St. Thomas More seventh graders Chante Waddy and Bertrand Oliver work on a science exercse.
St. Thomas More seventh graders Chante Waddy and Bertrand Oliver work on a science exercse.
(The following report was provided by the Archdiocese of Washington.)

Financial and enrollment challenges at St. Thomas More School in Southeast Washington, D.C., have hit hard, yet the students are excelling. Since 2001, this inner-city elementary school has experienced a 29 percent drop in enrollment. Coupled with rising costs, the school is operating at a loss of more than $400,000 this year. At the same time, all kindergarteners are reading at or above a first-grade level.

The majority of students at St. Thomas More School are black and non-Catholic. Almost half receive D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, which provide low-income families with tuition aid to attend participating D.C. non-public schools.

The school, located in an economically-challenged area, is an excellent option for low-income students who are not succeeding in other schools in the District or whose families are seeking a faith-based education. "These parents are confident that if their children receive the quality education, attention and nurturing they get here, they will succeed," said the principal Wilford Graham, "and they are right."

While the Archdiocese of Washington has found a solution to keep St. Thomas More open as part of the Consortium of Catholic Academies, its situation is reflective of a national reality: students are achieving in great numbers, but increasing operating costs, fewer children in urban areas and more low-income families seeking subsidies for a high quality education make it challenging to keep the doors of every Catholic school open.

The national picture

Nationwide, inner-city faith-based schools are "facing a crisis," said President George W. Bush at an April 24 White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith Based Schools. Nearly 1,200 of them closed from 2000 to 2006, displacing 425,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Catholic school closings "impoverish our country by really denying a future of children a critical source of learning, not only about how to read and write, but about social justice," Bush said.

Costs to operate Catholic schools have increased partly because there are fewer men and women religious working in those schools. Their place is increasingly being filled by salaried lay teachers, who now make up 96 percent of Catholic school teachers in the archdiocese. In addition, enrollment in inner-city schools is dropping as more and more families move outside of the city. While the Catholic population moves, the schools cannot.

Many Catholic parish schools live out their faith by educating underserved populations: poor and minority students who are the new residents of these marginal neighborhoods. These students, many of whom are not Catholic, often were not succeeding in local public schools and enrolled in Catholic schools at low cost to their parents seeking a better future for their children. But the increasing financial need to subsidize the students' education has grown beyond a level that the Church can sustain alone and could lead to school closings unless families receive government support for educational choice.

Due to the shifting populations in urban areas, elementary school enrollment declined by 24.7 percent in the 12 largest urban dioceses between 2001 and 2008, according to Father Joseph M. O'Keefe, S.J., dean and professor of education at Boston College. Catholic schools across the country have found it hard to sustain the schools under those circumstances.

Public schools have also suffered from declining enrollment. In Washington, D.C., more than 20 of the city's 162 public schools are slated for closure, in part because their enrollments are consistently below the citywide median.

Why they're worth saving

Catholic schools are a proven product. "In neighborhoods where some people say children simply can't learn, the faith-based schools are proving the nay-sayers wrong," Bush said at the Ssummit.

Indeed, Catholic elementary and secondary school students, on average, outperform their public school counterparts, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. They send a higher percentage of their students to college and have lower numbers of drop-outs. In national and in science achievement tests at elementary and secondary levels, Catholic school students outscored their public school counterparts, according to NCEA.

"Academic excellence must remain the hallmark of Catholic education," said Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, at a Sept. 19, 2007 summit on Catholic schools. "We boast, and rightfully so, that the students in our inner city Catholic schools score higher on national tests than do children in charter or public schools."

Low-income, minority students who come to St. Thomas More School in Washington are flourishing, according to the principal. "Our first graders score well above the national averages on standardized tests in reading, language and math, and they continue to succeed," he said.

But it's not only the academic excellence that benefits students in Catholic schools. Archbishop Wuerl points also to the Catholic identity that provides the faith formation and hope for the future in its students. The latter "is particularly significant when we deal with Catholic education in inner city and urban centers where poverty, crime and disintegration of family life are part of the landscape," he said.

A seventh grader at St. Thomas More School tells his principal the same thing every morning: "Thank you for caring about me." That truly captures the spirit of Catholic schools that cannot afford to be lost because of a lack of funding.

How trends play out locally

The Archdiocese of Washington's experience is no different from other school districts faced with shifting populations - from city to suburbs; northeast United States to southwest. The proposal to close public schools in DC partly is in response to a 10 percent decrease in its population just between 2000 and 2005.

Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2011, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) predicts a decline of 5,800 students from Catholic families in the archdiocese's elementary schools. Indeed nationwide, the mid-Atlantic region is one of two regions with the greatest decline in the Catholic population (the other being the Great Lakes).

In addition, school and parish leaders across the archdiocese are concerned about affordability. Costs are increasing faster than inflation and although tuition has been raised significantly, it still does not cover the cost of educating a child.

Generally, elementary schools in the archdiocese have had to increase tuition an average of six percent each year since fall 2002, leading to total increases of 30 to 40 percent, largely to support increasing instructional costs. Despite these increases, tuition only covers approximately 70 percent of the cost per child.

