Chartering D.C.’s Catholic kids

September 27, 2007

The Archbishop of Washington proposed the conversion of eight Catholic elementary schools in the District into charter schools under the administration of the D.C. Charter School Board in an announcement September 8th.

Archbishop Donald Wuerl cited a several million dollar funding gap and declining enrollment as the impetus for the proposed conversion.

“We would like all these schools to remain Catholic, but we just can’t afford to continue operating all 12 schools [in the Center City Consortium],” Susan Gibbs, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, said.

Schoolhouse rock: Immaculate Conception is one of eight Catholic schools in the District that may become charter schools.
Katie Boran

The Archdiocese and its supporters have invested more than $60 million over the past ten years in the Center City Consortium, a group of 12 elementary schools administered by the Archdiocese of Washington. However, enrollment has fallen by twenty percent and the Consortium now faces a $7 million annual funding gap, according to the Archdiocese’s website. The 1,400 predominantly minority students from low-income families would be allowed to transfer to different Catholic schools or enter the public school system.

According to Gibbs, the Archdiocese consulted parents, principals and various professionals in search of a solution. After extensive study, she said, the Archdiocese proposed to continue operating the four Consortium schools that met certain criteria, including current and projected enrollment, percentage of Catholic students, percent of District residents, and the number of charter schools within one mile.

Wuerl is expected to announce the Archdiocese’s decision on the conversion of the schools by late October.

In August, the Archdiocese announced that it was welcoming new principals at several schools. Two of those schools are among the eight now slated for conversion. The city has yet to announce how much control the Archdiocese will have in administrative and curricular decisions at the charter schools.

Parents in the community have expressed concern over the proposed conversion.

“The Catholic schools are outperforming public and charter schools,” S. Kathryn Allen, whose child attends a District Catholic school, said in a statement. “We need to work together to keep them open, rather than close them. If this proposal is implemented, the result will be that our children will suffer, and we must stop that from happening.”

The Archdiocese is working to address community concerns, according to Gibbs.

“The system will be different, and there will be that loss of religion in the classroom,” she said. “The charter schools will have a value-based curriculum, and a lot of characteristics besides religion that have made Catholic schools successful are being replicated in the charter schools.”

She pointed out that over 75 percent of the students in the District’s Catholic schools are not Catholic. However, the community’s criticism has not focused on the loss of religious instruction but rather the loss of quality education for minority children.

The D.C. public school system bears the stigma of low quality and poor administration, according to Dr. Mark Gray of the Georgetown Center for Applied Learning on the Apostolate. The controversial charter school program currently has 79 charter schools serving 28 percent of the District’s school-age population. Mayor Adrian Fenty has requested $320 million this fiscal year to support the schools.

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