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Catholic schools in the Washington region have long served as an affordable alternative for families who are disillusioned by the state of public school performance and private school tuition. But many of those Catholic schools are struggling to keep enrollment up and tuition down. We explore the landscape for Catholic schools in the area and how it may soon be affected by the resurgence of a federal voucher program in D.C.
- Bert L'Homme Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe recent budget deal that averted a government shutdown reinstated a school voucher program in the District of Columbia, allocating federal funds to help send kids to private schools. City officials see it as yet another example of Congress intruding on home rule. But at the Archdiocese of Washington, the voucher restart is welcomed news. Catholic schools have been struggling in recent years to keep enrollment up and tuition down, but the weak economy and the rising cost of educating children make it a tough combination to achieve.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILeading the effort in the Archdiocese of Washington is new superintendent Bert L'Homme, a former public school superintendent in North Carolina. As his first school year here winds down, the superintendent joins us to talk about his plans for the region's Catholic schools. Bert L'Homme, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. BERT L'HOMMEThank you.
NNAMDIAmong the nearly 100 schools under the Archdiocese umbrella here, about a third are independent. Explain for us who runs what schools.
L'HOMMEAbout 67 of the schools or Archdiocese in schools come under the direct authority of Archbishop Wuerl, Cardinal Wuerl. And then there are independent Catholic schools. And they're Catholic in that their environment, their identity, the way they teach is Catholic. On top of that is that they're run by, usually, by religious orders of men and women. For example, Gonzaga High School is the Jesuits, DeMatha is the Trinitarians and Elizabeth Ann Seton is the Sisters of Charity.
NNAMDIThe budget deal that averted a government shutdown included renewed funding for the District of Columbia's opportunity scholarship program. How do vouchers, in general, in this program, in particular, help Catholic schools?
L'HOMMEWell, it does help Catholic schools. Because the voucher program, it is a voucher program. Money from the government is given to families, parents, who can choose any number of different kinds of private and parochial schools here in the District of Columbia. For the archdiocese, it means that a parent who wants to choose a Catholic education for their child can take that voucher and go register at a Catholic elementary or high school and use the voucher to help pay for the tuition.
NNAMDIIn the last decade, however, more than 1,000 Catholic schools across the country have closed their doors. Here in the District, the archdiocese closed seven of its inner city elementary schools in 2008 and they were converted to charter schools. What does your enrollment trend look like today?
L'HOMMEThe enrollment trend, if you look at over the last 10 years, we had a decrease in enrollment about 18 percent and nationally has been 22 percent. This past school year, from the 2010 school year to the 2011 school year, we saw about 1.4 decrease in enrollment. And that's a slowdown. So our goal now is to stabilize enrollment and then, in the years to come, to build it.
NNAMDILast month, the National Catholic Educational Association held a financial summit on Catholic schools. The group's executive director is saying Catholic elementary and secondary schools across the country are confronting a financial crisis. How would you describe the financial situations for schools in the archdiocese at Washington?
L'HOMMEI attended that summit in Chicago. It -- the crisis is this, is that soon after arriving in Washington to become the superintendent of Catholic schools, I met a mother who had three children in Catholic schools. She had two in elementary school, one in high school. That's nearly $25,000 in tuition that that mother has to pay...
NNAMDIWhat is tuition at Catholic schools today, if I may ask?
L'HOMMESchools -- tuition in Catholic schools can range from a low of about $4,500 a year for our archdiocese schools to a high in our independent Catholic schools to 15 to $20,000.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Bert L'Homme. He is superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. And inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet @kojoshow, or simply go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. To what extent are Catholic schools serving Catholic students, and to what extent are non-Catholic families choosing them as a less expensive alternative to pricier private schools?
