December 18, 2009

Archdiocese working to create two charter schools in Indianapolis

By John Shaughnessy

The archdiocese has applied to the Mayor’s Office in Indianapolis to create two charter schools for the 2010-11 school year.

If the applications are approved, the archdiocese will become the first Catholic diocese in the United States that has committed to overseeing a school involved in this educational approach.

In announcing the plan on Dec. 9, archdiocesan leaders noted that the effort involves changing the status of two of the six schools that form the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies—a consortium of schools dedicated to educating children in economically challenged, urban areas of Indianapolis.

In the plan, St. Anthony Catholic School and St. Andrew & St. Rita Catholic Academy would become charter schools. If approved, the two schools would still be managed by the archdiocese, but they would have to change their names and they would no longer be able to promote the Catholic faith.

The other four schools that form the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies—Central Catholic School, Holy Angels School, Holy Cross Central School and St. Philip Neri School—will continue as Catholic schools.

The plan was announced on Dec. 9 in a message to pastors of the affected parishes, and to the parents, faculty and staff members at the two schools who are the focus of the proposed change.

“After many months of research, prayer and consultation, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein has given his approval to submit two charter school applications to the office of the Mayor of Indianapolis,” wrote Connie Zittnan, the director of the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies.

In her letter, Zittnan also stated, “It is important for you to know that we have also met with the parishioners, staffs and parents of these two schools. Overall, they were supportive in continuing our mission of serving our children in these neighborhoods in these ways.”

The archdiocese also plans to continue to offer instruction in the Catholic faith to students who attend these two schools.

“One of the major changes we will see is we will have to develop faith formation before or after school rather than during the school day,” Zittnan said. “Speaking with both parishes, the pastor and deacon of these parishes are both committed to taking on this portion of the child’s development.”

In seeking to start the two charter schools, the archdiocese is responding to two major challenges to educating children in urban neighborhoods, Zittnan says.

“Through the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies, we want to continue our mission of working with our children in the urban center,” Zittnan said. “We have two major concerns. As generous as our parishes, our archdiocese, corporate

Indianapolis and major contributors are, we are having a difficult time funding all six schools as they are presently operated. We’re operating in a deficit every year. Secondly, in these tough economic times, our families at these schools are having a tough time coming up with the tuition.”

Faced with those realities, changing the two schools to charter schools allows the archdiocese to continue “educating our urban children in these two [center city] neighborhoods,” Zittnan explained.

The two charter schools would be self-supporting, according to Jeffrey Stumpf, the chief financial officer of the archdiocese.

“This will allow us to shift the fundraising dollars currently used at those two schools to the other four Mother Theodore Catholic Academies schools, stabilizing the finances of those Catholic schools,” Stumpf said. “We could get this financial improvement by simply closing the schools, but our strong desire is to continue serving the children in these two neighborhoods.”

Economic realities forced the archdiocese to consider the charter school approach, Stumpf said.

“Because of the demographics of the families that these schools serve, only about 12 percent of the cost of running the schools comes from the school families and the local parishes,” he noted. “The archdiocese takes on the responsibility of over 50 percent of the funding. The academies currently need about $3.8 million per year from sources outside of the school operations.

“We’re able to raise $1.1 million per year through the parishes of the archdiocese from the Christ Our Hope: Compassion in Community annual appeal, and about $1-1.5 million per year in corporate, foundation and alumni fundraising efforts—leaving a remaining deficit of about $1.2-1.7 million per year that we’ve been unable to fund.”

If the charter school plan is approved, the archdiocese will receive about $7,500 per student from the State of Indiana, Stumpf said.

Zittnan outlined the reasons why the proposed change will best serve the children at those schools—starting with the fact that tuition will be free.

“Full tuition is about $3,800,” Zittnan said. “Very few of our children in either of these schools pay very close to that, but our children will not have to pay tuition, which will take the burden off their parents. We will also be able to have additional staff to work with children who, for whatever reason, need additional assistance in the classroom. And we will have a transportation plan for families that live more than a mile from the school.”

While archdiocesan leaders hope the changes can take place at the two schools, they also stress the need for continued support of the four Mother Theodore Catholic Academies that will remain as Catholic schools.

“It’s very important to understand that those four Catholic schools will need the continuous generosity of our major donors, the archdiocese and our parishes,” Zittnan said.

The change has been under consideration since March. Since then, Archbishop Buechlein and other archdiocesan leaders have sought the input and opinions of different people and groups, including priests, donors, business leaders, political leaders, the archdiocesan finance council, and parents and staff members at St. Anthony Catholic School and St. Andrew & St. Rita Catholic Academy.

“Since he came here in 1992, the archbishop has been committed to educating children in our urban neighborhoods,” Zittnan said. “He again is looking for ways to meet the needs of these students.

“Other dioceses have looked at the challenge of continuing their mission in urban settings, and they’ve come up with two options—either close schools or lease school buildings to secular companies to run charter schools. If our plan is approved, we will be the first in the United States where the archdiocese is committed to overseeing this form of education.”

The archdiocese has formed a separate corporation—ADI Schools Inc.—to apply for the charter.

“This corporation will hire the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies to manage the operations of the schools,” Stumpf said. “So the MTCA will now be responsible for operating four Catholic schools and two public charter schools.”

Archdiocesan leaders believe this approach is the best available to continue its commitment and mission to children at the two schools.

“We believe we can still transfer the values we hold dear to us—discipline, hard work, honesty, leadership, giving to others and serving others,” Zittnan said. “It’s not about the buildings. It’s not about the schools. It’s about the children we do not want to leave behind.” †

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