- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

Alumni and parents at Holy Redeemer Catholic School are fighting a cost-cutting proposal by the Archdiocese of Washington to close the Northwest school, saying such a move would limit educational opportunities and destabilize the neighborhood.

“It is an abandonment of the community,” said J.R. Clark, a D.C. lawyer who graduated from Holy Redeemer in 1980. The school “creates an alternative to the public school system there.”

“To have that taken away would be devastating,” he said.

Archdiocese officials say the recommendation is in part because of changing demographics: Catholic baby boomers moving from the area contributed to a 41 percent decrease in enrollment in D.C. elementary schools run by the archdiocese from 1975 to 2005.

However, critics of the proposal say enrollment at Holy Redeemer has increased from 169 two years ago to 215 this year and that test scores are improving.

“We’re not a failing school; we’re a progressing school,” said Mizuki Bridges, president of Holy Redeemer’s parent-teacher organization, who has led a fundraising drive to save the school.

Supporters also say many Holy Redeemer graduates are accepted into top-notch high schools. They also say roughly 1,600 housing units proposed for the area will bring more students, making the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school an even greater pillar for the community.

Archdiocese officials proposed last month to close the school, located on New Jersey Avenue in Northwest, along with three others — two in the District and one in Seat Pleasant.

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is expected to make a final decision in January after gathering public input on the proposal.

“When a parish declines because people are moving out to the suburbs, the parish no longer has the financial stability to support schools,” said Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, the archdiocese’s superintendent of schools. “This has been the phenomenon that we’re seeing. It is a national challenge.”

From 2000 to 2005, 349 Catholic elementary schools closed across the United States, according to a study released by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

More than 140 of the closings were in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes the District and Maryland.

“The Catholic population migrated away from [urban] areas to the suburbs,” said Mark Gray, a CARA research associate. “The school system that was created is no longer as closely aligned with [where] the population resides.”

At Holy Redeemer, which was dedicated in 1955, more than half of the school’s students come from nearby neighborhoods such as the hardscrabble Sursum Corda, and nearly all are black.

“The school has a great history in the community,” said James Williams, whose 4-year-old daughter attends pre-kindergarten at Holy Redeemer. “Not only would you be doing the school an injustice, but you’d be doing the community an injustice by closing it.”

Archdiocese officials said the core issue at Holy Redeemer is not the school’s enrollment, it is the school’s inability to provide adequate funding for staffing and student needs.

The archdiocese spends an average of $7,500 per student in its D.C. schools and charges at least $4,500 in tuition. Holy Redeemer has struggled to make up that gap, officials said.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said closing the school does not indicate a movement to abandon the inner city.

In the late 1990s, archdiocese officials refused to close eight of their inner-city schools. Instead, they formed the Center City Consortium, an administrative board that helps provide funding and support for such schools.

Holy Redeemer elected not to join the consortium and now struggles to bear its own financial burden, despite keeping per-pupil costs to a minimum, officials said.

“The parish … does not have the financial means to support a school,” Mrs. Weitzel-O’Neill said. “All we’re suggesting is the children in this school be consolidated with schools that are supported by the consortium.”

Many Holy Redeemer students would be moved to Immaculate Conception School, a 174-student school that was recently renovated and is about a half-mile away.

“What we’re trying to look at is every child currently in a Catholic school will continue in a Catholic school, and we’re ensuring there’s space,” Miss Gibbs said. “I think there’s no question in what we’ve been doing in our commitment to the city.”

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