- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl’s proposal to convert eight inner-city Catholic schools into charter schools is shaping up as his first big public-relations crisis since he arrived in the District 15 months ago.

On Sept. 6 and 7, the archdiocese broke the news that because of a lack of funds, eight inner-city schools likely will be turned into charter schools, possibly as early as next fall. Parishes were told that if they wish to keep their school Catholic, they needed to come up with a plan by Oct. 20 on how they will raise $8 million — $1.6 million a year for five years — in operating expenses.

Not all parishes took the news with equanimity.

“We’re looking for donors, grants, anything to keep us open,” said Celeste Carter, a mother of a sixth-grade son at Nativity Catholic Academy on Georgia Avenue in Northwest. “Three weeks into the school year, we were told our school is closing and becoming a charter school. We had no time to prepare.”

She’s even looking into seeking help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds the high school Cristo Rey Network. She also demonstrated against the school closings Sunday in front of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest.

“[Archbishop Wuerl has] had no open forums, and he always sent his officials to these school meetings; he never went himself,” she said, referring to parish meetings last month over the closings. “The archdiocese thought these were inner-city poor youth who didn’t know how to fight back. But we are fighting, and we are educated individuals and families who want the best for our children.”

After the demonstration, “Archbishop Wuerl invited five of us to come in and basically said we were being divisive, people weren’t going to support us and that we were saying negative things,” said Kathryn Allen, a member of the parish council of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, a Northwest parish whose school is slated to be closed.

“We said, ‘Your Excellency, we are stating the facts.’ ”

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the new operator, which has not been named, must be “committed to continuing a values-based curriculum.”

“We’ll be the first diocese in the nation to try something like this,” she said. Several other large dioceses with bankrupt education budgets have closed their schools, and the Washington archdiocese was losing $7 million annually.

“The donor base was tapped out,” Miss Gibbs said.

In March, a 40-person committee selected which of 12 schools would be closed. Four in Wards 1, 5, 7 and 8 — with the largest student Catholic populations — were kept open.

The archdiocese’s announcement, termed “A New Catholic Framework for Education in the Center City,” caught parents and parishioners by surprise. Some asked what happened to $60 million raised over the past 10 years for the Center City Consortium, which unites 14 inner-city schools. Others pointed to the schools’ high test scores and healthy enrollments as reasons to keep them open.

Martill Seymour, parent of an eighth-grade daughter at St. Gabriel School in Northwest, said she’s already tried two charter schools in Ward 4.

“The other schools were really not up to par,” she said. “My daughter really improved at St. Gabriel’s.”

Curly Edwards, mother of two daughters at St. Gabriel School, hopes to give the archbishop a piece of her mind at an archdiocesan-wide convocation today at Trinity University.

“You are throwing this in our face,” she said she will tell him. “Give us at least nine months to a year to put a proposal together to work this thing out.”

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