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Motivation High

Schools that work need a system that sustains them.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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The Street Stops Here

A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem

by Patrick J. McCloskey

California, 456 pp., $27.50

During a campaign stop in Milwaukee, site of the largest publicly financed voucher program in America, then-Senator Barack Obama was asked to comment on the city's school reform program. He expressed skepticism about vouchers, but seemed to leave the door open: "You do what works for the kids," he told editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As news of this apparent willingness to buck the teachers' unions made headlines, the campaign issued a quick clarification: Barack Obama "has always been a critic of vouchers."

If President Obama still wants to know "what works for kids," particularly students on the social margins, he should pick up The Street Stops Here. This compelling portrait of the daily "miracles" performed in Roman Catholic institutions like Harlem's Rice High School isn't designed to make the case for vouchers. (Patrick J. McCloskey favors privately funded tuition subsidies that don't carry the risks associated with government intrusion, and thus protect the unique character of church schools.) No, the author is concerned with a less contentious agenda: He wants to renew our appreciation for the methods, achievements, and requirements of inner-city Catholic schools that might face extinction if they don't stabilize their finances.

A Canadian journalist who conducted research for the book while attending the Columbia School of Journalism, McCloskey asks readers to discard preconceived notions about the "Catholic model"--a top-down, teacher-directed, virtue-based approach that contradicts the received wisdom of progressive education. He even suggests that urban public schools might incorporate some of the practices of Catholic schools. His moving account of the daily grind at one such institution should easily convince readers that Catholic schools for the poor deserve and need support.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York operates 55 secondary schools. No one would mistake Rice High School for boys, founded by the Congregation of Christian Brothers in 1938, as the crown jewel of the system. Short on funds, staff, and occasionally even students, the school provides a case study of the crisis besetting inner-city Catholic education.

Critics assert that such schools are "elitist institutions," and that higher test scores and graduation rates are achieved by "skimming" the best students from the public system. Such claims, however, do not describe the status quo at Rice. When the author arrives for the start of the school year, he encounters an institution organized around an unstated but radically pragmatic mission: Rice seeks to move students from the underclass into the working class.

The student body includes boys from stable dual-income and single-parent families. But Rice also enrolls homeless teenagers, former gang members, and students with parents dying of AIDS or battling addiction. Private and corporate donors help out the most needy, covering all or most of the annual $5,550 tuition. For some students, a Rice diploma is the only option: "They all dead or in jail," says one boy of friends who began their high school careers in the public system.

Most freshmen begin Rice with academic deficits and nonexistent work habits; but contrary to their experience in middle school, they learn that disruptive behavior and unfinished assignments provoke immediate consequences. Few are ready, but 99 percent of Rice seniors get into college. McCloskey believes this is accomplished through a hopeful, ordered, and unifying religious ethos that makes the school community "an attractive alternative to street culture."

Another key difference with public schools is that the church places enormous authority (and accountability) in the hands of principals. The late Orlando Gober, the archdiocese's first African-American principal, led Rice like a latter-day Charlemagne. On a given day, he played the roles of visionary, disciplinarian, teacher, fundraiser, and father figure. Through extraordinary personal commitment, he kept this small, countercultural oasis functioning.

Initially, Gober appears an unlikely hero. The students idealize celebrity athletes and gangsta rappers; the principal was an overweight diabetic who initiated a campaign to eliminate the "n-word" from student speech. But teenaged boys raised by single mothers yearn for paternal approbation, and many visited Gober's office to sort out their troubles. As students dropped their guard, the principal confronted the "father wounds" inflicted by absent men who rarely surfaced in their sons' lives. Yet Gober disdained self-pity as a "trap." When a homeless student complained about doing homework, Gober reminded him that a college scholarship, the ultimate solution to his predicament, requires even more concerted effort.

"You are male by birth, but men by choice" is one favorite aphorism that Gober repeated at assemblies. His impromptu sermons and classroom discussions were inspired by Christian teaching, which affirms the intrinsic dignity of each person and guides the inculcation of virtue. The faculty's determined efforts to help students find their place in the world recall 19th century New York, when local churches began to open schools for impoverished Irish immigrants, seeking to curb an epidemic of homelessness, alcoholism, and illegitimacy. The parochial system evolved into a powerful tool of social engineering, and aided subsequent waves of Catholic immigrants.

For much of the 20th century, the steady supply of educated priests, nuns, and brothers established a financially competitive alternative to the public system. The religious teaching orders lived in common and made minimal financial demands, keeping tuitions low. The status quo remained intact until the 1970s, when religious orders lost members in droves and church schools were forced to raise tuitions to cover salaries for lay faculty. Meanwhile, demographic changes in urban neighborhoods reduced the pool of Catholic students.

Rice High School proves that Catholic schools can still change lives. But the church has yet to adopt an economic model that will keep tuitions affordable. About a hundred Catholic schools close annually, the survivors depend on a patchwork system of contributions from parents, wealthy Catholics, foundations, and local corporations. (Twenty percent of Rice students receive full tuition from Student Sponsor Partners, the nation's first privately funded voucher initiative, which turns away thousands of applicants.) And although Rice is still open for business, McCloskey describes its status as fragile--a "lingering presence" in Harlem.

The Street Stops Here calls on Roman Catholic leaders, education reform groups, and large philanthropic institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to coordinate a systemwide rescue/reinvention that would protect the legacy of Rice High School, and similar institutions, for generations to come. As Obama said, "You do what works for the kids."

Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.