To Remain Open, Catholic Schools Become Charters

In many cities, Catholic schools are struggling financially and many are being forced to close. In Washington, D.C., the Archdiocese and city officials came up with an idea to keep seven religious schools open: convert them to public charter schools.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In Washington, D.C., this summer, the archdiocese and the city agreed on a plan to convert seven financially strapped Catholic schools to public charter schools. As classes begin, the question is how will that change the schools? And to find out, NPR's Claudio Sanchez visited with teachers and families at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian Catholic School.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Pamela Mills(ph) was among the first to hear that her parish school was going to have to close and reopen as a public charter school this fall.

Mrs. PAMELA MILLS (Parishioner, Holy Comforter Saint Cyprian Catholic Church): In a way, I felt a little sad, you know, talking about the conversion.

SANCHEZ: As a long-time parishioner at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian Catholic Church in northeast Washington, D.C., she wasn't sure she wanted her 10-year-old daughter, Aldora(ph), to attend a school that would no longer allow children to praise Jesus.

Mrs. MILLS: We wanted her to have that faith-based education.

SANCHEZ: But when it came time to vote, 97 percent of parents approved the conversion. Today, there are few reminders this was once a Catholic school. A marquis in front of the school now reads, Center City Public Charter School, tuition free. Inside, the small altar in the cafeteria where kids used to start the school day with a prayer and a bowl of cereal is gone. Gone, too, are the crucifixes, the portraits of Pope Benedict and Saint Cyprius, the moderate third century bishop of Carthage. But it's OK, says Mills. Her daughter will still receive religious instruction.

Mrs. MILLS: She's not missing out on it at all. You know, she get the Sunday school, she get the mass, she get the oratorio on Saturday. So these days, I'm feeling good.

SANCHEZ: And not having to pay tuition anymore.

Mrs. MILLS: That's a big relief.

SANCHEZ: It was the financial burden on families in the archdiocese that led to the conversion proposal. The church was spending about 7,500 dollars per student, but the most they could ask parents to pay was 4,500. And even that was too much for Mills and other families. Now taxpayers will pay for all seven schools involved in the conversion, and it costs them 8,500 to 9,000 dollars per student.

Mr. CHRISTIAN WHITE (Principal, Center City Public Charter School, Capitol Hill Campus): We now have the money that we need to do the job.

SANCHEZ: Christian White is the school's new principal. He says everyone - teachers, staff and administrators - have all gotten long overdue pay raises of 10 to 20 percent. Now there's money for special education, an expanded pre-K program, a new dance teacher, more classroom aids, and, says White, money for a more robust curriculum

Mr. WHITE: The parts of the academic program that were excellent, we retained. So everything was woven together though the standards-based curriculum.

SANCHEZ: In many ways, the new curriculum is similar to the Catholic school curriculum except everything that kids now learn is tethered to the city's public school standards and tests. Still, you can't just sweep a school's Catholic identity and mission under the rugs, says White. So he's hanging on to the values that have always been taught here.

Mr. WHITE: Collaboration, compassion, discipline, integrity, justice, peacemaking, perseverance, and respect.

SANCHEZ: These values are one big reason most parents are staying. But it's the school's strong academic reputation that's drawn so many new families. The school's student population has jumped by at least a third, although there's now talk among parents that the new kids will be unruly, harder to handle.

Ms. MARY ANNE STANTON (Executive Director, Center City Public Charter Schools): The word out there was, oh, it's going to be terrible because we're going to get "those" kids.

SANCHEZ: That's Many Anne Stanton, head of the nonprofit group created by the Archdiocese to oversee the conversion.

Ms. STANTON: Those kids are our kids. They're our children. They're the children of the District of Columbia where education should be at the top, and we're going to help that happen.

SANCHEZ: More than 1,000 Catholic schools across the country have closed in the last eight years because they couldn't afford to stay open. Now, says Stanton, Catholic schools have a choice. They can continue to serve as public charter schools and become one more option in urban public education. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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