BALTIMORE – At first glance, visitors to Tunbridge Public Charter School in Baltimore might confuse it with a Catholic school.
The outside of the building is adorned with stained glass windows, stone archways and a cornerstone inlaid with a cross.
But on the inside, the school looks like many other public schools.
“All of the religious materials and figures have been removed from the classroom,” said Lydia Lemon, the school’s principal. “When we brought students into the school, we made sure to explain that this was a public school even though it’s next to a Catholic Church,” she said.
Tunbridge is located on the parish grounds of St. Mary’s of the Assumption Catholic Church, one of a number of public schools that have taken over space that once housed a Catholic school in Baltimore.
As the Archdiocese of Baltimore confronts tough decisions on school consolidations and closures — tied to declines in student enrollment — 20 charter schools, early childhood development programs, nonprofits and private schools have moved into the once-sacred buildings.
The transformations represent a sizable share of the 70 Catholic schools currently in operation in the Baltimore archdiocese.
Almost half of the sites – nine schools – are being used as public charter schools or for head start programs for early childhood development. Charters are the single largest occupant of former Catholic schools, making up a quarter of all leases and sales.
Charter schools, like Tunbridge, offer parents and students greater school choice and free tuition, a benefit for families facing tough economic decisions, said J. Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer of Baltimore City Public Schools.
Tunbridge expects a competitive pool of 300 applicants for approximately 40 spots in next year’s class. To make room, the school is expanding by renovating the former church convent.
“By bringing charters in and by creating transformed city schools, we are trying to put identical educational opportunities in every segment of Baltimore,” Scroggins said.
But church leaders worry that charters compete directly with Catholic schools for student enrollment, especially for non-religious families attending the schools as an alternative to public education.
Last year, student enrollment dropped by 4.3 percent in the archdiocese, which followed a 9 percent drop the year before, said archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine.
“Schools stay open because parents want their children to receive an excellent education. We see families overcome difficulties to send their children to our schools because they believe it’s important,” Cardinal-designate Edwin O’Brien said.
During a visit to St. Michael’s the Archangel School Tuesday, located just outside the city in Overlea, O’Brien stressed the importance of Catholic education in forming student character.
In Baltimore, Catholic schools play a historic role. The city was the first archdiocese in the United States, and a number of schools have been rooted in Baltimore neighborhoods for more than 100 years.
But at St. Michael’s, where student enrollment is down and nuns no longer serve as teachers, the school will consolidate from two buildings to one for the first time in its history.
“It’s an issue of economic climate, but people are also having fewer children, and there are more schools to compete with,” said the school principal Patricia Kelly.
Because remaining Catholic schools face competition from charters, the archdiocese has delayed allowing charter schools to move into some of their buildings.
In March 2011, church leaders delayed an application request by a local charter school, Baltimore International Academy, to move to St. Anthony’s of Padua because of concerns that the charter would affect enrollment at other nearby Catholic schools.
“We look at the population that the school will be serving, the proximity to other schools and considerations that may interfere with our schools’ viability,” said Barbara McGraw Edmondson, superintendent of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools.
Edmondson said she did not know when the archdiocese would make a final decision on St. Anthony’s.
“We think about both the long-term and temporary needs. We consider all the factors and decide on how to use the property when it’s the right time,” she said.
The archdiocese does not track the total revenue made by facility sales and leases within the archdiocese because a majority of funds go directly to local parishes.
Charters are not the only organizations moving into buildings that once housed Catholic schools.
When Mount Washington Elementary School in Baltimore, which is not a charter school, made an offer for space at Shrine of the Sacred Heart, the community made a hard sell for the archdiocese to accept the public school’s application even though the school was not the highest paying bidder, Caine said.
The archdiocese accepted the offer.
In other instances, the archdiocese has leased or sold buildings to programs funded by the federal government’s Head Start program and to private schools and nonprofits.
While charters may be seen as a threat, Lemon said she does not think that’s the case at Tunbridge. Charter school leaders worked with parishioners to host meetings while the school was being renovated in 2009 and they still continue to interact with the parish.
“We’ve had a very positive experience with the parish,” Lemon said. “I think we work together and both serve the community.”