By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; B01
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.
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.
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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