Vouchers Breathe New Life Into D.C. Catholic Schools

Richard Stepney reads at his desk while first-grade teacher Maria Mercer takes the class through a lesson at St. Benedict the Moor School in Northeast Washington.
Richard Stepney reads at his desk while first-grade teacher Maria Mercer takes the class through a lesson at St. Benedict the Moor School in Northeast Washington. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005

The fourth-grade girl with shoulder-length cornrows looked out at 160 students organized by grade level in nine rows across the gymnasium floor.

Wearing a red sweater and khaki shorts uniform, she stood in the "prayer space," which was consecrated with a small candle atop a round table, and led the children in reciting prayers of intercession to admired saints.

Finally, all the students shouted the Positive Pledge: "I am somebody. I'm capable and lovable. I am teachable; therefore I can learn. I can do anything when I try. I will respect myself and others. I will be the best I can be each day. I will not waste time because it's valuable. I'm so precious and bright. I am somebody."

So went the morning routine at St. Benedict the Moor in Northeast Washington, part of a Catholic school system trying to meld its sacred traditions with high secular expectations as it assumes a central role in a new federal voucher program to help low-income students attending failing public schools.

Of the 983 students in the voucher program, which provides federal grants to District children to use toward tuition and fees at private or religious schools, 61 percent are attending Catholic schools -- a percentage that is expected to remain roughly the same when the program expands to about 1,600 students this fall.

Education analysts say it is no surprise that the Archdiocese of Washington schools are so heavily involved in the experiment. Their tuition rates are usually less than the $7,500 maximum that voucher students are allotted, while tuition at the city's elite private schools is much higher. And several of the Catholic schools are in poor neighborhoods where parents dissatisfied with public schools are most likely to reside.

The first comprehensive study of whether the new scholarships are boosting student achievement won't be issued for 18 months. But it is already clear that the program is a boon for the archdiocese. Its D.C. elementary school enrollment increased last fall after three decades of steady decline, and the influx of students has helped revive more than a dozen schools that at one point were candidates for closure.

The 43-year-old St. Benedict is one of them. A 1995 archdiocese study recommended that it and 15 other elementary schools in the District be closed or consolidated because of dwindling enrollment. At the insistence of then-Cardinal James A. Hickey, the schools remained open, and the archdiocese set up a new office to help many of them with such functions as fundraising and teacher training.

Now, the arrival of hundreds of voucher students has accelerated the schools' turnaround.

The voucher program "definitely has brought a whole new life" to St. Benedict, said the Rev. Michael Jones, the parish pastor. "It's brought energy, enthusiasm and 80 new students to our program."

From February 2003, when he became pastor, to last June, St. Benedict's enrollment dropped from 150 to 110, Jones said. Last fall, with the launch of vouchers, enrollment rose to 165, he said, and over the next few years the school expects to reach its building's capacity of 200 students.

Citywide, the voucher program represents a public subsidy of more than $3.5 million this year for the education of Catholic school students.

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