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Camden's struggling Catholic schools say no to pending conversion bill

Walk through the halls of St. Anthony of Padua School in Camden, and around every corner you encounter a statue of a saint, or a photo of Pope John Paul II, or a giant crucifix.

Walk through the halls of St. Anthony of Padua School in Camden, and around every corner you encounter a statue of a saint, or a photo of Pope John Paul II, or a giant crucifix.

In one classroom, students learn under a banner that reads "Do the right thing . . . Do the Christ thing!"

Religious culture permeates St. Anthony - and the three other Catholic schools in Camden - from the walls to the lesson plans. That's true in parochial schools nationwide.

Many of these schools, especially in urban areas, are in dire need of cash to remain open. But would they give up their religious identity for the sake of public operating funds?

That's the trade-off required in a bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature. It would allow private and parochial schools in failing school districts, such as Camden, to convert to taxpayer-funded charter schools.

Seven schools in Washington recently made such conversions for budgetary reasons. As a result, the archdiocese there was able to keep more than a dozen other Catholic schools open.

Supporters of the idea in New Jersey, who include Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Camden County Democratic Party power broker George E. Norcross 3d, say the proposal gives financially struggling schools and students stuck in failing districts another option.

But Camden Catholic-school leaders say they aren't interested in an alternative that takes away their identity.

Under New Jersey's bill, which has passed the Assembly, parochial schools could avoid closing by eliminating all religious symbols and classes, and adopting a secular name. Current students, faculty, and staff would have first dibs on staying and would avoid the charter-school lottery process.

"It would provide immediate relief" if a struggling Catholic school converted to a charter, said Norcross, a strong proponent of charter schools in Camden.

Under current law, some parishes have leased or sold their buildings to charter schools after a Catholic school has closed. But that takes time, and enrollment preference is not given to the school's former students.

The bill would "facilitate the continuum of a quality-education environment," said cosponsor Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D., Essex-Union).

The Camden Diocese and Catholic school operators say, however, that religious beliefs and values are at the core of the curriculum.

"Catholic-school education is not a charter-school education. We take our religious teaching seriously," said Peter Feuerherd, director of communications for the Camden Diocese.

The diocese prefers another, more controversial bill: the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which is pending in both houses. If passed, corporations could receive tax credits by giving scholarships to children from low-performing districts to attend private or parochial schools or public schools in other districts. It could increase Catholic school enrollment if sufficient scholarships came in.

Opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act say the bill crosses the line between separation of church and state. The conversion bill, Coutinho said, was created as an alternative to the scholarship act because converting a parochial school to a charter would not use "public funds for religious education."

"The church doesn't support it," he said, because the Opportunity Scholarship Act "is more beneficial to them."

But if the scholarship bill does not get passed, Coutinho said, struggling Catholic schools would give the conversion bill more thought.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, budget shortages in trying to operate the city's 28 Catholic schools resulted in a tough decision in 2007.

"Our choice wasn't between charter school or Catholic school; our choice was between charter school or an empty building," said Tom Burnford, the archdiocese's education secretary.

The next year, seven parochial elementary schools that could no longer be financially sustained were converted to charter schools.

"That means continuity for 1,000 students," the archdiocese said in a 2007 news release, "who will be able to attend school in the same buildings and with many of the same teachers they already know - although the schools will no longer offer religious instruction."

Washington church officials stand behind their decision, Burnford said.

The archdiocese worked with the parishes to provide after-school religious education, he said. The effectiveness of that after-school model is being assessed.

Camden's Catholic school advocates said they would do everything possible to keep parochial schools as an option for the city's residents.

"The whole mission is to strengthen and retain our Catholic schools," said Sister Karen Dietrich, executive director of Catholic Partnership Schools, a consortium of Camden's four Catholic schools (St. Anthony, Sacred Heart, St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral, and Holy Name) and St. Cecilia School in Pennsauken.

The partnership was created more than a year ago as a way for struggling Catholic schools to share resources and to lobby jointly for donors.

"When we apply for grants or approach benefactors, more are generally supportive" of the Catholic group model, Dietrich said. Any money raised is disbursed among the schools.

The partnership was able to finance a summer school program this year for 30 students from St. Anthony, St. Joseph, and Holy Name, all of which have a predominantly Latino population. In addition to math and reading reinforcement, the students received courses in computer science and civic engagement at St. Anthony.

Currently, 1,000 students are enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade at Camden's four Catholic schools, which have space for an additional 200.

Tuition is a real issue for most of the families in one of the poorest cities in the state. "We're talking about 93 percent of families who qualify for free or reduced lunch," Dietrich said.

Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor at Sacred Heart Church and School in Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood, said his school has cost about $1 million each year to operate. He has tried to keep tuition as low as possible - $1,100 for one child and $1,800 for two - but said even that was difficult for parents.

Sacred Heart has had a sponsorship program for 26 years to help families.

Catholic schools are "in a desperate situation" financially, he said, and he wishes that the government were allowed to help.

Still, going charter wouldn't be an option, he said.

Doyle has been a firm believer in Catholic education - even for non-Catholics, as is the case at his school. Sacred Heart's students are predominantly African American Baptists, he said.

"Children who graduate from Catholic school make it," he said. "The advantage of Catholic schools is, God is welcome in the classroom."

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