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."