Charters emerge as threats to Catholic schools

When the leaders at the Baltimore International Academy read a property listing for St. Anthony's of Padua — a vacant Catholic school building that is nearly three times the academy's current size and five miles from its location — the $2.5 million price tag was an afterthought.

The advertisement posted by the Archdiocese of Baltimore boasted "big, bright and uplifting" classrooms that could alleviate the public charter school's cramped learning spaces. The building's "auditorium that converts easily into a cafeteria" could give kindergarteners who lunch at their desks a place to eat.

But the description for preferred applicants was not as promising: "This school building cannot be leased or sold to public charter schools," the listing said.

St. Anthony's is one of 13 vacant Catholic school buildings listed for sale or lease that the archdiocese decided should not be acquired by charter schools because they are considered a threat to its troubled Catholic school program.

The buildings were vacated as a result of a decision by the archdiocese last year to close 13 of its 64 schools as it faced declining enrollment and revenue. St. Anthony's once served 600 students who attended Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, closed during the consolidation. The building is now being advertised as an ideal setting for, among other uses, a new school complex.

The decision to stop leasing to charters comes as the archdiocese is looking to reinvent itself as a strong educational stakeholder in the city. But the new approach is drawing the ire of several city, school and business leaders who say that the archdiocese's fear of competition is limiting educational opportunities in Baltimore.

"I think it is a shame that the archdiocese is closing schools but doesn't want competition," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the education commission for the council. "They pulled the plug on all of these families, and that charter school competition is what families needed as an option when Catholic schools shut down."

But the archdiocese believes that the 13 buildings, 10 of which are in the city, represent a "painful reminder" of the 1,500 families affected and 2,100 students who were displaced by the closures, according to Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese.

Caine added that to continue allowing charter schools to occupy vacant Catholic school buildings would "be sending some mixed signals, and conceivably negatively impacting the fate of our schools."

"We think there's enough room for everyone in the education business, and we all want the same things, but we cannot turn around, after a painful consolidation, and threaten our Catholic schools," he said.

Caine said charter schools, which offer specialized curriculum, have emerged as fierce competition for Catholic schools. He pointed out that at least one charter took up to 22 percent of a neighboring Catholic school's population, which contributed to its closing.

"Parents perceive our schools to offer the same service as charter schools," Caine said. He said that before the Archdiocese's consolidation last year, schools were looking at 10,000 empty seats "mostly because too many schools are fighting for the same kids."

City school officials are concerned about the implications for the growing charter school movement in the city because charters have to find and finance their own facilities.

Four Baltimore charter schools occupy former Catholic schools, and the archdiocese leased a building, formerly Shrine of the Sacred Heart School, to the public Mount Washington Elementary this year. There is also a sale pending of the St. Rose of Lima building, in Brooklyn, to the Monarch Academy/Children's Guild. More than 18 former Catholic schools now serve educational purposes, including Head Start and public programs.

"The search for space is one of the challenges that charter schools face, and this certainly won't make that easier," said Michael Sarbanes, spokesman for the school system. "Competition is unavoidable, and our schools are increasingly competitive. Charters are here, they're growing, and a policy of holding back buildings is not going to make them go away."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wrote a letter of support for the academy, which negotiated for the building for six months, and said she was disappointed that the academy's offer wasn't accepted. She stressed, however, that "Catholic and private schools are also important parts of the city's education community and provide additional choices for parents and students."

Academy at capacity

The Baltimore International Academy, the only free public language-immersion school in the city, opened in 2007, leasing a space on the campus of the Maryland School for the Blind.

The 97 percent African-American student body, the majority of whom are from Northeast Baltimore, begin studying Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese in kindergarten. The school's success has landed it in promotional advertisements for the nationwide foreign language company, Rosetta Stone.

"When we saw this building, we knew it would serve our families and be able to meet all of our needs," the academy's principal, Grace Yador, said of St. Anthony's. "We get requests on a daily basis to take children — with people just amazed that this is offered to the everyday Baltimore citizen.

The school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, has reached its capacity of 350 and has no prospects for a new facility next year.

The BIA has enrolled nearly 500 students for next year and has committed to the district to expand to at least 750 in the next two years. St. Anthony's could accommodate about 1,000 students. If the charter doesn't get a new building, the school will have to turn students away.

"We could offer every single child an opportunity to be a part of this unique program," Yador said. "But now we can't."

In fall 2010, the archdiocese announced that Archbishop Borders School, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade Catholic elementary school in Highlandtown, would host the first Catholic dual-language program in Baltimore.

The Catholic school offers English and Spanish curriculums and is less than five miles from the St. Anthony's building. Caine said the archdiocese believed that if the BIA opened in St. Anthony's, it would not only threaten Borders, but 12 other schools within six miles of the St. Anthony's building.

Cardinal Shehan School, which absorbed the majority of displaced students from Mother Mary Lange when it closed, could also risk losing enrollment, Caine said. Students now catch a bus from St. Anthony's to attend Cardinal Shehan, which is within three miles of the St. Anthony's building.

Yador said that for parents to transfer students from a Catholic school to a free public charter "would require a change in their whole ideology."

"I believe we're being used as a scapegoat — the gap that has caused the decline in their enrollment has nothing to do with us," she said. "Parents who send their children to Catholic schools do so because they have a strong belief in that education."

'Difficult decision'

The decision to decline the BIA's offer was made in part, Caine said, because of a study published in 2008 that found that Baltimore charter schools' proximity to Catholic schools plays a large role in student recruitment. In that report, seven city charter schools, including the BIA, were identified as drawing a large percentage of transfers from outside public schools.

The sale of St. Anthony's to the charter school was supported by St. Anthony's Parish, which Caine acknowledged stood to gain financially from the sale of the building, making for a "very difficult decision," he said.

With the backing of the Abell Foundation — which has helped to finance the purchase of three former Catholic schools for charter school use — the academy was willing to not only pay the $2.5 million asking price, but all renovation costs. The final deal was estimated at at least $5 million.

Much of this conflict stems from a new strategic plan being implemented to strengthen the Catholic school program.

The plan was compiled by a panel called the Blue Ribbon Committee of education leaders and experts, including city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

Among the committee recommendations was that "the Archbishop approve every sale or lease of a school building to assure that new owners or lessees will not be using the buildings for educational purposes if that would hurt enrollment at nearby Catholic schools."

Alonso said that he did not participate in any discussions regarding the closure of Catholic schools or the sale or lease of the buildings because it was a conflict of interest.

But the schools chief said it was heartening that charters are perceived as a threat.

"We are competitors — that simple," he said. "But in my experience, monopolies don't work. You win the competition by providing a better product and by innovating. And we are innovating like crazy."

Future of building

There are no plans for the St. Anthony's building, though there are discussions about turning it into low-income, senior housing, Caine said.

City Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo, who represents the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Frankford where the St. Anthony's building is located, said he would support the idea if the community agreed that the low-income housing would be a better use of the building than a school.

D'Adamo, who attended Shrine of the Little Flower School, which closed last year as part of the consolidation and now houses a charter, advocated for charters to fill the void of closed Catholic schools. Last year, he asked the archdiocese to rent buildings to charter schools for $1 a year and expressed concern about tax-exempt buildings sitting vacant.

"I was hoping they would work with the community, and I think their hearts are in the right place," D'Adamo said. "But it sends a message of: Did they really care about the children of the City of Baltimore?"

erica.green@baltsun.com

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