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Originally published August 20, 2012 at 4:36 PM | Page modified August 20, 2012 at 4:35 PM

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Op-ed: Catholic schools could learn from innovation at charter schools

For the first time this fall, more elementary and high-school students will enroll in charter schools than in Catholic schools. Instead of fearing the rise of charter schools, Catholic schools should learn from their innovative practices.

Special to The Times

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CHARTER-school growth has hit Catholic schools hard. This coming school year, for the first time more American elementary and high-school students will enroll in charter schools than in Catholic schools.

Instead of fearing the rise of charter schools, Catholic schools should learn from their innovative practices.

St. Therese Catholic Academy, a K-8 in the Madrona neighborhood, was typical of many Catholic urban schools, with a shrinking enrollment and increasing financial pressures. This fall, St. Therese will open its doors under a radical new model first developed by charters called "blended learning." It promises lower per-pupil costs, better academic outcomes and more teacher-student interaction time.

The reform project, launched by the Seattle Archdiocese's Fulcrum Foundation and education consultancy Seton Education Partners, draws its inspiration from the best of charter-school practices.

Joseph Womac, executive director of the Fulcrum Foundation, explains that "inner-city parish schools offer great academics, with incredible track records at closing achievement gaps for poor and minority children. However, these schools receive zero public financing. Relying upon tuition and donations alone is an increasingly difficult business model for inner-city Catholic schools."

The Fulcrum Foundation work providing 500 scholarships to low-income students has helped to keep the doors open at all 73 Catholic schools in Western Washington, including college-prep schools such as Seattle Prep, Bishop Blanchet and O'Dea High School. According to Womac, although scholarships are vital, "we learned that tuition assistance alone at schools won't typically cause the enrollments to go up." Many of the Catholic schools operating under the current model are treading water.

Seton Education Partners' founder Scott Hamilton, who helped launch the hugely successful KIPP charter schools, counsels that Catholic schools need to start thinking more like businesses.

Parents, teachers, parishioners and donors are all customers and want to be served. They expect schools to deliver a high-quality education and strong religious instruction. New learning models developed by charter schools are using technology to customize lesson plans to student needs. Thus far, they have been delivering academic dividends.

The new St. Therese is modeled on Mission Dolores Academy, a K-8 Catholic school in San Francisco, where math scores jumped 16 percent and reading proficiency increased by 6 percent using customized learning software. Mission Dolores also saw per-pupil costs fall by 10 percent in one year and expects another 10-percent drop in operating costs this coming school year.

These learning platforms track student progress toward mastery, provide teachers with useful real-time data to intervene immediately when a student falls behind and tailor instruction to the student's needs. Since each student learns at his or her own pace, they see their own progress in real time as they master concepts instead of waiting for the next standardized test.

Catholic schools that are performing well often do a poor job marketing their success. Charter schools advertise their success, use current students and parents as ambassadors and ask for stakeholder feedback, something Catholic schools rarely do.

Business-minded Catholic schools also need to increase transparency. Donors need to see their money is being spent well.

Seton Partners attracted private philanthropy for St. Therese, including a $300,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Enrollment has doubled to almost 200 students in less than a year and now the school has a stable financial outlook.

Catholic schools should look to charter school best practices to sustain and turnaround Catholic schools on the brink of closure. St. Therese Catholic Academy is a bright spot for Seattle and a model for struggling Catholic schools nationwide.

Sean Kennedy is a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., and author of the recent study, "Building 21st Century Catholic Learning Communities."

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