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Former developer leading Archbishop Carroll into the future

By Kathy Boccella, The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Jan. 22--It's not for sale, but that doesn't stop Francis E. Fox -- the new president of Archbishop John Carroll High School, after 33 years developing real estate -- from describing the 46-year-old Catholic school in Radnor as if it were the Main Line's hottest property.

"I have two train [lines] at my front door," said Fox, honing his pitch to boost student enrollment while funding a $10 million campus overhaul. "I have the Blue Route and [I-]76 at my front door. . . . This is the center of the universe."

The 920-student archdiocesan school is also a model for a new approach for Catholic education in Philadelphia -- to run schools like businesses, with more private sector leadership and support, and a tighter focus on raising money, boosting financial aid, and marketing to reverse decades of declining enrollment.

Fox, known as Frank, a 1977 graduate of the school, became Carroll's first lay president in August. He says his appointment reflects "a major sea change" for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In 2012, the archdiocese took the unprecedented step of turning over management of its 17 high schools -- beset by rising debt and school closures -- to a newly created, independent Faith in the Future Foundation, which pledged a more "entrepreneurial approach" to saving Catholic education.

Fox, 54, in many ways is the embodiment of the new philosophy. "I'm basically the CEO in charge of enrollment, development, fund-raising, facilities, and I'd like to get involved in academics," he said. "My goal is to be one of the finest Catholic high schools in the country."

Entrusting Carroll's future to a real estate man who didn't send his own children to Catholic schools may not make sense on paper.

But Chris Mominey, secretary of Catholic Education for the archdiocese, said Fox brings enthusiasm, passion, and "a vision for growth and innovation." He cited Fox's launch of a 50th anniversary fund drive three years ahead of time and attempts to recruit students in charter schools and far-flung parishes.

He has won over teachers, too, according to Rita Schwartz, longtime leader of Philadelphia's Catholic teachers union. "He makes them feel as though someone really cares about them," she said.

Fox was chairman of Carroll's advisory board and served on the search committee when the former president was reassigned to another school.

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Although he had just been hired in March by developer Newmark Grubb Knight Frank after running his own company for 17 years, Fox decided that the best person to lead Carroll was him.

"It struck me that it's what I was called to do," he said.

His priority is a fund-raising drive named Carroll50 -- pegged to the school's 50th anniversary in the 2017-18 school year -- which seeks to raise $10 million over the five years, five times larger than Carroll's last major capital campaign a decade ago. Seventy percent of the money will go toward upgrading facilities, including a new auditorium, stadium seating and enhanced athletic fields. The rest will fund academics.

The school is phasing in five academies -- where students get intense instruction in specific disciplines -- and partnered with nearby Cabrini College so juniors and seniors can take up to 24 credits for $500 per course -- "a whale of a deal," Fox said.

Next year's tuition and fees at Carroll will hit $8,000, but the school is also increasing scholarships -- especially merit-based ones -- and will spend about $1 million on financial aid, up from $630,000 this school year.

Fox says he's shooting for a 40 percent bump in next year's freshman class thanks to intense marketing and what he calls "the personal touch."

That includes a daily trip to the cafeteria to meet that day's "shadows," eighth graders who visit Carroll for a day with an eye toward enrolling.

"Having fun? Thanks for coming. We'd love to have you here," Fox said, shaking hands with one boy visiting on Jan. 14.

Filling seats is a priority. Enrollment peaked in 1978 at 1,700. Now at less than half-capacity, the school feels empty and looks like a fixer-upper compared with Lower Merion and Radnor's new high schools. The goal is 1,200 students by the 50th anniversary.

Carroll's greatest strength, said Fox, is its diversity. Fifteen percent of students are African American, 3 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 3 percent from other countries, a number the school, which recruits overseas, would like to increase.

He calls the students, who come from as far north as the Lehigh Valley and as far south as Delaware, the school's "secret sauce."

Jack Bateman of Media said he looked at a number of high schools for his eighth grade daughter and decided on Carroll because he was impressed with Fox and his plans, and believes the school's academics equal or exceed private academies'.

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Like other Catholic educators across Pennsylvania, Fox is aggressively seeking to boost financial aid through last year's expansion of the state program called EITC (Education Improvement Tax Credit) by Gov. Corbett and lawmakers. The EITC gives a tax credit to businesses that donate for scholarships. Since Fox's arrival, U.S. Liability Insurance in King of Prussia has given $250,000 and pledged another $250,000.

As passionate as he is about Carroll, Fox was stuck when asked about his best memory from his student years. His own three children attended top-ranked Conestoga High School as a "compromise" to his non-Catholic ex-wife, said Fox, who is remarried and lives in Philadelphia.

"My classmates," he answers finally. "When I tell you about the secret sauce here and how special the student body is, it's been that way for 45 years," he said. "It's a very special community."

BY THE NUMBERS

15%

of students at Archbishop Carroll are African American.

3%

are Hispanic.

5%

are Asian.

3%

are from other countries.

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

___

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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