DC Consortium Schools Stand as Beacons of Hope
“I will not abandon the city of Washington in its time of need.”
With these words, then-Archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal James Hickey, announced in 1997 an investment of several hundred thousand dollars to keep struggling urban Catholic schools alive.
The city and its schools have changed a lot since then but Cardinal Hickey’s commitment remains intact in a distinctive educational structure born in that era—the Consortium of Catholic Academies.
While the Consortium may be relatively small—four inner-city elementary schools within the Archdiocese of Washington, DC—its executive director says its big commitment and big ideas deserve to spread, locally and beyond the Beltway.
Marguerite Conley, executive director of the Consortium since 2010, says its “highly effective governance model” has generated advantages for principals and teachers, students and parents, and pastors and communities, although there’s more to be done.
The Consortium’s governance model separates and consolidates nearly all the business responsibilities for the four schools to Conley’s office, she says, which allows principals to focus on the day-to-day academic, spiritual, and community life of their individual schools. It also entrusts a volunteer board of directors with general oversight of the operations and, very importantly, fundraising to help make Catholic education more accessible to more students in Washington’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. Conley interacts with the principals almost daily, and she and her staff work closely with the archdiocesan schools office, which supervises a much larger number of schools.
“I think this governance model is one to consider when looking at the future of our schools, not just inner-city schools,” says Conley, a former principal. Centralized business practices—purchasing books and selecting equipment vendors, for example—create more leverage in making some purchases. The pastors of the parishes involved have felt freed to focus on the schools’ Catholic identity and evangelization efforts, and principals have embraced and strengthened the unique charisms of each school, she says.
St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, in the Southeast section of the District that has a particularly grim crime record, reflects the Consortium’s mission to provide safe and values-filled communities where all children can learn, she says.
That mission also drives St. Francis Xavier Academy and St. Anthony Catholic School (which, like St. Thomas, have mostly African American students), and Sacred Heart School, which offers a bilingual program for its majority of Hispanic students.
As the only Consortium school in the District’s crime-ridden Ward 8, St. Thomas stands out as a “beacon,” Conley says. “You walk into the school, and you would not know [the local crime reputation]. These kids are amazing. They’re polite, they’re poised, they want to be there. It’s such a great feeling.” Virtually all St. Thomas students apply and gain admission to Catholic high schools, she says.
These and other statistics show the Consortium helps to provide a high-quality education to disadvantaged children. Some 51% of Consortium students are being raised in single parent homes, and 41% of students’ families live at or below the poverty line. Funding supplied by the archdiocese, by benefactors, and by vouchers through Washington’s local school-choice law, as well as through modest tuition fees, has made this education more accessible for the Consortium’s approximately 800 current students, but Conley says there are still many families who can’t afford to give their children these benefits.
One of the challenges Conley points to is the fact that many children of the middle and lower-middle class, who are not eligible for DC’s opportunity scholarships, cannot afford these schools. A growing number of charter schools, charging no tuition, draw in families who otherwise would choose a Catholic education. The Consortium’s development and fund-raising efforts will need to examine this challenge to extend accessibility to more of this population.
Conley also sees professional development of educators as an area of growing aspirations in which she and her principals are collaborating. She has brought in coaches with whom teachers—both the veterans and beginners—can work regularly in the classrooms, especially in math but expanding to other subjects. This hands-on professional development holds much more benefit than conventional, occasional sessions, she says, and it represents another Consortium characteristic that deserves attention in additional schools.
Freedom from many business-side concerns also allows principals to focus more on each school’s charism and its distinctive Catholic character. Conley says this is important partly because a unique identity makes a school more closely-knit, encouraging parents and everyone to “invest in that community.” She adds that parent’s attendance at meetings to discuss each school’s status and sustainability has increased as the tone has moved toward all community members having a part to play.
But strengthening the schools’ Catholic identity is not a simple matter when two-thirds of the Consortium’s students come from non-Catholic households. Again, Conley says, she has worked with principals to set the general goal while allowing each school to tailor its own approach. At St. Anthony School, where most of the teachers are Catholic, the principal has moved toward having all of his teachers become certified catechists whether they teach religion or not.
Regardless of the degree to which schools adopt catechist certification, the Consortium’s structured discussion about religious values has helped teachers of all faiths accept and build an awareness of the Catholic Christian mission in their schools.
“It’s creating a culture and context where there are commonalities, and we’re all saying the same message,” Conley says.
The Consortium model which has been evolving in the Archdiocese of Washington for nearly 20 years, has proven the strength of governance that separates business duties from the daily tasks of a learning community, Conley says, and many other schools would benefit from this approach. But it has to take different forms, responsive to pastors’ and principals’ varying perspectives and needs. Learning, professional development, fund-raising, and accessibility all seem to benefit from a combination of local school flexibility and a structure that drives both common initiatives and innovations, she says.
Washington’s Consortium of Catholic Academies is hardly a one-size-fits-all prescription for all Catholic schools, Conley says. But it highlights ways in which the Church can “get ahead” of declining enrollment while sustaining its commitment to educate children from all backgrounds.
The stakes are high, both at the level of cities and society and at the level of the individual student. Conley asks, “What is the impact on the District of Columbia? I’m a third-generation DC native, and I see it. I see what a Consortium school can do. When you hear the kids talking about their experience, I think it speaks volumes.”