Tuesday, June 3, 2003

How a Catholic school is becoming a public charter school

(From the Dallas Morning News, Link requires registration)

For more than a decade, St. Anthony Catholic School in South Dallas scratched out an existence, surviving on donations, grants and its can-do spirit.

St. Anthony's hand-to-mouth survival took its toll. Debts mounted. The roof rotted. Twice, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas tried to shutter St. Anthony, and each time the community rallied to save the little school. Just to stay afloat, St. Anthony needed to generate about $1 million a year in gifts and grants. Now St. Anthony leaders think they've found a way to secure the financial future of their school for generations.

On July 1, St. Anthony will become a state-funded public charter school. The change will, for the first time in 15 years, give St. Anthony a reliable source of income, school leaders say.

But that security isn't cheap.

In exchange for state dollars, St. Anthony must make the ultimate sacrifice. Come July, St. Anthony Catholic School can no longer be Catholic. ....Mrs. Kratz said the decision to become a public charter school was one of the most difficult of her career. Ultimately, it came down to this: What is more important – keeping St. Anthony Catholic, or keeping St. Anthony open?

Helping make the decision was the simple fact that only four of the school's 152 students are Catholic.

"It's really our only option," Mrs. Kratz said of the conversion. "It's the kids who are important."

....When Mr. Burrell heard the news, the teacher and administrator's heart sank. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he was just beginning his fifth year at the South Dallas school. He said that he knew immediately that the switch to public charter meant he'd have to find another job. "I really felt like we had turned a corner, and that I was part of it," Mr. Burrell said of his years at St. Anthony. "Spiritually and emotionally, I have a lot invested in this school. This is where I started, and I never thought that I would teach at any other Catholic school in Dallas."But in the fall, he'll join the faculty at Jesuit College Preparatory High School, where he'll teach theology. Ultimately, he said, he could not abandon his Catholic teaching. "It's what I want to do," he said.

Pete Smith, St. Anthony's social studies and religion teacher, is leaving, too. Although he does not know where he'll be working, he knows that teaching in a nonsectarian public school is not for him. "If St. Anthony can keep its identity, then yes, it's a worthy trade-off," Mr. Smith said of the decision to accept public tax dollars. "But for me, it means a lot to teach in a Catholic school."

Some parents are conflicted about the change, too. While they generally like the thought of not having to pay tuition anymore, many enrolled their children in St. Anthony for the structure and discipline that Catholic schools have traditionally taught. "I dread the thought of them not being able to pray in the morning or go to Mass," said Tracy Reed, vice president of the school's PTA. "If it were up to me, I'd rather pay the tuition" and keep the religion. "But we know this has to happen, and we've accepted it."