The fourth-grade girl with shoulder-length cornrows looked out at 160 students organized by grade level in nine rows across the gymnasium floor.
Wearing a red sweater and khaki shorts uniform, she stood in the "prayer space," which was consecrated with a small candle atop a round table, and led the children in reciting prayers of intercession to admired saints.
Finally, all the students shouted the Positive Pledge: "I am somebody. I'm capable and lovable. I am teachable; therefore I can learn. I can do anything when I try. I will respect myself and others. I will be the best I can be each day. I will not waste time because it's valuable. I'm so precious and bright. I am somebody."
So went the morning routine at St. Benedict the Moor in Northeast Washington, part of a Catholic school system trying to meld its sacred traditions with high secular expectations as it assumes a central role in a new federal voucher program to help low-income students attending failing public schools.
Of the 983 students in the voucher program, which provides federal grants to District children to use toward tuition and fees at private or religious schools, 61 percent are attending Catholic schools -- a percentage that is expected to remain roughly the same when the program expands to about 1,600 students this fall.
Education analysts say it is no surprise that the Archdiocese of Washington schools are so heavily involved in the experiment. Their tuition rates are usually less than the $7,500 maximum that voucher students are allotted, while tuition at the city's elite private schools is much higher. And several of the Catholic schools are in poor neighborhoods where parents dissatisfied with public schools are most likely to reside.
The first comprehensive study of whether the new scholarships are boosting student achievement won't be issued for 18 months. But it is already clear that the program is a boon for the archdiocese. Its D.C. elementary school enrollment increased last fall after three decades of steady decline, and the influx of students has helped revive more than a dozen schools that at one point were candidates for closure.
The 43-year-old St. Benedict is one of them. A 1995 archdiocese study recommended that it and 15 other elementary schools in the District be closed or consolidated because of dwindling enrollment. At the insistence of then-Cardinal James A. Hickey, the schools remained open, and the archdiocese set up a new office to help many of them with such functions as fundraising and teacher training.
Now, the arrival of hundreds of voucher students has accelerated the schools' turnaround.
The voucher program "definitely has brought a whole new life" to St. Benedict, said the Rev. Michael Jones, the parish pastor. "It's brought energy, enthusiasm and 80 new students to our program."
From February 2003, when he became pastor, to last June, St. Benedict's enrollment dropped from 150 to 110, Jones said. Last fall, with the launch of vouchers, enrollment rose to 165, he said, and over the next few years the school expects to reach its building's capacity of 200 students.
Citywide, the voucher program represents a public subsidy of more than $3.5 million this year for the education of Catholic school students.
Critics of vouchers say it is wrong to provide private and religious schools with such public funding without holding them to the same reporting requirements as public schools. The D.C. Catholic schools, like most of the private schools participating in the voucher program, traditionally have not released their overall student test scores and have no plans to change that policy. Nor do federal officials plan to release the scores of voucher students on a school-by-school basis.
"The private schools are getting special treatment -- they're getting the [public] money but not being held to the same standard," said Tanya Clay, deputy director of public policy at People for the American Way, which opposes vouchers.
Voucher supporters say it is the students, not the schools, that receive the grants. They also argue that the schools are fully accountable to parents, who can use their voucher elsewhere if they are not satisfied with the quality of their child's education.
Several parents of voucher students attending the Washington Archdiocese schools, including some non-Catholics, said they liked the schools' moral values and sense of discipline and structure.
"My son has trouble reading. I've seen the teacher pray for my child. It touched me that she cared so much," said Cindy Neverson, who has a son at St. Benedict and describes herself as a nondenominational Christian. "I feel the religion centers him, helps him concentrate."
The life-size statue of the Blessed Mother in the entryway illustrates how large a role religion plays at St. Benedict. Religion class is taught once a day, and prayers are said at the beginning of each class, a longtime tradition at Catholic schools.
But the schools have reached into the secular world for their curriculum and staff, and the days of classrooms led by stern nuns are long gone.
Officials in the Washington Archdiocese, which covers several Maryland counties as well as the District, said that they have similar teacher certification requirements as public school systems and that 28 percent of their teachers are non-Catholic. Although principals must be Catholic, they are increasingly from public school backgrounds. St. Benedict last fall hired a longtime principal in the Baltimore public schools.
Pre-tests administered in the fall by the archdiocese showed that many voucher students were three to four grades behind in math and reading, archdiocesan officials said. But they said their schools have long specialized in helping low-income and academically challenged students and thus have not needed to make major changes to meet the needs of the new pupils.
At Assumption Catholic School in Southeast, where 35 of the 175 students are in the voucher program, a scene in a kindergarten classroom showed how teachers were trying to accommodate students of varying skill levels.
Two children sat at computers and wore headphones as they worked on an interactive program to help reinforce their letter and sound-recognition skills, an exercise designed mainly for students whose parents might not have read to them.
A more advanced group sat around a half-circle table reading a passage from a picture book without pauses or stumbles while a teacher clapped her hands after every few words to keep them on pace. The teacher was using a curriculum called Direct Instruction, which is used in many of the city's Catholic schools as well as in several urban public school systems.
Another sign of secularization is the office the archdiocese established several years ago to help D.C. schools with low enrollment upgrade their facilities, academic offerings and management practices. The office, known as the Center City Consortium, functions as a kind of central headquarters for 13 schools, with a staff that manages the schools' business operations and helps principals develop curriculum, among other functions. Assumption is a consortium school, and St. Benedict will join the network this fall.
Most of the Washington archdiocese students take the Terra Nova standardized test. Archdiocese officials say their inner-city schools have posted large test-score gains in recent years, but they have no plans to release those data. Test results are shared only with parents and teachers, said archdiocese school Superintendent Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, who argues that wider dissemination would lead to superficial comparisons between schools.
"People become hypersensitive about the scores," she said, "and you forget about the kids."
She added, however, that Catholic school leaders throughout the country have begun discussing whether they should be more open about their scores.
"A lot of them are saying, 'We've got such good news. Why don't we change?' " she said.
In December 2006, the U.S. Department of Education will release a study comparing the test-score gains of voucher students with those of public school students who applied for the program but lost out in a lottery. But there will be no breakdown showing, for example, how voucher students in Catholic schools compared with those in non-religious private schools. Education Department officials said that such comparisons would not be scientifically valid because they would involve smaller numbers of children and that they also might violate rules ensuring student privacy.
Clay, of People for the American Way, said that without a school-by-school breakdown of the performance of voucher students, "there is no standard to make the determination whether the private school is any better than the public school they left."