The Magazine

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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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.