8 D.C. Catholic Schools Eyed for Charters

By Theola Labbe and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 8, 2007

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is proposing to convert eight of the District's 28 Catholic schools into secular charter schools, saying the archdiocese can no longer afford to keep them open.

Wuerl said his recommendation to strip the schools of their core religious identity and turn them over to a nonsectarian entity to be run as charter schools is the only way to avoid closing them and would continue the education of thousands of low-income city children without interruption.

The converted charter schools -- elementary schools in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods -- would receive operating and facilities funds from the District. They would remain in their buildings and pay rent to the parishes.

National education experts say the proposal could be a solution for other urban Catholic school systems around the country that have struggled with declining enrollment and rising operating costs.

The archdiocese sent letters home with students yesterday explaining the proposal, which would take effect as soon as fall 2008 and affect 1,400 current students. Starting next week, individual schools will hold information sessions to solicit parent and community feedback. Wuerl is expected to make a final decision next month.

"It's a heartache to know that we wouldn't have these schools any longer," Wuerl said in an interview this week. "But the sadness is sweetened by the fact that these students would continue to have an education."

But some parents and parishioners reacted angrily, saying Wuerl's proposal would gut high-quality education for black children. The majority of the students in the schools that would be affected are black and not Catholic. The archdiocese subsidizes a large portion of their tuition.

"The fact that they are even considering doing this is not only unacceptable, it's outrageous," said Kathryn S. Allen, who sits on the parish council of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Northwest Washington. St. Augustine is on the list of schools to be converted, but the Rev. Patrick Smith has told the archdiocese that he intends to try to continue operating it as a parish-supported school.

A learning environment suffused with religion is a key part of Catholic schools, which are known for strict discipline and a rigorous curriculum that also promotes morality. Although most students in such schools are not Catholic, they learn about the seven sacraments and the lives of saints, attend prayer together and are taught compassion for others.

Under a charter model, archdiocese officials said, the schools would still have strong values, but the schools' names would change and specific religious references would be stripped from the curriculum.

The plan, which has been vetted by two church bodies and floated to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and city charter leaders, would require the District to increase its budget for charter schools. The city's 57 charter schools, representing about 22,000 students, are scheduled to receive $320 million from the city this year. The mayor and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are looking for additional funds for public school improvements.

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said that now the diocesan proposal is a possibility, "we will take it into consideration as we plan future budgets."

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