St. Gabriel School will close its doors after educating students in South Philly’s Grays Ferry neighborhood for more than a century.
The decision was announced by Independence Mission Schools, which has overseen St. Gabriel since 2012, when the Catholic grade school at 30th and Dickinson streets was originally slated for closure by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. IMS oversees 14 other independent schools in the city, including St. Thomas Aquinas at 18th and Morris streets, which is expected to absorb a large number of students from St. Gabriel in the fall.
Independence Mission School President and CEO Bruce Robinson said the decision to close St. Gabriel at the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year was based on recent declining enrollment and rising operating costs for a mostly empty building.
“The challenge is that it’s a big building and has the capacity for substantially more students so it’s expensive to operate,” Robinson said. “And we have another IMS school 1 mile away that has the capacity to absorb that. Even though it seems like an obvious decision and, logically, it made sense, it was still a very difficult decision because of the impact it has on the students, teachers and the community. We’ve been wrestling with this decision for the last couple of years.”
Robinson said enrollment had dropped to under 130 students, which is about 28 percent of the building’s capacity. St. Gabriel opened in 1908 with 456 students. By 1920, more than 1,300 children were registered with 17 sisters teaching at that time, with classes spilling over into the convent, according to the school’s website.
Robinson said IMS leases its buildings from the archdiocese for $1 a year but is responsible for all maintenance and improvements to the school, as well as the cost of utilities. Upon completion of the school year, the building will be returned to the archdiocese, which will determine its future use.
Robinson said the other schools with the IMS network are “doing fine” with enrollment numbers and no other schools are in immediate danger of closing. Robinson said the emergence of charter schools in the Grays Ferry neighborhood has played a factor in declining enrollment for St. Gabriel. Tuition for St, Gabriel is $5,500 a year but the organization helps subsidize thousands of dollars of tuition through financial aid, bringing the average cost of tuition after aid to about $2,200. But competing with free charter schools has been a challenge. Robinson said IMS had been considering the closure pre-COVID-19, but the pandemic helped finalize the decision.
“I think the pandemic really solidified that final decision that was probably close to being here anyway,” Robinson said. “But I think that when you look at the neighborhood, what’s really caused a lot of the decline in enrollment is there are some fairly good charter school options in that neighborhood. The other thing is there are a few other Catholic grade schools west of Broad Street, too, so there are other options.”
Independence Mission Schools will help St. Gabriel students apply for placement next year, whether at St. Thomas Aquinas, or somewhere else within its network. It is prepared to accommodate all students at St. Thomas Aquinas and officials said plans are in motion to improve the school by painting classrooms, updating lighting and providing after-school care services, along with considering additional ideas from students and families. Virtual school tours and virtual student and teacher meet-and-greets will be scheduled soon.
According to officials, staff at St. Gabriel is encouraged to apply for other positions with the network for the start of the new school year.
“Those teachers and other workers will get preference in interviewing for open positions within the network,” Robinson said. “So we’re pretty optimistic that teachers that want to stay in the network will have an opportunity to stay in the network. We have other schools that are looking for good people and we have good people at St. Gabe’s.”