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8 D.C. Catholic Schools Eyed for Charters
Turning Over Operation to Secular Entity Proposed to Avert Closure

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."

The move by Wuerl to consider the charter route stems from a decade of financial losses at 12 inner-city schools known as the Center City Consortium. The consortium was set up after a 1995 archdiocese study recommended closing or consolidating several city schools.

Then-Cardinal James A. Hickey insisted they remain open, so the archdiocese formed the consortium as a way for the schools to save on administrative costs and pool fundraising resources. Although they have improved academically, they have continued to lose money despite $60 million in diocesan and private donations.

Of these 12 consortium schools, eight would be converted to charters managed by a single secular entity selected by the archdiocese. The four others would remain Catholic.

The recommendation came after a year of study by a committee of 40 parents, teachers and other archdiocese officials that considered a school's enrollment, the number of students who were Catholic, projected deficits and other factors.

Wuerl, who has been in Washington for 14 months, previously served as bishop of Pittsburgh, where he gained a reputation as a tough-minded administrator -- closing nearly a third of the diocese's 320 parishes and eliminating a $2 million deficit -- and an education innovator. He sought funding from the business community to set up an endowment for needy schools, raised tuition and opened regional grade schools to replace smaller elementary schools.

Soon after he arrived in the District in June 2006, Wuerl said he heard from Catholic education officials that the inner-city schools were no longer financially viable. Part of the reason was that many poor families were choosing charter schools, which are free.

"One by one, families left to go to charters . . . and it was a kind of steady drifting away," said Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, whose parish school, which dates to the 1920s, would be converted to a charter.

But Pope said it is a better alternative than shutting down. "At least we'll be able to serve children in some capacity in our neighborhoods."

Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he has spoken to Wuerl about the proposal and described the seven-member appointed board as "open to the possibility" of the conversion schools.

Turning religious schools into secular charter schools can be difficult. In Chicago, public schools chief Arne Duncan asked an independent Catholic school to open a charter school several years ago. The Catholic school San Miguel has opened two secular charters.

"There are church-state issues," Duncan said. "But if you're really trying to innovate and think outside the box, they are absolutely surmountable."

The Archdiocese of Washington's struggle with shrinking enrollment is not unique. More than three-quarters of Catholic dioceses in the country have had flat or falling enrollment in elementary schools for the past seven years, according to a study last year by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The decline has accelerated in recent years because of several factors: smaller Catholic families, urban Catholics' moving to the suburbs, weakening attachment of Catholic families to a Catholic education -- and, more recently, the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal. As a result of the drop, the study found, hundreds of Catholic schools in such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have closed.

Many suburban dioceses, such as that in Arlington, which includes all of Northern Virginia, have largely escaped this trauma. There, school enrollment has swelled 25 percent. The diocese has opened eight elementary schools because of rapid growth in the area's outer suburbs and rising numbers of Hispanic Catholic immigrants in the closer-in suburbs.

At dismissal yesterday afternoon, girls in plaid jumpers and boys in crisp white polo shirts and blue shorts streamed out of Immaculate Conception in Northwest Washington, which is scheduled to be converted. Cabdriver Fayera Sobokssa's lips stretched thin as he contemplated the idea of his 11-year-old daughter, Sana, attending a secular school.

"That's why I brought her here," Sobokssa said as other parents nearby nodded in agreement. "I would be much happier if they keep it."

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