L'HOMMEWell, overall, there are about 77 percent of our students throughout the archdiocese. And you know the archdiocese is just not Washington, D.C. It's five Maryland counties, going from Montgomery County all the way down at St. Mary's County, and that 77 percent are Catholic. And then, of our four inner city schools, which we call the -- which are part of the Consortium of Catholic Academies is that only 42 percent of our students are catholic. So non-Catholic parents, in great numbers, are using Catholic schools as an alternative.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Jennifer in Cheverly, Md. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFEROh. Hi, Dr. L'Homme. I am a mother and I have two small children. And I would like them to go to Catholic school, but I've got a few years ahead of me, and I'm just wondering if you could tell us what are you doing to make sure that Catholics schools are gonna be open and viable in the coming years.
L'HOMMEWell, I believe if you're in Cheverly, you'd be right next to St. Ambrose school. And if you're getting...
L'HOMME...ready to send your children in St. Ambrose, it's a great school. But one of the things that we're doing is that the Archdiocese of Washington this current school year and the next school year will be distributing $5 million in tuition assistance. This is a program that started just five years ago at $800,000. The difficulty is, is that number one, last year with $5 million, we satisfied about 21 percent of the documented need. This coming school year, we'll only gonna be able to satisfy about 14 percent because there is $31 million in documented need.
L'HOMMEWhat's happening in our local schools, though, is that -- like at St. Ambrose is that parents, the pastor, the principal, the community, the parish are coming together to -- not only to support the school, but to increase the enrolment and look for different other ways to support Catholic schools. Historically, catholic schools have been selling candy bars and wrapping paper and magazines and I think that -- and we all believe that we have to go beyond the candy bars to look at new ways to support our Catholic schools so that we can keep tuition down.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Jennifer. We move on to Cathy in Silver Spring, Md. Cathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CATHYYeah. You mentioned earlier about the voucher program...
CATHY...and I'm in Maryland so I can't do that. So what kind of -- do you have scholarships or some kind of program for families in Maryland? And I'll take my answer on the radio.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Cathy.
L'HOMMEWell, the tuition assistance program is just now for the District of Columbia. It is for the entire archdiocese. So that if you're in Silver Spring, Md., whether it's P.G. or Montgomery County, there are scholarships that are available. But also, before the Maryland general assembly...
NNAMDIBut I guess she was talking about the specific voucher program that Congress approved.
L'HOMMEWell -- mm-hmm. The voucher is just for the District of Columbia. But before the Maryland general assembly, there's a BOAST program, which is a tax credits program. And if you follow what happens in the Supreme Court that there was a tax credit program in Arizona and they were going to determine whether or not it's constitutional, and just recently the Supreme Court determined that it is constitutional. So tax credits is never government money. It's money that the parents have or citizens have that they want to go towards either private schools or to parochial schools.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Bert L'Homme. He is superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. And taking your calls at 800-433-8850. In relation to vouchers, we got an email from Beth in D.C. who says, "Do these federal tax-funded vouchers also go to students who are already enrolled in Catholic schools?"
L'HOMMEWell, they have to qualify for a voucher and it's -- I think it's a 185 percent of poverty. So a family has to make under $25,000, a family of four, in order to qualify for a voucher. Anything more than that then they'd no longer qualify.
NNAMDII read that nearly 30 percent of the nation's 2 million Catholic school students come from minority populations. How does immigration contribute to your enrolment and how do you see the demographics of your school's population changing in the future?
L'HOMMEWell, we do see it changing because the church throughout the United States, because of immigration from Mexico and from other Latin American countries, the Central and South America is that it is changing the face of Catholic -- Catholics, generally, throughout the country. So we do anticipate that there will be a change in demographics. For example, Sacred Heart school here -- oh, I think it's on 16th Street -- is a bilingual school. They teach half the time in Spanish and they teach half the time in English.
NNAMDIOnto Adam in Washington, D.C. Adam, your turn.
ADAMYes. Thanks for having me on. I'm a policy analyst at The Cato Institute and one of the things that we're looking into right now is the impact of charter schools on private school enrollment. I know that's a particular issue with many Catholic schools. Charter schools are essentially, I think, killing Catholic schools in many cities, and the enrollment impact can be quite substantial. In Michigan, there was a study that found about 20 percent of charter school students were formerly at private schools. And I was happy to hear the education tax credit mentioned in Maryland.
