Date: Jan 8, 2007 3:17 PM
Author: Wayne Bishop
Subject: The World Is Still Round, The Sun Still...
Radical Changes Pay Off For D.C. Catholic Schools
Once-Dying Campuses Find Success by Borrowing From Indiana's Playbook
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007; B01
Many Catholic schools in the District seemed
moribund in 1995. Paint was peeling, and
enrollment and test scores were dropping.
Advisers urged the archbishop of Washington to
shut or consolidate several schools serving low-income neighborhoods.
Cardinal James A. Hickey refused. "I won't
abandon this city," he said. Instead,
Washington's Catholic schools began a series of
drastic changes in 1997. New administrators armed
with research on what worked in urban education
put many schools under the same office. They told
teachers that they would be judged on how much
their students improved, required them to use
common math and reading curricula and adopted
learning standards that had worked well in Indiana, 500 miles away.
It was one of the most radical realignments of
Catholic education ever attempted in a U.S. city.
Ten years later, principals and teachers at the
14 schools in the archdiocese's Center City
Consortium are celebrating a sharp turnaround in
student achievement and faculty support. The
consortium serves about 2,400 students through
eighth grade, nearly a third of whom receive federally funded tuition vouchers.
Scores on the TerraNova standardized test at
these schools jumped sharply over a five-year
period, according to new figures from the
consortium. Average reading scores rose more than
60 percent from 2000 to 2005, the data show, and
math scores rose 78 percent. Meantime, the
teacher turnover rate in the consortium schools
dropped from 50 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2005.
"This is a very different story than what we are
seeing in nearly every other big city in the
country, where Catholic schools are in a death
spiral," said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president
for national programs and policy at the Thomas B.
Fordham Institute, a D.C.-based organization that
supports school choice and high academic
standards. "That we are seeing some great
improvement in student achievement is a real
testament to the strategy that the archdiocese has followed here."
The consortium has made progress with its
youngest students. In fall 2003, 59 percent of
first-graders and 83 percent of second-graders
were at or above grade level in reading. By
spring 2004, 82 percent of first-graders and 94
percent of second-graders were at or above grade
level. The release of such testing data is unusual for nonpublic schools.
Consortium leaders credit a new group of
relatively young teachers that has sought to
become immersed in student achievement data.
Jodi Bossio, 26, a fourth-grade teacher at Sacred
Heart School in Northwest Washington, said she
used the TerraNova data to improve her teaching
and to help the students she promoted to fifth
grade. "We just took apart the data, and I saw
that Leslie, for instance, got questions wrong
that I thought she had mastered already," she
said. "So I used it for my end-of-the-year
planning and made it part of the portfolio I sent her new teacher."
Mary Anne Stanton, who recently retired as
executive director of the consortium, said
teachers now take responsibility for student work
in ways that did not happen before. "We have
blown away the notion that 'If the kindergarten
teachers were doing a better job, I wouldn't have
the problems I am having in the second grade,' " she said.
Consortium leaders say their schools shine next
to D.C. public schools, although there are no
test data to enable direct comparisons. Catholic
schools offer an alternative to traditional
public schools as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is
proposing to take over the governance of the
struggling D.C. public school system. Like public
charter schools, which operate independently,
Catholic schools can serve as laboratories to
help education experts sift out what works and what doesn't in the classroom.
About 60 percent of consortium students come from
low-income families, and nearly all are
minorities. Most -- 74 percent -- are
non-Catholic. Asked about this, consortium
officials quote Hickey: "We don't educate these
children because they are Catholic. We educate them because we are Catholic."
But the D.C. Catholic schools continue to
struggle financially, part of a national trend.
Petrilli wrote in a recent report that the
Archdiocese of Detroit had shut 21 schools, with
more closures likely. In addition, he wrote, the
New York and Brooklyn archdioceses shut down 36
schools, and the Chicago archdiocese closed 18 schools.
The Washington archdiocese has announced that
four schools, including two in the consortium,
might close in the coming school year. The
consortium has raised more than $30 million since
1997. Among many fundraising activities is an
annual dinner led by Rep. John A. Boehner
(R-Ohio) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
But the financial drain continues. Consortium
schools charge about $4,500 in tuition and fees
per student each year, and many families pay less
than that. But officials say the cost is about $8,000 per student.
Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said he and
his staff were pursuing a three-pronged approach
to the problem: an extension of the federal
voucher program, a search for more funding
through a coalition with community leaders and
continued support from the church.
Consortium teachers say higher learning standards
have raised teacher morale and made good teachers
more willing to stay. The schools use the Saxon
math program, which emphasizes basic skills and
frequent review, and the Open Court reading
program, which emphasizes phonics. The Indiana
standards were adopted because they got high
marks from the Fordham Institute, which promotes
rating schools by test results, and because the
Archdiocese of Indianapolis recommended them.
Stanton said students who use vouchers to move
from public schools to consortium schools find a
new attitude about learning. She told of one such
student who was asked why she had not done her
homework. The student replied casually: "Oh,
okay, I'll take a zero. That's what they do at my old school."
"We don't do zeroes here," the teacher explained,
sitting her down to do the work.
Bossio, who used to teach at a D.C. public
charter school, said she would make $10,000 more
a year if she were still in public schools. But she prefers the consortium.
"I like that the standards for teachers in the
consortium are high, and they are continually
raising the bar," she said. "We are given the
tools and the support to be effective instructors
and to allow our students to be successful as well."
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