Enrollment push to keep school viable

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Two years after facing the threat of closure, Wildwood Catholic High School Dean of Academics Tony Degatano said the school is “here to stay.” His goal is to reach an enrollment of 200 students in the next two to three years.  Two years after facing the threat of closure, Wildwood Catholic High School Dean of Academics Tony Degatano said the school is “here to stay.” His goal is to reach an enrollment of 200 students in the next two to three years.

Wildwood Catholic dean says school is ‘here to stay’

NORTH WILDWOOD — Parents, students and staff at Wildwood Catholic High School can empathize with the Catholic school community in Philadelphia.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to close four Roman Catholic high schools and close or combine 44 elementary schools due to rising costs and low enrollment, officials said.

Two years ago, the students at Wildwood Catholic received the same notice. They were told by the Diocese of Camden that their school would close at the end of June.

The decision not only produced anger and grief, it also mobilized a community effort to save the county’s only Catholic high school.

The diocese said the school had to collect $200,000 to be placed in an escrow account by March 7 to stay afloat. The community responded by raising more than $400,000 and developing a plan to combine the high school and the new grade school, Cape Trinity Catholic, in the same building.

Two years later, Tony Degatano, dean of academics, said he wants to remove the “cloud of doubt” that Wildwood Catholic is going to last.

“We’re here to stay,” he said during a recent visit to the school.

Degatano, who replaced Ted Pugliese as dean of academics at the end of the last school year, warned against complacency.

“The reality is that it is always going to be a struggle and a challenge,” he said.

Degatano said that it costs about $11,000 to educate a child at the school, but tuition is under $7,000 and there is a discount if more than one child attends the school.

“We’re always going to have that gap to fill,” he said and added that is why the school relies on donations.

According to Degatano, the timing of the school’s fundraising efforts has to change. Normally there is a push at the end of the school year, but Degatano said the school could put the donations to a better use if they came in at the beginning of the year.

Development Director Kevin Quinn said the fundraising committee is working on a detailed list on the school’s 4,000 alumni, something that was lacking in past years.

Quinn said six years ago, no alumni donations went to the upkeep of the building.

“We’ve changed that,” Quinn said. “We’re actively reaching out to our alumni, asking for help and keeping them informed about the school’s progress.”

Large donations are fantastic, Quinn said, but it’s not just the amount.

What he is looking for, is for more people to donate what they can.

“If each of the 4,000 alumni donated $50, we’d have $200,000 in our reserve and be much better off,” he said.

Degatano said that he has a long term goal of a cash reserve of “several hundred thousand dollars.”

But if the school can get its enrollment up, Degatano said they wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on donations.

“My goal is to get to 200 students within two to three years,” he said. “And I think we can do that.”

“If we can reach that number, then we can breathe a little easier when it comes to fundraising. It won’t be a panic if a fundraiser doesn’t go so well,” he added.

Degatano said the diocese would also be happier with a higher enrollment.

“Their never going to stop looking at us closely,” he said. “But a higher enrollment would go a long way.”

Currently, Wildwood Catholic has 153 students enrolled. Quinn said he has about 35 applications for enrollment sitting on his desk for next September.

“That’s four times the amount we were at last year,” he said.

Degatano said that by the time the next school year starts enrollment will probably reach 160 to 165 students.

In order to make the school attractive to prospective students, Degatano said that he’s been bringing in new programs.

“We’re enhancing the education here and it isn’t costing the school a thing,” he said.

Degatano said the school started one program last year, a law seminar presented by local attorney Robert Sandman.

“It was so well received that we had students in younger grades asking for it,” Degatano said. “The plan now it to give each grade level their own specialized seminars on Fridays throughout the school year.”

Degatano said the school also offers a research seminar, presented by his wife, Jeanne Degatano, a professor at Drexel, and is beginning a medical and writing seminar.

Degatano said he is also solidifying partnerships with colleges and universities that would enable juniors and seniors to take courses for college credit.

“Some high schools work with just one college,” he said. “We’re working with three and I’m going to go after more.”

Seton Hall University has agreed to allow juniors and seniors to take a 3 credit course on real world technology and Kean University will offer a course on sustainability in September, Degatano said.

Drexel University is still in discussion with us to finalize a program which will also be available in September, he added.

Another new opportunity, Degatano said is online courses paid for by a grant from the International Academy of Sciences.

“The online courses allow us to dramatically expand our elective course offerings, including SAT prep and several AP courses,” he said.

Degatano said he also looked outside the United States for ways to enhance the experience at Wildwood Catholic. New to this school year were six students from China, Germany, Spain and South Korea, part of a foreign exchange program.

“We’re working with a new and improved agency to enroll exchange students for September,” he said. They will be able to financially reward the host family and the stipend will easily cover the cost of tuition, he added.

Despite Wildwood Catholic being located on a five-mile island with another high school, Quinn said that he’s confident there are more than enough students to go around.

“Fifty percent of school’s population comes from off island,” he said.

And if the problems persist with the catholic school in Philadelphia, Quinn said that they may see students who relocate just to continue with a stable Catholic education.

“I had one parent from Bonner call because they were interested in sending their child here. They have a summer home and they are willing to relocate,” he said.

Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Pendergrast, which share a campus in Drexel Hill, Pa. are both slated to close.

When asked why the effort to save Wildwood Catholic succeeded and similar efforts to save the Philadelphia schools failed, Quinn responded that Wildwood Catholic had the advantage.

“If a school closed in Philadelphia, it can be a lot easier to change Catholic schools because there are so many located in close proximity,” he said. “Wildwood Catholic is the only Catholic High School in the county.”

Quinn said the other advantage is the community’s close connection with a school that has been in operation since 1948.

“Students’ parents and grandparents graduated from this school,” he said.

It’s that legacy that Degatano and Quinn said they are working to preserve for future generations.

“I’m here for the duration,” Degatano said. “I think changing deans hurt the school’s image a little bit and gave the impression that things weren’t OK.”

“That’s not the case with me,” he said. “I told the board of directors when they hired me that I’m here as long as you want me.”

Quinn said that his children, as well as family and friend’s children, attend Cape Trinity Catholic.

“My sole purpose is to work to make sure they have a high school to go to,” he said.

 

Lauren Suit can be e-mailed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or you can comment on this story at shorenewstoday.com.

Wildwood Catholic High School students Rita Marino, Sven Axelson and Sal Zampiri talk with Tony Degatano, dean of academics, and Kevin Quinn, director of development, on their way to class.  Wildwood Catholic High School students Rita Marino, Sven Axelson and Sal Zampiri talk with Tony Degatano, dean of academics, and Kevin Quinn, director of development, on their way to class.


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