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James Allen Walker for WORLD

Close or convert

Education | Religious schools that can't afford to stay open face the prospect of losing their soul

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

NEW YORK-St. Mary Star of the Sea School has resided in the outer limits of an outer New York borough for 140 years. The brick building's inner walls have been repainted so many times that the principal, Angela Brucia, tells students they look like a wrinkled face. Tuition goes up about $200 each year (in a neighborhood where the median income is $33,000), and enrollment goes down-from 360 students when Brucia started 18 years ago to 240 students today.

Because of its financial challenges, the school in Queens may be a good candidate for charter school conversion-a proposal that both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Roman Catholic leaders are working on, in an attempt to salvage a few of the 14 New York City Catholic schools that face closure next year.

Last year, Washington, D.C., converted seven Catholic schools to charter schools, a possible solution for a struggle spreading nationwide. The National Catholic Educational Association calculates that the number of Catholic school students has declined from 5.2 million in the 1960s to 2.2 million today, forcing 15 percent of Catholic schools to close since 2000. The average per pupil tuition for a Catholic elementary school education is $3,159 and parents are finding the cost prohibitive.

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Especially when they have a free alternative-charter schools. That's the irony of the whole proposal, some say. Ron Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame, said, "In the current political climate, charter schools are a threat to Catholic schools in the inner city. It's hard for a Catholic school, even a good one, to compete with a free charter school." Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, agreed, saying we don't yet know if charter schools can duplicate the Catholic school's ability to impart both knowledge and values in impoverished urban communities.

The schools that convert won't stay the same. Brucia walks down the hallway of St. Mary's in her staid skirt and turtleneck-past a classroom door with a crooked cross and red letters that spell "Jesus is my Superhero," past a stairway wall dotted with cotton-ball sheep, and past a crucifix and statues of saints that would have to come down in any charter school. She enters a classroom and supports the teacher's sad tale of a family in need with an exhortation to charity, delivered in her clipped New York accent.

"Religion is a subject we teach-just like all the other major subjects-but it's something that permeates the whole charism of the school," Brucia said. "If it's taken out, it completely changes the philosophy of the school." While the school uses a mostly secular curriculum, all students have to attend religion classes and pray together each morning. For schools that become charter schools, prayer and religion classes would cease.

But Kieran Harrington, diocesan spokesman, said the choices are close or convert: "There was no way we were going to be able to salvage these schools." Ladner argues for another solution, though: full private-school choice.

Ladner notes that Catholic schools in Phoenix, Ariz., saw a 2 percent enrollment increase in 2004 to 2006 despite Arizona's 400-plus charter schools. He credits Arizona for letting people deduct from their taxes when they donate scholarship money that parents can use anywhere, including a religious school.

Brucia said that Catholic teachers believe they have a mission, not a job: "They know that the next place that they go to, they can still teach the math and they can still teach the science, but they can't teach about God anymore. . . . It becomes such a part of you that you don't know how you could do without it. But sometimes you're forced to and it leaves a void."

But Harrington said that mission can continue in charter schools: "We have Catholic schools not because the kids are Catholic, but because we are Catholic and this is part of our mission. . . . Is it better for us to be involved in that active work and not have a crucifix on the wall, than to have a crucifix on the wall and the building empty?"

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