Miss. District Has Forged Strong Ties With Local Parochial Schools

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In Illinois, the state's largest school system draws attention for reaching out to its parochial school neighbor, but several hundred miles down river, the distinctions of public and private have long seemed of little relevance to school officials.

Sitting at the edge of the bluffs overlooking Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, the community of Natchez, Miss., has proved to be fertile ground for growing partnerships between the city's public and Roman Catholic schools.

The 6,000-student Natchez-Adams public school district routinely provides professionals to do teacher evaluations of staff members at the nearby Cathedral School, a pre-K-12 Catholic school founded a century and a half ago. They also hold joint staff-development sessions in such areas as technology training.

Parents of students from the Cathedral School and a Catholic elementary school in the area also join parents of public school children to talk about such issues as drug use and parenting. A few years ago, when the Natchez-Adams system was in the midst of building a new stadium, the Cathedral School lent its playing field to the public school team so it wouldn't miss a season.

"It's been a close relationship all along," Larry Little, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Natchez-Adams district, said recently.

A Community View

The public school system also borrowed from its Catholic neighbors to address concerns over a growing gang presence in town. This year, students in several grades in the Natchez-Adams system started wearing uniforms--soon a requirement for all district students.

"When we see something we can work together on, we share a lot," said Jules Michel, the principal of the Cathedral School. "We need to share our story across the country that we can work together."

Mr. Michel is particularly proud of the schools' mobile computer lab, which the Catholic school purchased for about $60,000 four years ago with a federal grant designated for use by nonpublic schools.

In some ways the lab resembles the mobile classrooms used in some states so that public schools can provide remedial instruction to religious school students without violating the separation of church and state. ("Court To Hear Plea To Revoke Limits on Title I," Jan. 29, 1997.)

But in Natchez, the schools have gone a step further by sharing the computer lab, essentially a mobile home equipped with computers. The vehicle spends most of its time at the Cathedral School, but in the evenings and summers, it moves to the city's recreation centers and apartment complexes so students from all of the area's schools--and their parents--can learn in computer skills.

The public school system pays a technologist who drives the vehicle and helps students get their lessons started. A logo on the side of the van lists the public system, along with the town's two Catholic schools.

"We could have used this money for anything, but it was just that we've had good relationships with the other schools," Mr. Michel said. "It's definitely an attempt to bring the educational level of our whole community up."

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