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Bringing his A Game

Date: 9/9/2013



As a former referee, Philip J. Fromuth, Ph.D. '12 has a lot of experience making tough calls. Now, he's doing it for 12,000 students in 48 schools in the sprawling Diocese of Allentown.

It’s a tough time to be an administrator in a Catholic school system. For decades, since enrollment peaked at 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 Catholic schools nationally in the 1960s, administrators have been faced with closings and consolidations.

By 1990, Catholic schools were down to just 2.5 million students — less than half the number they educated at their peak. Following a slight upward trend in the 1990s, Catholic schools have lost more than 651,000 students — a precipitous 24.5 percent fall in enrollment — across the nation since 2000.

Among dioceses in Pennsylvania, only one showed enrollment gains during the current school year — the Diocese of Allentown, where Philip Fromuth, Ph.D. '12 is superintendent.

Fromuth has made many key decisions during his decade as secretary of education and superintendent of schools for the diocese. He’s closed schools and merged others, and launched a pair of key leadership programs. Last year, he was part of a diocesan team that helped halt the long decline in enrollment for the diocese, which has nearly 12,300 students at 48 schools in five counties.

In 2012-13, the Allentown Diocese gained about 50 students, ending a decade of annual 3-4 percent decreases. Fromuth attributes the rise in enrollment to careful planning, the leadership of Bishop Barres and the Bishop's Commission on Catholic Schools, as well as the efforts of dedicated pastors, principals, teachers and parents.

“If you’re not looking ahead, you’re going to be mired in the day-to-day,” he says. “I think we can be satisfied in the present. But we can be fulfilled in the future.”

Fromuth’s job is both familiar and familial. He grew up in the Allentown Diocese. He attended Central Catholic High School in Reading, where as a senior he averaged 10 points a game as a basketball forward. His mother was a homemaker and teacher; his father was a junior high school principal.

Fromuth’s diocesan career began in 1980 as a teacher at St. Catharine of Siena School in Mount Penn, a Berks County borough. Four years later, he became principal of Holy Guardian Angels School in Reading. Over the next 16 years, he supervised a wide range of changes, including a large building project. For most of those years, he doubled as the regional chairperson of Catholic principals in Berks County and tripled as a basketball official. He insists that running the court, making calls and ignoring catcalls helped reduce his stress as an educational point guard.

Fromuth retired as a referee in 2000 to protect an old damaged disc and prepare for a new role as the Allentown Diocese’s assistant superintendent of elementary education. Two years later, he became the diocese’s chief of education. In his first year, he faced the decision to close St. Mary’s School, a venerable institution in Reading. A proud, passionate parish, he points out, it could no longer support only 70 students.

Last year, Fromuth was an integral part of a diocesan initiative to start a program to help diocese schools survive and thrive. Composed mostly of lay people, these boards of limited jurisdiction are charged with improving enrollment, finances and community outreach.

“It’s very important to have a local buy-in,” says Fromuth. “We have to make everyone feel as if it’s their school.”

Fromuth sharpened his own administrative skills as a charter student in Alvernia’s doctoral program in leadership. Dr. Tufan Tiglioglu, Ph.D. program director, says Fromuth’s work ethic and dedication were particularly impressive. “Through

Dr. Fromuth’s work in our program, he showed how willing he was to put in the time and effort needed to promote social justice and social responsibility as a visionary leader in our contemporary and diverse society,” said Tiglioglu.

He was inspired by his dissertation subject, Monsignor George Bornemann (1838-1924), a Berks County shepherd. Bornemann co-founded a hospital, united ethnic Catholic churches and empowered Catholic parishes in a highly Protestant region. He “was a simple man, but a man who got things done,” says Fromuth, “a man of his times and a man who changed his times.”

Fromuth is helping to change his times with a new diocesan academy that trains prospective principals, assistant principals, department heads, head teachers and other educators to be better leaders. The father of two college-age children is also encouraging leaders to groom younger leaders. One of his favorite exchanges took place during a transition meeting for the 2011 merger of two Reading high schools, Holy Name and Central Catholic — which happened to be Fromuth’s alma mater.

At one point students and adults debated whether seniors should wear the uniforms of their old schools or the uniform of their new school, Berks Catholic. John Foster, an incoming senior, proposed a merger of traditions. Seniors should wear the new uniform, he said, to live the school’s motto, “Unum in Christo,” or “One in Christ.”

Foster’s suggestion was accepted at Berks Catholic, which has nearly 20 more students than the combined enrollments of Holy Name and Central Catholic. According to Fromuth, the increase is rare among merged Catholic schools in America.

Fromuth’s goals for the Allentown Diocese range from increasing enrollment by 2 percent in 2013-2014 to ministering to the growing and thriving Hispanic communities throughout the diocese. For him, there is no finer example of servant leadership than Jesus washing his apostles’ feet during the Last Supper.

“Our purpose is to work with people to serve Jesus Christ,” he says. “I’m not sure how effective leaders can be if they’re not servants.”

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