An overlooked choice Education: Rosa Parks Interfaith in Baltimore, with a majority of pupils non-Catholic and poor, offers an option often overlooked in talks about more competitive schools.

June 08, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

An article in Saturday's editions of The Sun should have quoted Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, as saying that JoAnne Rojas, principal of Rosa Parks Interfaith School in Northwest Baltimore, "earns no more than the average teacher in the surrounding public schools."

The Sun regrets the error.

Many of them are as poor as church mice, serving up education and religion to poor students in the nation's run-down urban centers.

They are the 1,000 inner-city parochial schools -- about 15 percent of Catholic schools nationally -- that educate primarily non-Catholic students, sometimes with parents making financial sacrifices.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"It has been a strain," said Diana Butler, whose younger two children have just finished the school year at Rosa Parks Interfaith School on Park Heights Avenue. "But I've had plenty of bad experience with the public schools, and this is the best for my daughter and son.

"It provides a wholesome atmosphere with Christian values, and the principal knows everyone's name."

Butler is one of thousands of parents who have made a school choice that is often overlooked in the discussion of voucher plans and other ideas for making schools more competitive.

Rosa Parks is typical of the non-Catholic Catholic schools, a dozen of which operate in Baltimore City. It's a small school in what was a white neighborhood, serving about 240 pupils in grades pre-kindergarten through sixth. Its tuition -- $2,250 -- is about average for Baltimore parish schools.

Seventy percent of its students are on public assistance, and Principal JoAnne Rojas said that "you can count on one hand" the number of students in two-parent families. Ninety percent of Rosa Parks' students are not Catholic.

Rosa Parks, which will reopen in the fall under its original name, St. Ambrose, makes do with what little it has. This year, volunteers from the neighboring St. Ambrose parish did the custodial work. "I'm going to have the luxury of a janitor in the fall," said Rojas, the school's only non-teaching employee. But the school's windows have needed replacement for decades, "and that project will just have to wait," as will plans to modernize the library.

"You can say without fear of contradiction that JoAnne earns more than the average teacher in the surrounding public schools," said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. City teachers average just under $40,000.

Rosa Parks spends about $2,300 on each student, less than half the cost at city public schools. And it is one of the lucky ones. The Rev. John Pfannenstiel, St. Ambrose pastor, has formed a partnership with communications giant MCI, which has brought computers, books and technical help to the Northwest Baltimore school.

Three of the poorest inner-city schools in Pittsburgh are more fortunate. In the Steel City, philanthropies and businesses formed a foundation at the turn of the 1990s that now provides about 61 percent of the operating cost of the schools. That aid has helped them stay open -- all were in danger of folding -- and it has helped hold tuition to just under $1,000.

The "Extra Mile Education Foundation" pumps about $1.4 million yearly into the three schools, said the Rev. Kris D. Stubna, who heads education for the Pittsburgh Diocese. The foundation also is trying to raise $10 million privately to make the endowment self-sustaining.

"Those who have given to the foundation recognize a responsibility to education in Pittsburgh," said director Ambrose P. Murray, "but they also feel a responsibility for community development. All three of these schools are important to the survival of their neighborhoods and to making productive citizens out of their students."

Baltimore's inner-city schools have more of a neighborhood flavor than the three in Pittsburgh, where the law allows parochial school busing at public expense. But Catholic educators in both cities would love to see a Milwaukee voucher plan -- allowing students to use publicly financed vouchers to attend parochial schools -- pass a constitutional test in Wisconsin courts.

Of the five options before a task force on school choice appointed by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, "only a voucher plan would help our schools to any significant extent," Valenti said.

Catholic educators are determined to "help people see beyond the church-state issue and recognize our schools as true community resources," Valenti said.

Analysis of the Extra Mile program by University of Pittsburgh researchers shows inner-city parents choose parochial schools for the same reasons suburban parents do: religious values and academic quality. Many non-Catholic parents welcome the daily religious instruction, prayer and regular, required chapel attendance.

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