School Choice & Charters

Charters in Some Cities Attract Students From Catholic Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 22, 2002 9 min read
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To Danni Brown, a 6th grader at the St. Louis Charter School here, the difference between the school she now goes to and St. Ambrose School, the Roman Catholic school she attended previously, is as clear as day.

“They don’t teach religion here,” she says. The forthright 13-year-old likes her new school, but says she sometimes misses the school Masses at St. Ambrose.

Still, Danni’s mother and some other St. Louis parents say they feel their children have gained more than they’ve lost with their transfers from Catholic schools to the St. Louis Charter School—one of the five independent public schools that have sprung up in this city in the past two years. They praise the charter school’s emphasis on project-based learning and other creative teaching methods.

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In St. Louis and other cities around the country, charter schools are posing new competition for Catholic schools by expanding the educational options for urban families. Some parents who wouldn’t consider sending their children to regular, inner-city public schools, which they perceive as providing a low-quality education, are seeing charter schools as attractive alternatives to parochial schools.

No one tracks the flow of students between Catholic schools and charter schools on a national level, but a few individual dioceses have begun to track it in their own regions.

The Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., for instance, recorded that it lost 139 students to charter schools at the end of the last school year, out of the roughly 60,000 Catholic school students it serves in four counties.

The Archdiocese of Detroit counted 300 out of some 51,000 students who left Catholic schools for charter schools at the end of the last school year. But it also found that 132 students who had once enrolled in Catholic schools, and then had switched to charter schools, returned to Catholic schools at the beginning of the current school year.

The movement of students from Catholic schools to charter schools has been significant enough for Catholic educators to take notice, but not large enough to cause alarm, said Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, the secretary for education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. She said her organization applauds the opening of charter schools because they provide more choices for parents and tend to support more local decisionmaking in schools than regular public schools do.

At the same time, the presence of charter schools has underscored for Catholic educators the importance of marketing.

“We are conscious of the need to let people know we are here and what strengths we have in the educational program,” said Sister Maureen Martin, the principal of St. Ambrose. “That’s something we’d begun before the charter schools were initiated. It’s something we’re aware we should continue.”

The Tuition Factor

Sisters McPhee and Martin speculate that most parents move their children from Catholic to charter schools to save on school costs.

But parents interviewed here say that other considerations eclipsed the fact that Catholic schools charge tuition and charter schools do not.

Kerry A. Toscano enrolled her daughter, Torie, in the St. Louis Charter School last fall after she heard good reports about her nephew’s academic progress following his transfer there from St. Ambrose in the middle of the last school year. Torie had attended St. Ambrose from the 1st through 4th grades. Both Ms. Toscano and her husband are Catholics and attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I got so fed up with the Catholic school. There was too much emphasis on discipline and not enough on the positive,” said Ms. Toscano, a curly-haired woman who runs a business with her husband sharpening and selling scissors to hair salons. The Catholic school dished out so much homework that Torie toiled until 9 p.m. daily to finish it, she said.

“My daughter was so stressed out, she had sleeping problems,” Ms. Toscano said.

In 10-year-old Torie’s words, she switched schools because, at St. Ambrose, “they give out too much homework, and they are really mean.”

Danni’s mother, Mary Frances Brown, who also is Catholic, moved her daughter from St. Ambrose to a public school and then to the St. Louis Charter School. She said she felt that St. Ambrose, where she herself had gone to school and Danni had been enrolled in the 2nd and 3rd grades, didn’t adequately address Danni’s speech and language impairment.

St. Ambrose does have one of the more comprehensive school programs in the St. Louis Archdiocese for children with special needs—it employs two special education teachers as “learning consultants"—but it doesn’t provide speech therapy.

Another parent, Earl Bonds, who is Baptist, moved his children from St. Nicholas School, a Catholic school, to the St. Louis Charter School for several reasons. On a visit to the charter school, he was impressed with the enthusiasm of staff members and the learning environment they envisioned. Also, he wanted his children to mix with both African-Americans and whites in school, and he said he had difficulty finding a Catholic school in St. Louis in which that would be the case.

“At St. Nicholas, all the teachers were black, and all the children were black,” said Mr. Bonds, who is biracial. “They can only learn so much being in their own little world.”

Sixty-eight percent of children at the St. Louis Charter School are African-American, 30 percent are non-Hispanic whites, 1 percent are Hispanic, and the rest are of other ethnic or racial groups. Almost all students at St. Ambrose are white.

Thirteen percent of the 776 students at the St. Louis Charter School transferred from parochial schools, and an additional 8 percent came from nonreligious private schools. Eleven of those students came from St. Ambrose, a K-8 school with 263 students. St. Ambrose also lost one teacher this school year to the K-7 charter school, which is expanding to include 8th grade next fall.

