Metro

As applications drop, BC High School ponders its future

05/05/2017 Boston Ma Boston College High School Male students leave their school. The school may be considering admitting female students. Boston Globe Staff\Photograph Jonathan Wiggs Reporter:Topic
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
Boston College High School students left their school Friday.

Boston College High School has experienced a sharp decline in applications, prompting trustees to explore ways to reverse the trend and raising fears among many alumni and parents that the historically all-boys school might allow girls to attend.

Over the past decade, the Jesuit Catholic school — a premier destination for college-bound boys for generations — has seen applications tumble from 1,063 in 2008 to 637 this year, according to an April 20 letter by the chairman of the school’s trustees.

Consequently, the school is preparing to welcome one of its smaller groups of new students to its Dorchester campus this fall: about 280, compared to 336 last fall, according to the letter, which was obtained by the Globe.

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The numbers suggest that BC High, which had experienced a surge in overall enrollment over the past decade, might not be immune to a national decline in Catholic school enrollment, which has forced schools to close or, for those that educate just one gender, to admit both boys and girls.

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BC High has pondered whether to admit girls in the past. In his letter, chairman John McQuillan did not mention the possibility of admitting female students to the school or specify any possible scenarios under consideration to address the application drop but said “all options deserve a fair and honest assessment.”

“The board has made no decisions and has yet to deliberate these or other options, but given the school’s enrollment needs, the board owes a duty to the school to do so,” McQuillan wrote.

He said the board would work with the Archdiocese of Boston and the Society of Jesus to “conduct a comprehensive evaluation of BC High’s options” and what impact it could have on other Catholic schools.

The cryptic nature of the letter is raising alarms among many alumni and parents — who oppose a change in the all-male enrollment — that the board has a hidden agenda to start admitting female applicants. They argue that even though the number of applicants may have declined, the actual enrollment over the last decade has increased by about 300 students, bringing the total to just under 1,600.

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“This is a manufactured crisis to support an agenda by a few trustees who are acting more like Donald Trump than stewards of a great Jesuit academic institution that has over 150 years of history, tradition, and success,” said City Councilor Michael Flaherty, an alumnus whose son attends the school. “BC High is a thriving school.”

The tension has flared a year and a half after the board, under a different chairman, discussed the idea of admitting girls but then ultimately reaffirmed its commitment to serving only boys.

Surveys of parents and alumni at the time revealed opposition to the idea, although faculty and students were more supportive, according to a copy of a board letter in October 2015 that was obtained by the Globe this week.

But the board at the time never removed the idea completely from consideration.

Greg Gaillardetz, a 2015 alumnus, said he supports admitting female students.

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“I think it’s very important that boys are able to interact with women in an environment they are learning in,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn to respect women and see them as equals.”

In a statement issued in response to Globe questions, McQuillan did not say whether BC High was considering a new model and instead spoke in generalities and highlighted the school’s academic accomplishments.

“It is from this position of strength that our board and senior leadership team will work closely with the Archdiocese of Boston, the Society of Jesus, and our Catholic community to develop a strategic plan addressing market-wide enrollment challenges facing independent and Catholic secondary schools across the country,” he said. “We are facing our challenges directly, and we are confident that our best years are ahead of us.”

Founded in 1863, Boston College High School initially operated as part of Boston College to serve the city’s growing Irish population, before splitting in 1927.

Since then, the high school has continued to be a popular gateway to Boston College and other top universities. Some 98 percent of graduates go on to four-year colleges,many of them leaving the school with a strong foundation in the teachings of the Jesuits, who stress education and finding the good in all humanity.

But the school, which has been on Morrissey Boulevard since 1950, is weathering a turbulent period.

In February, the school’s much anticipated search to replace retiring president William Kemeza collapsed when the school and the leading candidate were unable to reach an agreement, raising questions about what went wrong.

Kemeza initially agreed to stay on until a successor was found, trustees announced in February. But he then decided to stick with his plan to retire at the end of this school year.

At the same time, the school’s last Jesuit teacher retired in December and a sharp decline in the number of Jesuits has created difficulties in bringing in others.

The school’s annual tuition of more than $20,000 has also become increasingly out of reach for middle class families, causing the school to give more financial aid. Nearly 50 percent of students receive assistance. The average annual amount is $8,300.

Enrollment in Catholic schools across Greater Boston has slid by about 10,000 students over the last 10 years, to 37,547 this year, according to the archdiocese.

But some schools, such as BC High, have been defying those trends.

In 2006, in response to families who wanted their sons to start an all-boys education earlier and to better position itself in the private-school market, the school added seventh and eighth grades.

The revelation of declining applications prompted some alumni and parents to question whether school leaders grew complacent in their marketing efforts.

“There are unbelievable stories about there about kids who are incredibly smart or athletic, but you don’t see those stories being told,” said Gregory Vasil, a parent who supports maintaining an all-male student body.

But in his April letter, McQuillan said that despite significant investment in marketing and admissions, the school was unable to draw enough qualified applicants, causing it to enroll fewer students.

Some parents and alumni speculate whether a coed BC High could put the dwindling number of all-girl Catholic schools at greater risk.

“If the school goes coed, it will pummel some of the all-girls schools,” said Joe Donahue, a former board chairman. “It’s not the right time. I don’t feel like we are in a crisis.”

Globe correspondent Maddie Kilgannon contributed to this report. Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.