Plan to ‘continue education with a Catholic ethos’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, November 6, 2011

Leaders at Maria High School and the Catalyst Charter School Network hope to find out soon whether their application to open a K-12 co-ed charter school on Maria’s campus will be successful.

The application, which was filed in July, has to be approved by the Chicago Board of Education meeting. Its success would mean the closure of the all-girl’s Catholic high school in the spring of 2013.

If the charter is turned down, the school will have to evaluate its options, said Wendy Lynn, Maria’s president.

Lynn said the plan evolved from a think tank trying to come up with a financially viable way to provide quality education in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. The school now has about 217 students and annual tuition of $7,550 a year.

“We have a plan that will hopefully allow us to continue education with a Catholic ethos,” Lynn said.

That “Catholic ethos” would come from the leadership of Catalyst network, which was founded by the Christian Brothers in 2006 as a way to provide quality, valuesbased education to children in two impoverished areas of Chicago. The schools are not religious, but do teach children values such as respect and compassion.

“It’s like that 1970s hymn, ‘They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,’” Lynn said. “They’ll know we are Catholics by the way we love the students.”

The plan calls for a kindergarten- ninth grade coed charter school called Catalyst-Maria to take over part of the high school building next year while Maria continues to operate a 10th-12th grade high school for girls.

In the fall of 2013, Catalyst- Maria would begin operating as a coed kindergarten-12th grade school and Maria High School would be closed.

The Sisters of St. Casimir, Maria’s sponsors, are in discussions about how to remain involved with Catalyst, perhaps by having someone serve on the Catalyst board or having the one sister still teaching at Maria apply for a teaching job at Catalyst-Maria.

The sisters also are discussing how to create a Catholic religious education resource center, perhaps in their convent next door to the school, for students who want to continue to learn about the faith.

Springfield Dominican Sister M. Paul McCaughey, the archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools, said she was saddened by the news that the Sisters of St. Casimir would no longer be able to operate Maria, which this year has 217 students, and hopefully that they will try to continue the mission of Catholic education in some form in Marquette Park.

She also said Catalyst was a good choice of a partner.

“If this had to happen, Catalyst, because of their being steeped already in a religious tradition, is certainly the best alternative that’s currently out there,” Sister Paul said, referring to the De La Salle Christian Brothers operating two Nativity/San Miguel schools in Chicago. The brothers started Catalyst as a way of serving more children with the help of public funding that charter schools receive.

The Maria design team was especially encouraged by what they saw when they visited Catalyst’s Circle Rock Campus in Austin.

“That was a game-changer for the design team,” she said. “We saw the same kind of discipline and structure we would expect in a Catholic school. Mutual respect is one of the goals of their organization and it’s evident.”

Lynn said the Sisters of St. Casimir began evaluating their options after enrollment declined steadily from the mid-1990s to now.

The area directly to the east of the school has a median family income of under $25,000 a year, and the area immediately around the school has a median family income of under $50,000 a year.

While Maria’s tuition is about 25 percent lower than that of other Catholic high schools, it’s still “an enormous burden for our families,” Lynn said.

The school has not had success attracting students from outside its area, as the only close bus transportation comes from the north, and some people perceive the neighborhood as unsafe for young girls to be traversing on their own.