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Archdiocese questions future of 14 D.C., Md. schools

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pastors at 14 churches in the Washington Archdiocese have warned that their schools could close or be reconfigured if enrollments continue to decline.

The schools are split evenly between the District and Maryland, and all serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Not all are in immediate threat of closure. But the meetings between pastors and school parents in the past month signal a further possible retrenchment of Catholic social services in the same month that the church announced it would pull Catholic Charities out of contracts with the city if it doesn't change a proposed bill on same-sex marriage. And in the case of the threatened D.C. schools, the archdiocese is encouraging its parishioners to get politically involved.

"These are the schools that have an urgent need for the pastors to sit down with them to discuss the financial health of the community," said Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The archdiocese operates 96 schools in the District and Maryland and serves 28,629 students, down 2.4 percent from last year, when it closed two schools in Southern Maryland. Two years ago, it gave up control of seven D.C. schools and converted them to public charters.

Dempsey said that people at the seven D.C. schools now under threat met to discuss the future of the D.C. voucher program, which is up for reauthorization in Congress and was closed this year to new entrants. The seven schools have high proportions of students receiving the federal vouchers, which pay up to $7,500 in tuition for low-income families. Although no formal surveys have been done, Dempsey said many families will probably pull their children out of the schools if the program were discontinued. Dempsey said the church was encouraging the school communities at the meetings "to call Congress and mobilize," and the archdiocese has been involved in several pro-voucher protests since August.

Of the seven schools in the District, St. Augustine School in Northwest has the highest percentage of voucher students: More than half of its 180 students received vouchers this year, and it was targeted by the archdiocese for conversion into a charter school in September 2007 until community backlash forced a reversal. Holy Redeemer School, St. Ann's Academy, Sacred Heart School, St. Anthony, St. Francis Xavier and St. Thomas More were the other schools in the District that had meetings. Voucher students account for at least a fifth of the students at all of them, Dempsey said.

The Maryland schools are St. Hugh School in Greenbelt, St. Jerome and St. Mark in Hyattsville, St. Catherine Labouré in Wheaton, St. Jude in Rockville, St. Michael the Archangel in Silver Spring and St. Michael in Ridge, in St. Mary's County. The future of the voucher program doesn't affect them, but they are suffering from declines in enrollment and charitable giving.

Of the 14 schools, St. Hugh appears the likeliest to close at the end of the school year, although no decision has been made. A note from its pastor, Father Walter J. Tappe, posted on its Web site, said that it had lost a quarter of its students in the past year, dropping to an enrollment of 129, and that it would face a $250,000 deficit were it to stay open next school year. He recommended merging with St. Joseph School in Beltsville.

Tappe could not be reached to comment Monday.

Other schools discussed options to make their operations more sustainable, ranging from increasing enrollment through community outreach to bolstering bank accounts through fundraising, Dempsey said. She said decisions about whether schools close will be made before the January enrollment process begins.

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