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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.

Six of the seven campuses that converted remain, each with one class per grade, pre-kindergarten through eighth. The seventh school, the former St. Francis de Sales in Brentwood, closed after a year, the victim of continued low enrollment.

Initial test scores at the schools were unimpressive, something school leaders acknowledge. They blame the results on the turmoil of the conversion. Across the seven campuses that were open the first year, 38 percent of students scored proficient or above in reading on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests, compared with 48.4 percent of students in traditional public schools. In math, 24.6 percent of Center City students scored proficient or above -- "abysmal," in Holla's words -- compared with 45.6 percent of D.C. public school students.

Holla noted that other promising schools have struggled with disappointing test scores in their early years. Initial internal tests this school year, especially in earlier grades, are more encouraging, she said. Students will have a second crack at the DC-CAS this spring.

In a classroom at the Petworth campus next door to St. Gabriel's one recent morning, eighth-grade teacher Niya White led her class -- two-thirds of whom have arrived since the conversion -- in a discussion about courage, one of the values the schools have focused on. Most of the talk centered on whether students had the guts to 'fess up to parents about typical 14-year-old foibles such as staying out too late and not doing homework.

Although the charter schools are a lean financial operation, they are on much better footing than they were as Catholic schools. White says she no longer has to think twice about ordering a new set of novels for her English class. Principals elsewhere express relief that they're able to hire people to help students who need special education.

At the Trinidad campus, Principal Monica Evans said she had about $2,500 per student to spend each year when she ran a Catholic school. As a charter, the school receives $8,800 to $11,400 per student from the city.

"For someone like me, who's been so used to operating on nothing," she said, "we've been able to do some incredible things with the resources." That includes hiring teacher trainers, expanding an arts program and purchasing classroom supplies.

She also said the charter has become more of a neighborhood school, drawing local students who had been intrigued when it was called Holy Name but were unable to afford the $4,500 tuition.

Though conversations about the futures of seven other D.C. Catholic schools took place this fall, a spokesman for the archdiocese said there were no plans to apply for any conversions this year.

For at least one Center City teacher, Catholicism is a guide even when it's not part of the classroom. Sister Patricia Ralph spent 14 years at Holy Name, five as principal. She stayed on at Center City. Her impeccable handwriting covers the chalkboards of her fifth-grade classroom. A small crucifix dangles around her neck.

"The conversion was hard in the beginning, but children are children, and I made sure that I was focused on that," she said. "It's been a challenge."

One solace: When the school pulled off a blackboard panel to install an electronic whiteboard as part of the conversion, Ralph saw that a cross was drawn directly onto the cement wall. The whiteboard went right over it.

"Y'all thought you took Jesus out of here, but in my heart I know it's there," she said.

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