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.

The yet-to-be named operator will apply to the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The cycle opens in January, with applications due in April. After a private interview and a public hearing, the seven-member independent panel will make a final decision in June. By law, a school looking to convert must submit, as part of the operator's application, approving signatures from two-thirds of the teachers employed full time in the school and two-thirds of the parents. The application must also include evidence of community outreach about the plan and an explanation of how the signatures were obtained and counted.

If the charter application is not approved, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said, "the schools would close because the funds are not there to support them."

The only other conversion was by Paul, then a Ward 4 junior high school in the D.C. system. It first applied for charter conversion in 1997 and was rejected twice by the charter board -- once because of too few signatures -- before gaining approval in September 1999. The conversion became a flashpoint between public school advocates, including then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who fought the plan, and proponents of charter schools, with heated meetings, protests and even an inquiry by the city inspector general into allegations raised by the teachers union that the conversion signatures were not valid.

When the D.C. financial control board voted to turn over the Paul building to charter administrators, four D.C. school board trustees resigned in protest. Paul opened as a charter school in July 2000.

Now that the archdiocese's proposal has moved from closed-door parish meetings to a public announcement, the plan is drawing more attention from school activists, who say it is a way for private groups to get access to public funds.

"Tell me if I am wrong, but I do not think that the purpose of charter schools is to bail out private schools which are financially strapped," said Crystal Sylvia, a D.C. public school parent and school psychologist.

Jasmine Clark, 13, is in her last year at Holy Name in Northeast, but she's worried about what a converted charter school would be like for her two younger sisters.

"The structure will no longer be there," Jasmine said. "When you take the Catholic out, you'll be missing all of the bonding and spiritual experiences that take place."

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