This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
One of the first things you notice when you walk the halls of St. Gabriel school in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia is the sound. Or rather the absence of it.
A lone teacher’s voice drifting out an open door. The clack of someone’s shoes stepping through a corridor. The still gaze of a religious statuette perched in the corner.
Catholic schools tend to be quiet, orderly places. That’s part of the appeal.
But all that carefully orchestrated tranquility evaporated on a winter day in 2012.
"I could just remember we heard shouts throughout the whole school," says longtime teacher Elaine Carboni. "I’ve never heard a shout as loud."
About a month before that, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had released a Blue Ribbon Commission report on Catholic education in the city that read more like a eulogy. It called for 48 area Catholic schools to close, among them 104-year-old St. Gabriel. It was a rock-bottom moment for Catholic education in the city. But it would birth one of Philadelphia’s most interesting education experiments.
Shortly after the closures were announced, 14 schools broke off from the archdiocese and formed their own network of urban Catholic schools. They named this coalition the Independence Mission Schools (IMS).
On that boisterous winter day in 2012, St. Gabriel had become a charter IMS member.
"We couldn’t control the students," Carboni recalls. "At that point, we said, let them revel in their victory."
The joy pulsing through St. Gabriel was a kind of cathartic relief, built up over decades. For the last 60 years, Catholic schools around the country had been bleeding enrollment and money — nowhere more so than the industrial Northeast.
IMS began in 2012 under the seemingly fantastical notion that, with a bit of effort and business savvy, motivated lay people could save 14 schools on the brink of failure. Fast forward five years and IMS has added a 15th school and grown enrollment by nearly 30 percent.
Now, as the national political winds shift toward school choice, a movement once bent on preserving civic institutions might become something more: a vehicle for growth. Five years after one of its darkest days, could Catholic education make a comeback in Philadelphia?
Before we explore that question, a bit of history.