Catholic Schools Buck U.S. Trend
D.C. Campuses Undergo Renewal
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2004; Page DZ10
When the hallway paint was peeling and the church ceiling was flaking, the old cafeteria at Gonzaga College High School was a survival test for the newest boys, who typically formed the rear of the lunch line.
"It was so poorly configured that the freshmen could never get to the food, and the little guys didn't get to eat. It was like natural selection dining," joked Andrew Battaile, assistant vice president for advancement and an alumnus of the all-male Jesuit high school in Northwest D.C.
Today, after a huge infusion of cash that also funded an extensive computer system and a series of new classrooms, the cafeteria at Gonzaga is laid out like a food court, rather than a prison food line, "so everyone gets a chance to get their food and get a place at a table," Battaile said.
The reconfigured lunchroom is an apt symbol for what has happened at many Catholic schools in Washington.
Like their counterparts nationwide, D.C.'s Catholic schools only a few years ago were flourishing in well-to-do areas and hurting in the inner city. During the past three years, Catholic schools across the country have been closing twice as fast as they have been opening, said Michael J. Guerra, president of the National Catholic Education Association.
The rare exception to this trend has been the nation's capital, where in the past few years, a series of fundraising campaigns has launched more than $65 million in renovations and have boosted enrollment. More than half of the city's 30 Catholic schools, which enroll 7,751 students, have undergone major renovations during the past few years.
Because the schools are an important alternative to D.C. public schools, the impact of the repairs extends far beyond Catholics.
"This is a wonderful story," and "Washington is one of the shining stars for the future" of Catholic education, Guerra said.
The rebuilding comes as the city inaugurates a new federally funded school voucher system for the 2004-2005 school year under which at least 1,700 low-income D.C. students can receive up to $7,500 a year in taxpayer funds to attend private or parochial school. The Catholic school system is expected to attract many of the participants in the nation's first federally funded voucher initiative.
The timing of the renovation program and the inauguration of the vouchers is coincidental, Catholic educators say.
"This whole program started in 1997, and I wouldn't want people to connect it to the new voucher program," said Mary Anne Stanton, executive director of the Center City Consortium, a group of Catholic education advocates that has worked with local businesses to adopt and nurture 13 urban Catholic schools that were on the brink of closing.
"This came from an absolute call not to abandon our schools," Stanton said. "Will vouchers be helpful to us? Yes. But is it a windfall for Catholic schools? No."
She said that the federal voucher payment will cover only the cost of tuition and not the capital improvements.
Although the voucher initiative is controversial among groups that believe it violates the constitutional separation of church and state by funneling government money to religious schools, Guerra said the Catholic church has approached its efforts in urban education as a mission to help low-income families, rather than as a mission to pass along the Catholic faith, which was the main thrust of Catholic education more than 100 years ago.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The 140-year-old Immaculate Conception Catholic School, near the new Washington Convention Center, is undergoing a $4.6-million renovation.
(James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
In "Catholic Schools Buck U.S. Trend" [District Extra, May 6], a $14 million renovation at Blessed Sacrament School was incompletely described. In addition to the library, art and educational space listed, the project also included new mechanical systems, science laboratories and a separate new building, the Parish Center.