White House summit on faith-based schools
The White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools included several panel discussions and an address by President George W. Bush, who told the group that faith-based schools in America's cities are "a critical national asset."
WASHINGTON (CNS) - Educators, school lobbyists and business and government representatives gathered at a White House summit April 24 to examine ways to reverse the trend of faith-based schools being closed in U.S. cities.
Although the term "faith-based schools" was used throughout the day and representatives from a variety of religious schools were present, the majority of attendees represented Catholic schools, and many of the presentations focused on the benefit these schools provide, the reality of their closing and steps already taken to keep them open.
The White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools included several panel discussions and an address by President George W. Bush, who told the group of about 250 participants at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington that faith-based schools in America's cities are "a critical national asset."
"We have an interest in the health of these institutions," the president said, noting that he hoped the summit would highlight the problem and let people know "it's in the country's interest" to help these schools stay open.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association, enrollment in Catholic elementary schools has dropped 15 percent nationwide since 2001-02, and more than 212 U.S. Catholic schools were closed or consolidated during the 2006-07 school year. White House officials noted that from 2000 to 2006, nearly 1,200 inner-city faith-based schools closed, displacing about 425,000 students.
In his half-hour address, the president outlined ways the federal and local governments could help faith-based schools and also stressed the need for community and business support.
He mentioned a program that he proposed in his State of the Union address in January that would provide $300 million in scholarships to "children trapped in failing public schools."
Bush said the program, called Pell Grants for Kids, would be similar to grants offered to college students. He stressed the importance of continuing the federally-funded school choice program in Washington, which requires reauthorization by Congress in 2009. The president also called attention to tax credits, particularly Pennsylvania's Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a program in which businesses can contribute to school scholarship programs for low-income students.
The president also highlighted innovative Catholic school programs already in place, such as Cristo Rey schools, which provide a work-study program where high school students help pay their tuition; Jubilee Schools in Memphis, Tenn., where eight Catholic schools that had been closed have recently reopened; and the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, known as ACE, which places college graduates as volunteer teachers in Catholic schools.
At panel discussions later in the day, representatives from these programs said they were glad to get recognition and further explained the work their programs have done.
When asked by a moderator how they would explain their success, Mary McDonald, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Memphis Diocese, said donors came forward to help Catholic schools in Memphis because they remembered what Catholic schools had done years ago to help children in cities and they "want them to do it again."
B.J. Cassin, founder and chairman of the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, a major supporter of Cristo Rey schools, noted that there is "a reservoir of people" who are willing and "ready to invest" in schools that help students in inner cities.
"Every school has a story behind it," he said of the 19 schools that are currently part of the Cristo Rey Network, reemphasizing the "wellspring of people" supporting the endeavor.
While some focused on the need to tap into other funds either through businesses or private philanthropists, Holy Cross Father Timothy Scully, founder of Notre Dame's ACE program, likened the work of finding creative alternatives to keep Catholic schools open to a spiritual quest.
"The Holy Spirit will not be thwarted," he said to applause. "People will always be hungry for God."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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