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Originally published Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 9:56 PM

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Catholic schools update to compete with charter schools

A number of Catholic schools in Western Washington are embracing educational innovations in an attempt to update their curriculum and to better compete with the charter schools that will open here in the next few years.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Starting next fall, St. Paul School in South Seattle will become the second Catholic school in Seattle to make online learning a staple of the school day.

Across town in Southwest Seattle, Holy Family School is working toward establishing a dual-language program, similar to ones that have been very popular at a number of Seattle’s public schools.

Other Catholic schools may soon make similarly big changes in the way they educate students, partly to update their curriculum, but also to position themselves to compete when the first charter schools arrive in Washington state in the next few years.

“These are things we wanted to do anyway. But the arrival of charter schools gives it more urgency and maybe allows us to press the issue harder,” said Sue Mecham, interim executive director at the Fulcrum Foundation, an organization that raises scholarship money and provides assistance to struggling Catholic schools.

The Seattle Archdiocese, which oversees 74 schools with 21,000 students across Western Washington, is promoting innovation as part of a new strategic plan that it will complete this year. The goals include strengthening Catholic education and spreading the word about what Catholic schools have to offer.

In the view of the archdiocese, parents need to understand that Catholic schools aren’t just charter schools with tuition, but proven schools with long histories.

“We’ve been here, delivering Catholic education, before Washington was a state,” said the Rev. Stephen Rowan, the system’s superintendent. “The challenge will be to get our stories out in such a way that parents at least realize that we are a competitive choice for them.”

The archdiocese has reason to worry about its schools’ future. Nationally, enrollment in Catholic schools has declined significantly over the past decade. That’s attributed in part to the rise of charter schools, which are public schools that are privately run and operate independently of their local school districts.

Some researchers say that Catholic schools in low-income, urban neighborhoods have lost the most ground to charters because the charters that have opened around them often have a similar focus on character as well as academics.

In this state, Catholic school enrollment has stayed relatively steady, with a drop of just 170 students in Western Washington last year. The Seattle Archdiocese has not closed a school in more than 10 years.

Yet even now, before charter schools arrive, some of Washington’s urban Catholic schools are in trouble. In Tacoma, for example, Holy Rosary was on the verge of closing before it started a new language-immersion program last fall, which helped raise enrollment there.

St. Therese Academy was the first Catholic school in Seattle to plunge into a new way of doing business. Like St. Paul, it decided to pursue what’s called blended learning, which means students spend part of the school day with their teachers and part using educational-software programs that electronically track their progress and let them proceed at their own pace.

At some schools, blended learning means students go to large computer labs. But at St. Therese — and soon, at St. Paul — the laptops are in the classroom, and students take turns using them.

The approach is experimental. There are some promising examples of blended learning across the country, but it is new enough that there isn’t a strong base of research that proves its effectiveness. Rowan said the Seattle Archdiocese will closely monitor all the innovations, and then decide whether to promote them to other Catholic schools.

In addition to blended learning and language-immersion programs, some Catholic schools in Western Washington are looking at becoming STEM schools, with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. The one that’s the furthest along is Visitation School, also in Tacoma.

The changes cost money, at least at first. St. Therese got its program going through a partnership with Seton Education Partners in New York, which included a $300,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To start the second blended-learning program, at St. Paul’s, the Fulcrum Foundation has raised $300,000, with about $200,000 coming from a half-dozen individual donors.

Part of that money will go to the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame, which is helping the school’s principal and teachers put the new program into place.

The hope is that St. Paul and St. Therese will become self-sufficient in a few years, and no longer require subsidies from their parishes or elsewhere.

At St. Paul’s, Principal Betsy Kromer said she’s excited about blending learning because she thinks it will help teachers tailor instruction to each student and will increase the amount of time teachers can work with students in small groups.

“If we’re individualizing for every student ... I don’t know how that can be a bad thing,” she said.

She also hopes it will help to increase the school’s enrollment, which this year stands at 134 students, the lowest in recent memory.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @LShawST

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