes fundraising.

“We’re really looking to get our alumni involved. We have a ton of kids in the school right now whose parents went to the school and we have teachers here that went to the school. These are the people who should be helping to make decisions and supporting Saint George,” Kutterbach said.

Both principals are excited about the change.

Pre-K students enjoy storytime at Mother of Divine Grace School. PHOTO COURTESY OF JANE LOCKHART

“I’ve always been excited about Catholic education, but with this new move and all the hard work that went into the past few months, I’m so, so excited about it,” said Lockhart, who has been at MDG for 18 years. “Our parents are excited. They were behind this 100 percent. We are standing on our own two feet. The mission, the small community, it’s all going to remain the same. We’re still here and we’re going to remain here.”

“We’re still here, we’re still growing, and people should know the spirit is still alive here,” said Kutterbach, who is in her first year as principal. “Getting that announcement in November did not change how I or the children felt about Saint George. As long as we have the families and community support, we can make this work. We are in charge of our destiny, aside from God. While we were attached to the parish, there was always that uncertainty, so, hopefully, this will eliminate that for people.” ••

For information on Mother of Divine Grace School, visit motherdivinegrace.com. For information on Saint George School, visit stgeorgecatholic.org.