Educating the Poor, But Getting No Help

Here’s a bit of news that every New Yorker ought to welcome: The Catholic school system in the five boroughs is not, in fact, dying. While it is about to undergo a wrenching realignment, the archdioceses of New York and Brooklyn will continue to educate tens of thousands of city children-many of them poor and non-Catholic-in hundreds of schools.

Yes, that’s good news for anybody concerned about the plight of poor inner-city kids. Of course, whether this message will be welcomed in certain ZIP codes remains to be seen.

Recent news that 23 Catholic schools in the city-22 in Brooklyn and Queens and one in Manhattan-will close in June inspired a round of last-hurrah commentary that seemed better suited for an obituary than a retrenchment. But here’s another set of statistics: The New York Archdiocese, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and several upstate counties, operates 210 elementary schools (not counting the six slated to close) and 16 high schools that serve 100,000 students, 40,000 of them in the city. And there will be 125 Catholic schools left in Brooklyn and Queens.

“There’s this perception that the Catholic schools are a dying system, but there still are a lot of strong schools, and we’re still educating thousands of children,” said Mary-Ann Perry, president of the Federation of Catholic School Teachers. “It upsets me that people don’t realize this.”

Regrettably, there are a good many things people don’t realize about Catholic schools, starting with the role they play here and in other urban areas as an alternative to poor-performing public schools. The Catholic school system was founded more than a century and a half ago as an expression of religious separatism in Protestant-dominated America. Today, urban Catholic schools are a gateway for non-Catholics striving for the economic mainstream.

Far too often, these institutions are referred to as “parochial schools”-but there is nothing parochial about the Catholic schools I’ve visited and which my children attend. Suffice to say that they are more racially, culturally and economically diverse than most private schools in Manhattan-and isn’t that what we’re striving for these days? If you’re looking for a good “parochial school,” you should start and finish with some of the more famous private institutions on this island.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a ceremony at the Sacred Heart School in the Vailsburg section of Newark. Eighty percent of the students come from families with incomes below the federal poverty line. Nearly all of the 500 children are non-Catholic. Their parents struggle to pay the tuition because they find the public schools unacceptable, and private school is well beyond their means. Most of the school’s eighth-graders have been accepted into Catholic high schools, which gives them a head start towards college. This Catholic school, and others like it, are small anti-poverty programs that succeed despite the indifference of government.

“These schools are a haven for kids in the inner city,” said John Turchiano, a labor organizer who does some consulting work for Ms. Perry’s union. He attended Catholic elementary school, high school and Fordham University, and has “nothing but good memories of Catholic school in the 1960′s and 70′s.” This may come as a surprise to those who have been led to believe that these institutions were presided over by angry nuns and predatory priests, rather than by unbelievably dedicated educators. “Were my teachers strict? Yes,” he said. “Were they sadistic? No. That’s ridiculous.” That’s a countercultural argument if ever there was one.

Mr. Turchiano believes that Cardinal Edward Egan and other Catholic clerics could and should do a better job reaching out to people like him, and to the city at large. “People just don’t know what’s going on in these schools,” he said. “If you asked most people, would they know that Catholic schools are educating poor children who, for the most part, are not Catholic? I don’t think people understand how important these schools are, educationally and socially. They’ve changed lives.”

And they will continue to do so, though in smaller numbers. Cardinal Egan and other Catholic bishops in the New York area probably are not finished cutting and consolidating. Across the Hudson River in Newark, there may yet be a round of closings that will make New York’s seem timid.

Still, people like Mr. Turchiano believe that a more aggressive outreach to successful Catholic school students might ward off some of the closings and keep more children in these oases of safety and learning. “It should be part of the church’s social function-to offer these inner-city kids an education,” he said.

Mr. Turchiano believes that all of the threatened schools could remain open with proper outreach. That’s an ambitious and probably unattainable goal. But New Yorkers who believe that Catholic schools ought to fade away, the relic of another era, are not only mistaken but misguided.