Published Online: March 5, 1997

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Public, Catholic Schools See Benefits in Joint Ventures

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In Chicago, it used to take a blizzard to bring leaders from the city's public and Roman Catholic school systems to call each other.

But these days, Paul G. Vallas, the head of Chicago's public schools, rarely hesitates to dial up his counterpart in the city's archdiocese, Elaine Schuster. In recent months, the two have been sharing expertise in school improvement, comparing notes on their systems' curricula, and planning ventures involving the joint use of resources.

"This is new and different from my experience," Ms. Schuster said. "With [Mr. Vallas'] predecessors, we'd meet at education events, or I'd talk to them mostly about should the schools close because of bad weather."

By steering clear of debates over vouchers and church-state relationships, the two have built a strong bridge between the country's third-largest public school system and the nation's largest parochial one. About 413,000 students are enrolled in the city's public schools. The archdiocese serves roughly 136,000 students in Chicago and its suburbs.

Chicago is not the only urban area looking into such cooperative agreements. In recent months, officials in other cities have shown interest in pursuing ventures between their area's public and nonpublic schools.

"We wanted to find places where we can improve both school systems together," Ms. Schuster said. "It seems important to break down some of these we-they barriers and the idea that we're in competition with each other."

In fact, the two said their districts' strengths complement, rather than compete with, each other.

"When there is a vibrant public education system, neighborhoods are stronger, and churches are more stable, and they are more able to support parochial schools," Mr. Vallas said. "One of the things that have made the Japanese so successful is their ability to learn from other cultures."

Both superintendents say they see little reason why such a dialogue can't take place elsewhere.

Last October, about 150 students in the Houston school district started attending a nonreligious private school as part of an effort to relieve crowding in the 210,000-student district. The school district approved a one-year contract with the Varnett School last September and was seeking similar proposals from other schools. ("To Relieve Crowding, Houston Turns to Private School," Oct. 23, 1996.)

Last fall, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani endorsed an offer by New York City's Catholic archdiocese to take 1,000 struggling students from the city's 1 million-student public school district. ("1,000 Slots at Catholic Schools in NYC Offered to Public Students," Sept. 18, 1996.) Since then, members of the New York business community have formed a private foundation to offer tuition assistance aimed at giving students the option of attending parochial schools.

Mum on Vouchers

In the Windy City, the cooperation has gone well beyond swapping ideas.

The archdiocese has contributed personnel to work with the public schools to help design a curriculum that emphasizes the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics, and a priest is one of the co-chairmen of a public school task force charged with recommending a character curriculum that stresses such values as nonviolence, honesty, and politeness.

"These are basic values that cut across all cultures and denominations," Mr. Vallas said.

Recognizing the potential strength of their combined numbers, the two systems also have filed joint technology-grant proposals and are working together to seek more education aid from the state legislature.

"The point is we don't see ourselves as competitors," Mr. Vallas said. "And that includes lobbying for more education funds from Springfield."

"As the funding issues are looked at, it seems logical to Paul Vallas and to me that 15 percent of the funds should be allocated for things our students have a right to," Ms. Schuster said, referring to the fact that about 15 percent of the students in Illinois attend nonpublic schools.

One issue they won't lobby together on, however, is vouchers. Ms. Schuster continues to push for public funds to be used to help students pay tuition at nonpublic schools, but she also said she recognizes that Mr. Vallas won't join her in that fight.

"It's been pretty clear that neither he nor I will push each other on the voucher issue," she said. "He's very respectful to why we think that's something we'd feel is important."

"My position is that I don't have a position on that," Mr. Vallas said of the voucher issue. "It's not part of our joint agenda."

But Mr. Vallas says that agenda can continue to grow. Cooperation in sharing facilities could address enrollment trends in some neighborhoods where the parochial schools are far below capacity and the public schools are bursting at the seams.

The public system already rents some buildings from the archdiocese, but Mr. Vallas is exploring the possibility of having one school from each of the systems share the same building. At least one charter school applicant, for example, would like to open in a building partially occupied by an all-girls Catholic school next fall.

Neighbors

In the city's predominantly Hispanic Little Village neighborhood, the change in the schools' central offices is forging new relationships.

Last fall, the public school system asked Patricia Jones, the principal of the Catholic pre-K-8 St. Agnes School, to assist one of more than 100 public schools that Mr. Vallas' office had placed on probation for poor performance. Ms. Jones spent the next several weeks working with two public school principals to draft an improvement plan for the Lazaro Cardenas School, a pre-K-3 public school a few blocks from St. Agnes.

The system had placed Lazaro Cardenas on probation in part because most of the few students who took the English-language standardized tests used by the system were scoring below the 10th percentile, Ms. Jones said. Because English is a second language to a majority of the school's students, most are not given the test.

"To me, it seemed like something that was quite a challenge because there's been a lot said about the Chicago public schools and a lot said about the probationary status of those schools," said Ms. Jones, who has been the principal at St. Agnes for 16 years. "And I thought I probably know something about the neighborhood. Our students live upstairs or downstairs from their students."

Three teachers from St. Agnes now tutor at Lazaro Cardenas each week to help raise the school's test scores.

The principal at Lazaro Cardenas, Sylvia Ortiz-Revollo, said she's happy to get the support of someone committed to the neighborhood.

"It's been uplifting for me," she said. "We're working in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

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