Yet not all school transfers in St. Louis have been from Catholic schools to charter schools; some have been in the opposite direction.

After sending her daughter Brittney to 1st grade and part of 2nd grade at the St. Louis Charter School, Laurie A. Amann enrolled her in St. Ambrose, where Brittney seems to be thriving.

At St. Ambrose, said Brittney, “the teachers are a lot more strict. They teach a lot more. The children are well-behaved and don’t go all over the room.”

At the charter school, Ms. Amann said, with Brittney propped next to her, “Brittney appeared to be a lot more advanced than kids in her class. The teachers seemed to spend a majority of the time disciplining, and the rest of the time was geared toward kids at the lower level.”

Different School Cultures

St. Ambrose School and the St. Louis Charter School provide some contrasts in culture. One promotes religious faith and adherence to educational tradition; the other emphasizes creativity and the departure from traditional classroom approaches.

On a recent afternoon during school hours, 29 youngsters at St. Ambrose solemnly rehearsed how they would walk, kneel, stand, fold their hands, sing, receive consecrated bread and wine, and pose for photographs during their First Holy Communion, which was to take place three days later.

As they practiced among the marble columns in St. Ambrose Catholic Church, their teachers cheerfully called out instructions: “Go slow—we’re not in a race.” “Tuck in your elbows, just like chickens.” “Take a little sip. It’s just getting the lips wet.” “Keep your feet off the kneelers.”

At least one of those teachers seemed to have fostered in her classroom the same sense of order that she was striving for during the First Communion rehearsal. Her 2nd graders sat quietly in rows, raising their hands to be acknowledged and speaking to the class only after she called on them.

It is common at St. Ambrose to hear a teacher address students as “ladies and gentlemen.”

While the school has seven new teachers out of 25 this year, many others have worked at the school for a decade or two. Three of the teachers, plus the principal, Sister Martin, are members of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart religious order, which administers the school. The nuns wear distinctive black and white garb, including head coverings.

By contrast, many of the classrooms at St. Louis Charter School seem less structured than those at St. Ambrose, perhaps because of the charter school’s focus on hands-on projects.

It is rare for a teacher at the charter school to ask students to pull out a textbook. Classroom projects over a recent period of two days included making a construction- paper “filmstrip” of the life cycle of frogs, creating an “alien” with craft materials and describing him or her in writing, and collecting leaves on school grounds for a science project to simulate a process in fossilization.

No teacher at the charter school has been an educator for more than nine years, and a dozen of the school’s 51 teachers have been hired right out of college into their first teaching jobs. Teachers give little homework, according to parents who have moved their children from Catholic schools.

But the schools also have some similarities. Even though the charter school enrolls many more students, both it and St. Ambrose are small enough that administrators are familiar with individual families and children. Likewise, both schools have relatively small class sizes; most classes have fewer than 20 pupils.

Both schools require uniforms. St. Ambrose mandates specially made uniforms that display the school’s logo. The charter school requests that children wear specific colors: navy blue or khaki below the waist and a collared shirt that is navy, white, green, or yellow on top. Dress shoes are required at St. Ambrose, while at the charter school, children can wear sneakers.

At both schools, some classrooms are tightly managed, with children required to speak in turn, while others have teachers who maintain a looser atmosphere, and youngsters who seem unaccustomed to waiting their turn to speak.

Broadening Choices

Administrators at both schools said they don’t see Catholic schools and charter schools as competing with each other, so much as providing parents with a variety of educational options.

That’s also how one parent, Elayna Mendoza, sees the situation.

Ms. Mendoza operates her own hair salon opposite the handsome brick entrance to St. Ambrose Catholic Church, where her family attends Mass.

Her daughter, Nina, who is in 8th grade, has spent her school career at the parish school. But Ms. Mendoza and her husband transferred their son, Alexander, from St. Ambrose to the St. Louis Charter School when it opened in the fall of 2000. He’s now in 6th grade.

“We needed an option, and it came at the right time—something that made our child’s life easier,” Ms. Mendoza said.

Alexander has a learning disability, she explained, and she and his father felt he needed extra help that the Catholic school couldn’t afford to provide. She said she has realized that Alexander is also more suited to a school where an unstructured classroom is more acceptable than is the case at St. Ambrose.

“At the Catholic school, it’s a little more old-fashioned—'Sit in your chair. Stay in your chair.’ He needs a little more movement,” she said, “and his teacher [at the charter school] is fine with that.”

At the same time, Ms. Mendoza said, she thinks Nina would have felt “lost” in a classroom situation with a lot of freedom: “She needs the structure.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Charters in Some Cities Attract Students From Catholic Schools


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