7 D.C. Schools Must Ponder Education Without Religion

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007

At Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic School in Capitol Hill, students attend Mass once a week and a crucifix hangs in the lobby. Before dismissal time, pre-kindergarten teacher Courtney Pullen lines up her students and leads them in the Lord's Prayer. Pullen said she took a teaching job there because she could pray with the children and talk to them about God.

"It gives us leverage" with students, Pullen said of having religion as an integral part of the curriculum. "They're going to miss being able to pray and talk about religion."

The announcement last week by the Archdiocese of Washington that it plans to convert seven District schools to charter schools has forced teachers, students and parents to begin contemplating something that seems unreal: what a Catholic school education would be without religion.

"I'd feel insulted if I couldn't talk about God," said John Rich-Colson, 11, a sixth-grader at Holy Comforter. "I like to learn and find out new things about Him."

The change to charter status also would involve a potentially contentious application process whose outcome is not certain. A majority of the schools' parents and teachers must approve the change. Only one existing school has ever converted to charter status in the District.

S. Kathryn Allen, a co-founder of Black Catholics United, which held prayer rallies and sent letters to the archbishop to protest the loss of Catholic schools, said the group will continue its opposition to the conversion.

"We've not in any way, shape or form given up this battle," said Allen, a parishioner at the church affiliated with St. Augustine, which faced conversion but came up with a plan approved by the archdiocese to operate as a parish-supported school. "The fight continues."

Superintendent Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill said the archdiocese plans to name an operator this month that will apply for a charter to run the seven as "value-based schools."

In addition to Holy Comforter, the schools facing conversion are Assumption 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.

All the schools have student bodies that are mostly black, largely non-Catholic and substantially from low-income households. But they have made tremendous gains in test scores and lower teacher turnover as part of the Center City Consortium formed 10 years ago.

Consortium schools charge about $4,500 in tuition and fees per student each year, but officials say the cost is closer to $7,500. The consortium has collected more than $30 million in private fundraising since 1997 for the schools, which have been losing enrollment. The archdiocese has also given $30 million for the schools in the past 10 years and plans to cover this year's operating deficit of $7 million.

With the conversions, the largest source of funding for the schools would come from the District. If the enrollment of 1,147 students among the seven schools stayed the same, they would receive more than $14 million annually in public funds, according to current charter school funding formulas. The taxpayer money would fund school programs and rent payments to the parishes.

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