ADAMI think the private school choice programs need to be much more robust to make up for what's essentially a fully tax-supported free system of education. And I think that's an overlook story oftentimes.
L'HOMMEYes. I think -- I don't know the actual numbers, especially, I don't know them here in the District of Columbia, but I'm sure that it had an impact. If a parent is standing on their front doorstep and they have a Catholic school to the right and a charter school to the left, and the charter school is a wonderful, positive alternative to the public school then -- and it's free...
NNAMDIAnd it's publicly subsidized. Yes.
L'HOMMEAnd it's publicly subsidized, it would be hard for a parent to choose. Parents who choose Catholic education choose it for one of -- or one or more of three reasons. The archdiocese did a study before I got here and say, why do you choose Catholic schools? Well, we choose Catholic schools because they have a -- because of the Catholic identity, because they have excellent academic programs, and they are safe. So when parents choose, it's one of those three things. And if they want to -- if they want the Catholic schools, the church to join with them in raising their children in the faith of the church, then the Catholic schools is an excellent choice.
NNAMDIAdam, thank you for your calls. Is it possible that Catholic school could also be losing enrollment in part because a growing number of Catholic parents don't feel a strong sense of religious connection themselves and don't seek it out for their kids?
L'HOMMEWell, and if you think about it, there are only -- Catholic schools throughout the country educate about 10 percent of the eligible school-age kids in Catholic schools. So many of our parents weren't educated in Catholic schools themselves. So part of our job, part of the task of the church, is to demonstrate to families that the privileged place for learning the faith is in Catholic schools.
NNAMDIInner-city Catholic schools tend to have more non-Catholic students than do suburban schools. That was the case at the seven elementary schools in the District of Columbia that the archdiocese closed a few years ago and turned over to the city to be run as charter schools. Does that create a divide, if you will, between the missions of urban and suburban Catholic schools?
L'HOMMEI'm not sure if it creates a divide. We have -- our Catholic schools in the District of Columbia and those schools that were in our inner city or schools that were struggling went from a large number of 12 down to four. Those four schools that are located in almost every area of the District of Columbia -- both in Ward 7, Ward 8, 16th Street and on 12th Street -- is that parents still have an opportunity to choose Catholic education. And when someone who's not Catholic sends their child to a Catholic school, they know that we will be teaching the Catholic faith, that the children, even though that they're not Catholic, will be going to church and celebrating the sacraments, and that they will be expected to, you know, to participate.
L'HOMMEParents, I think, understand that that -- that we, you know -- that they will receive a great foundation, you know, in the beliefs that are in the -- you know, that all Christians believe. But also they will learn how to behave, how to learn at a very high level and how to be competitive when they are getting ready to go to college.
NNAMDIOn to Stephanie in College Park, Md. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEDeacon L'Homme, good morning. I'd like to thank you for everything that you're doing in the school system. I think you're gonna be a wonderful superintendent. I've also been listening to bits and pieces of what's going on with the inner-city kids. But I would like you to, if you can, and sort of at one time and one place talk about what the archdiocese and the Catholic Schools Office is doing for inner-city students.
L'HOMMEWell, I think that we're doing a great deal, and it's just not the archdiocese. It's several of our independent Catholic schools. One of the most exciting programs that I think is the Don Bosco Cristo Rey School right over the D.C. line in Takoma Park, Md. And that's probably one of the most -- it's exciting because not only they figured a different business model, is that the students in that high school go to school four days a week. And then they work in white collar jobs all over the District of Columbia, Maryland and in Northern Virginia.
L'HOMMEAnd they earn $7,000 a year that goes towards their tuition. And parents in that school have to have a family income of no more than $22,000 in order to qualify. So the students that go to Don Bosco Cristo Rey, if it wasn't for Don Bosco Cristo Rey, would not be able to go to a Catholic high school. Then we have schools like San Miguel School, which is part of -- which is a project of St. John's College High School, the Washington Jesuit Academy. And the one that I visited most recently is The Washington Middle School for Girls in Ward 8. And they -- part of their school is a floor and an apartment house. And the other part of their school is at THEARC in Anacostia.
NNAMDIThat's a good spot.
