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Former D.C. Catholic schools seeking identity as charter schools

In 2008, the Archdiocese of Washington gave up control of seven of its inner-city schools that were struggling financially, turning the facilities into secular charter schools. Dozens of teachers and hundreds of students departed; 1,000 new students signed up. Here's a glimpe of life inside one a year-and-a-half later.

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

St. Gabriel's Catholic Church in the District's Petworth neighborhood and the Center City Public Charter School next door share a parking lot and the shade of some trees. Until a year-and-a-half ago, they also shared a faith.

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But in 2008, the Archdiocese of Washington gave up control of seven of its financially struggling inner-city schools, stripping down crucifixes and turning the facilities into secular charter schools in three months. Dozens of teachers and hundreds of students departed; 1,000 new students signed up.

The reincarnated schools walked a fine line between staying secular and capitalizing on Catholic schools' reputation for quality inner-city education. The schools made clear that God wasn't part of the picture but focused their curricula on character values and "moral virtue." And many parents flocked to the schools because they believed their children would receive a free parochial education.

"I kind of wish they did keep the prayer in the school," said Catina Butts, a parent at Center City's Trinidad campus, the former Holy Name School. "But they kept the structure, they keep the kids disciplined. They knew my son's weakest points, and they helped bring him up."

Students talk about respect, perseverance and integrity -- a focus that Center City educators say was part of the Catholic curriculum but also fit the charter school model. Every month, the schools pick a value and spend the month working on it, making students write essays and discuss how they live it.

A morning meeting has replaced morning prayer; students chant a code of respect. Girls wear the same plaid jumpers they did as Catholic students, and boys wear pressed shirts and slacks. Some say the dress code is enforced more strictly than it was in the Catholic days. Students unfailingly stand when visitors enter the room in a show of old-fashioned politeness.

"We have the same uniforms," said eighth-grader Amber Sneed, who started at St. Gabriel's School when she was 4 and stayed on to go to Center City. "We have the same discussions."

But the school also made moves typical for charter schools: lengthening the school day, focusing on student performance data and hosting workshops to improve teachers' craft.

At the time the conversion was proposed, it drew fire from all sides. Some critics thought the Catholic Church was forsaking inner-city youth. Others worried that religion would remain in classrooms and that the public money going to the church in the form of rent -- $2.3 million this school year, much of which has been used to bolster the remaining D.C. Catholic schools -- was an unacceptable mixture of church and state.

Clearing the Bibles out of the library brought challenges that neither critics nor advocates expected.

"The response [to the conversion] was unbelievable," with new families streaming in to register their children, many of whom were coming from poorly performing public schools, said Maureen Holla, president of Center City, which has been running the organization since the spring after the conversion.

Holla, who has worked with charter schools and inner-city education for more than a decade but doesn't have connections to Catholic education, said the rapid changes had clearly been tough for the schools. "There are tremors that come from turning a place upside down in four weeks," she said.


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