Concurrent to these changes, the charter school movement has taken hold and flourished in the District. One third of the District's public school students attend one of 56 free charter schools on 80 campuses, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's new report, "Who Will Save America's Urban Catholic Schools?"

Seeking innovative solutions

to educational need

Recognizing that the rising costs of education were leaving many families behind, the archdiocese has been at the forefront of seeking innovative solutions to the educational needs of students and families. At the recent White House summit, Bush and other speakers lauded the archdiocese's openness and commitment to new educational models and partnerships with other institutions to strengthen Catholic schools.

Last fall, Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School opened as a partnership between the archdiocese, Salesians of Don Bosco and the Cristo Rey Network to provide a college-prep education to students from low-income families through a work-study program that covers most of the students' tuition. Students team up to job share in clerical positions at law firms, banks, universities, non-profits and corporations. They acquire job experience, develop a strong work ethic and increase self-esteem, and employers gain motivated and hard-working employees. The archdiocese provided $3.5 million in start-up support plus $250,000 this year.

Holy Redeemer School, an elementary school in Washington, DC, nearly closed a year ago. Instead, working with the archdiocese, it became the third school in the nation to form an innovative partnership with the University of Notre Dame's ACE (Alliance of Catholic Education) Program. As a University of Notre Dame Magnificat School, Holy Redeemer is benefitting from professional development for faculty, including instructional coaching, consulting for parent advisory teams and the integration of data-based assessment for planning and curriculum development.

San Miguel School and the Washington Jesuit Academy were founded in 2002 by the Christian Brothers and Jesuit religious communities to provide tuition-free education for at-risk minority middle school boys in the District of Columbia. Both schools have been recognized for their quality education.

The Center City Consortium was founded by the archdiocese in 1997 to revitalize eight struggling Catholic schools in the District while keeping them affordable for low-income parents. An academic success, the Consortium became a national model, inspiring other dioceses to focus on new possibilities for urban Catholic schools. Unfortunately the Consortium's financial sustainability eventually faltered after it grew too large, too quickly.

Six financially-failing parish schools were added to the Consortium between 2002 and 2005 in a valiant effort to prevent them from closing. But, smaller enrollments, growing deficits and a huge archdiocesan subsidy required to keep these schools open undermined the Consortim. It is estimated that more than $50 million would be needed over the next five years to sustain all the schools in the Consortium.

Two of the schools consolidated in 2007. After consultations with parishes, schools and six advisory boards, a plan to keep the remaining 12 schools open was approved, with five remaining Catholic and seven proposed for conversion to values-based charter schools. Next year, 21 Catholic schools will continue to serve the District of Columbia.

The Forward in Faith capital campaign, initiated by the archdiocese to meet the critical needs of the Church and its ministries into the future, includes a goal of $35 million in planned endowments for Catholic school tuition, $18 million of which has been received, and a $25 million goal for a parish and school building fund, $14 million of which has been received. This year, interest from these invested funds provided $440,000 in elementary tuition assistance with additional funds to be available in future years.

Preserving school choice

Archbishop Wuerl, who is chairman of the National Catholic Educational Association board of directors and former chairman of the United States bishops' Committee on Education, has taken a lead in seeking long-term solutions so Catholic schools can remain Catholic in identity, affordable, accessible and academically excellent.

In October 2007, he convened an archdiocesan Convocation on Catholic Education at Trinity University in Washington, where he spoke about the importance of keeping the parents' share of their child's education affordable. "The difference between that affordable cost and the actual cost of education needs to be made up from other sources including diocesan grants," he said, "but most effectively, from tuition assistance sources."

Those sources include state and federal governments, which need to do more to help parents choose the best school for their child. Families in the archdiocese save $378 million a year in tax spending because their children do not attend public schools, even though the families pay taxes for the public schools.

Locally, one successful program is working to provide school choice to low-income parents in D.C, though its future is uncertain: the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship program. About 1,100 students use these scholarships to attend Catholic schools in the city, with more students in other non-public schools. The program is a pilot, scheduled to expire at the end of the 2008-09 school year. Congress currently is considering whether to reauthorize this highly successful program. While the scholarships do not cover the total cost of educating a child in Catholic school, the program "serves as a model of the real possibilities for family choice when government support is an option," Archbishop Wuerl said.

Two other programs would also make a big difference for the stability of Catholic schools while increasing school choice for families. Establishing a tax credit for businesses that donate to tuition assistance programs has been successful in helping broadly support families and Catholic school education in Pennsylvania. The archdiocese is working with the Maryland Catholic Conference and other organizations seeking to establish a similar program, known as BOAST (Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers), in Maryland. The legislation enjoyed widespread support this past legislative session, but was not moved out of committee.

Pell Grants for Kids, a $300 million initiative proposed by President Bush this year, would allow up to 75,000 low-income children nationwide to choose a private school education over a poorly performing public school. The program would be similar to the successful college Pell grants, which provide federal support for students to attend the public or private college or university of choice.

These kinds of programs mean all the difference for families. Tanya Jackson, whose child attends a Catholic school with the help of an Opportunity Scholarship, is determined to keep her daughter enrolled there. "I need to keep her in that school," she said. "My child was basically lost, and now she's not."