Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Without Abandonment

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"The paradigm shift that I see happening is that the schools can no longer be owned just by the parish; they have to belong to the community," Ms. Stadler of Holy Rosary says. "Unless we can bring these neighborhoods together, we're just perpetuating the problem."

Just as southeast Baltimore's remaining residents have had to adjust to the economic transition affecting the area, the school principals and other officials in the archdiocese say they recognize they need new ways of doing business to maintain their presence in the city.

"It's always been their neighborhood school connected to their parish," said David Sunday, the president of Bishop Neumann's school board. "It's tough to give that up, but they're going to have to to survive."

Seeking Help

Even before southeast Baltimore's community leaders asked the archdiocese for help, the church office sought assistance from the city's business community to ensure that it didn't lose many of its urban schools to declining enrollment.

The result, announced last month, is the new Partners in Excellence program, through which several of Baltimore's largest companies and foundations have pledged nearly $4 million for tuition assistance at 15 of the archdiocese's urban schools.

The money will offset elementary school tuition by $1,000 a year and high school charges by $2,000. Average annual tuition at the 15 schools runs about $2,600, although it's higher at the high schools than at the elementary schools.

program had already helped place 125 students. Officials hope to raise the total pledges to $5.6 million by the end of the year, allowing as many as another 125 students to attend the parochial schools by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year.

In creating the program, Baltimore joined Catholic leaders in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland in seeking major support from the business community to help their urban parochial schools.

"It looked like many of these schools were within 10 students of being OK," said Raymond "Chip" Mason, the chief executive officer of Legg Mason Inc. "It wasn't for lack of demand. It was the $2,000 or more that people couldn't afford. We came to the conclusion that what we need to provide are enough scholarships so these schools would have enough kids to operate on their own."

Officials at the Archdiocese of Baltimore hope to keep the tuition-assistance program going with $1.5 million in annual giving after this year.

Three of the 15 schools targeted for Partners in Excellence tuition assistance are in southeast Baltimore: the K-8 St. Elizabeth School and the Our Lady of Pompei elementary and high schools.

"I think it's fantastic for the business community here to say, 'We're looking at a program that works,'" says Richard Gatto, the principal at St. Elizabeth. "They know about what works. In their businesses, if something doesn't work, they get rid of it."

Mr. Gatto's school also is the beneficiary of another local partnership among varied groups that recognized how closely the fate of a city's parochial schools and its neighborhoods were tied.

The notion of such mutually dependent fates led Ed Rutkowski, the project coordinator of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Initiative, to propose one of the more novel programs now working to revitalize the area and its Catholic schools.

The program offers full-tuition scholarships at St. Elizabeth School to families who buy a renovated row house from a community-development corporation started by the Patterson Park group. The two- and three-bedroom homes are priced between about $37,900 and $59,000.

Financed to the tune of $414,000 by the Abell Foundation, a local philanthropy, the program should be able to offer scholarships to about 20 home buyers a year, according to Mr. Rutkowski.

Since the program was announced, Mr. Rutkowski has received more than 130 inquiries."These are people who not in a million years would have thought of living in this neighborhood," he says. "I'm thinking that in a few years you could have 100 kids at this school just from that program."

Enrollment at St. Elizabeth is now 189, compared with about 460 when Mr. Gatto came to the school seven years ago. More than half of his students are non-Catholic. Investing so much effort in finding corporate and foundation support for schools that serve primarily non-Catholics might seem paradoxical for an archdiocese that now has long waiting lists of Catholic parents for schools in its outlying areas.

In Baltimore, the archdiocese reports waiting lists of about 3,000 parents. Nationwide, non-Catholic enrollment in Catholic schools has risen from about 10.6 percent in the 1983-84 school year to 13.2 percent, and the percentages are much higher in the nation's cities.

But the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Catholic leadership in the United States see such investments as serving their church's mission, rather than detracting from it.

"Most urban dioceses are eager to maintain their city schools, even though they're serving more non-Catholics," says Leonard DeFiore, the president of the NCEA. "It traces back to the historic mission of the church to give priority to the poor."

By maintaining a presence in the cities, the parochial schoolsthrough their religion classes, community service, and role models seek to spread the gospel where they see it needed most.

"If we pack up and leave," Mr. Gatto says, "just imagine the message that's sending out: If you can afford our schools, then we'll serve you. If not, then forget it."

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