Charters emerge as threats to Catholic schools

Archdiocese won't sell, lease buildings to 'competition' as system seeks to stabilize

  • Vilmarie Santiago teaches Spanish to kindergarteners at the Baltimore International Academy, which would like to expand enrollment.
Vilmarie Santiago teaches Spanish to kindergarteners at the… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
March 16, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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