L'HOMMEThat's a wonderful spot. Here are young women who, you know, who are not only learning how to, you know, read, write and do math at a high level, but they're learning all that within the rich tradition of the Catholic school, and they're being prepared to go on to competitive high schools. And with our CCA, which is the last of the four schools of the Center City Consortium that we now call the Catholic Consortium of Academies, I think that's one of the best things that's happening in the District, is that our schools, no matter where our parents are, they can choose to send their child to an excellent Catholic school. And many of the students who attend the CCA schools are on D.C. Opportunity Scholarships.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Stephanie. Here is Debbie in Silver Spring, Md. Debbie, your turn.
DEBBIEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I had a question. My understanding with the voucher program is that public funds are going to parents who would like to send their children to parochial schools. And my question is, in the public schools, there are criteria where teachers are evaluated and schools are assessed to make sure that they're providing the best education they can. What type of system do the parochial schools use...
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Debbie, because you should know that Bert L'Homme came to Washington from the Franklin County Public Schools in North Carolina, so he is in a good position to compare the educational mission of public and Catholic schools.
L'HOMMEAnd, actually, before I moved to North Carolina, I was principal of City Lights School here in the District of Columbia...
NNAMDIThere you go.
L'HOMME...so that I've done -- I've worked in the private, nonprofit and the public schools, and now in the Catholic schools. One of the things that we're looking at is a couple of things, is that, number one, is that we're insisting now that all of our teachers are certified by the state agency that -- where the school resides. So, for example, if they're in D.C., they're certified by D.C. And if they're in Maryland, they're gonna be certified in Maryland. We're also looking at -- historically, in the Catholic schools, is that we've used a norm-referenced test, which makes it very hard for us to compare with the public schools in the state of Maryland and in the District of Columbia because they use a criterion-referenced test.
L'HOMMERight now, we're in consultations with our pastors and principals to change to a criterion-referenced test so that we can compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. We're also looking at how our schools are accredited, is that, historically, our schools are accredited one at a time and by the Middle States Association, which many of our schools in this area of the United States are accredited by. But there is a more rigorous system, which is called AdvancED, which is part the Southern Association and the North Central Region, which looks at a continuous improvement model, which will be looking at the four major areas, always.
L'HOMMENumber one, Catholic identity. The second one will be academic achievement. The third one will be governance. The fourth one will be enrollment. So all of our schools, if this is the system that they adopt, that the -- is -- will be assessed on that on an ongoing basis, literally on a continuous improvement model.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Debbie. Tell us about St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, two Catholic schools essentially merged into one with a new global view.
L'HOMMEI'd be delighted to. That's one of the really bright lights in our Catholic school system, is that we had two schools. We had St. Mark's in Hyattsville and we had St. Camillus in Silver Spring. And they were not in danger of closing. But if they had not done something dramatic, something to capture the imagination of parents -- both Catholic and non-Catholic parents in the area -- is that they were both looking towards, two to three years from now, with decreasing enrollment.
L'HOMMEAnd what they did is that they merged both schools into St. Francis International. And right now they're housed at St. Camillus in Silver Spring. And they truly have an international community. And if you think about the population that resides in those areas, they -- I think the principal told me recently, they have to be at least 35 different first languages in the school so that they're able to not to see that as a deficit, but to see that as bringing richness into the school.
NNAMDIAfraid we're almost out of time, just enough time for Amy in Arlington, Va., to put in her 20 seconds. Amy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMYHi, Kojo, and I'm calling to spread the good news about St. Anne School, a small Catholic school in Arlington, Va. And just recently, we, this year, started our science lab, which is a fabulous new teaching school...
NNAMDISounds good, Amy, but, like I said, we are running out of time very quickly. But thank you very much for making the call. Bert L'Homme, you got five seconds.
L'HOMMEFive seconds. Out of our 98 schools in the archdiocese, I've now visited 75 of them, and I find something exciting like that, like at that St. Ann School, in every one of our schools.
NNAMDIBert L'Homme is superintendent of schools with the Archdiocese of Washington. Thank you for joining us.
L'HOMMEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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