By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
The Archdiocese of Washington announced yesterday that it planned to convert seven D.C. Catholic schools to charter schools, a decision that angers some parents, students and teachers who worried over the fate of their parochial schools.
The schools are elementary-level, have nearly all-African American student bodies and are located in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. To become charter schools, they would have to make changes such as ending school prayer and removing religious symbols. But as charter schools, which are independent public schools, they would receive operating funds from the District.
The seven schools slated for conversion have a combined operating deficit of $4 million, which the archdiocese has committed to pay this year, said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
The archdiocese's superintendent of schools, Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, said the decision to go charter was a painful and sad one. But the archdiocese, which also operates schools in Maryland, said it could no longer subsidize inner-city schools that have been losing money because of declining enrollment.
"Stretching the limited dollars that we have has become more and more challenging," Weitzel-O'Neill said at a news conference at St. Thomas More in Southeast, which is remaining Catholic.
Black Catholics United, a group that formed in the wake of Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl's announced intentions in September to convert schools, said in a statement that it was disappointed by the decision, saying it "raised questions as to whether there remains a place in the Archdiocese of Washington for African American Catholics."
April Rich, 34, of Southeast Washington said she placed her son John, 11, in Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian this year because St. Benedict, the D.C. Catholic school he had attended, closed.
"Now this option is being taken away. . . . I don't want it to switch," she said.
The schools facing conversion are Assumption and Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Southeast, Holy Name and St. Francis de Sales in Northeast, and Immaculate Conception, Nativity Catholic Academy and St. Gabriel in Northwest. Four schools -- Sacred Heart in Northwest, St. Anthony in Northeast, and St. Francis Xavier and St. Thomas More in Southwest -- will stay Catholic and share resources as a new consortium.
St. Augustine in Northwest had been slated to convert to charter, but parishioners and other African American Catholics reached out to donors and came up with a plan to operate as a parish-supported school, which Wuerl approved.
The conversions come at a time when urban Catholic elementary schools across the country are under unprecedented financial pressure. The once-robust inner-city Catholic population has dwindled and, more recently, charter schools, which offer a tax-payer funded alternative to Catholic private schools, have drawn poorer students away from Catholic schools.
It's a different picture for Catholic schools in the suburbs. For instance, in the Arlington Diocese, which covers all of Northern Virginia, school enrollment has grown 25 percent in the last decade. The diocese has opened eight elementary schools because of rapid growth in the area's outer suburbs and increased number of Hispanic Catholic immigrants in the closer-in area.
The Washington archdiocese said it was talking to several potential charter operators, who would apply to the D.C. Public Charter School Board to convert the schools. Sources familiar with the process said the archdiocese has asked for written proposals, which were submitted as late as last week and are under review.
The archdiocese said it plans to announce the operator by the end of this month.
Weitzel-O'Neill estimated that, as charters, the schools could get up to $15,000 for each of the 1,147 students, which could mean they would receive about $17 million in public funding.
Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said a charter conversion application from the archdiocese would probably be an attractive proposal because unlike startup schools, the converted schools have an academic track record and buildings where they already operate.
"I can't think of an issue that would be a non-starter for us," Nida said.
Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon contributed to this report.