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Hallowed Ground

from the magazine

Hallowed Ground

A venerable Catholic school in the Bronx has transformed the lives of generations of low-income, at-risk students. Autumn 2019
New York
Education

For more than 100 years, All Hallows High School in the South Bronx has been educating immigrant and lower-income boys. Early on, the students were Irish; later, they were Italian; today, they are Hispanic and black. In past generations, the school’s teachers were largely members of the Irish Christian Brothers, men pledged to lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience and to a vocation of teaching those most in need. Today, only three brothers remain at the school, and more than a third of the teachers are themselves alumni. Despite demographic changes in the neighborhood and dramatic cultural change within the Catholic Church, All Hallows maintains its traditions, practices, and aims.

What’s its secret—what holds this place together? I recently visited All Hallows to find out. I had heard great things about this old school and wanted to learn more. “Don’t try to reduce what we do to a formula or recipe,” said Brunelle Griffith, English teacher and track coach. “It’s larger than that and hard to describe.” It was a timely warning. For decades, education-policy researchers have sought to understand why some schools succeed where others fail. The best research tells us that the things that matter most in effective urban schools are hard to quantify—and even harder to replicate. Success is bound up in a shared sense of mission, reciprocity, trust, respect, and other intangibles that define strong relationships and forge social bonds. Yet, much of the policy debate around schooling still focuses on measurable inputs—spending, class sizes, teacher training, and curricular offerings. How can one measure a school’s culture, or the relationships it fosters between educators, students, and their families? And even if one could, how could those findings be translated into practice for other schools to emulate?

Prior to the growth of public charter schools over the last 20 years, many viewed Catholic schools as the model for inner-city education, since they achieved so much success with children from low-income families—the types of students that many public schools failed to educate. Some of the earliest charter schools tried to mirror Catholic school practices, but what made Catholic education effective was often lost in translation: it’s much more than strict rules. Understanding how All Hallows flourishes in the face of adversity can help us understand how to support such important schools—and how to apply some of their lessons.

All Hallows is a school that works, though many would think that it could not, given its student demographics. It serves 510 young men from Harlem and the Bronx; 85 percent come from low-income families, defined as annual income below $32,630 for a family of four, the eligibility cutoff for free school lunch under federal guidelines. Sixty percent of students come from single-parent homes; 78 percent are Hispanic, and 20 percent are black. All students applying to Catholic high schools in New York City must sit for placement exams, and All Hallows generally admits students scoring high on the Catholic high schools admission exam, but it also considers lower-scoring students by looking at grammar school grades and recommendations from principals and teachers. Its intent is to admit all students whom it believes it can help achieve success. (The school does not accept special-needs students because it is not equipped to serve them.)

All Hallows provides a traditional high school curriculum: four years of English, math, physical education, and religion; three-year sequences in history, foreign language, and science; and various electives in 12th grade. On the recommendation of their academic advisor, students may take up to five advanced-placement courses, beginning in tenth grade. In 12th grade, the first marking period of math is dedicated to SAT preparation.

Every student takes an extra course in American history throughout his four years at All Hallows, one of four New York archdiocesan high schools to partner on curriculum with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Freshmen get to improve their writing and researching skills by analyzing documents related to America’s founding and New York City history. The school coordinates guest lectures by prominent scholars, field trips to historic sites such as Gettysburg and Washington, D.C., on-site exhibitions, and other special opportunities. All Hallows has been selected as an Amazon Future Engineer (AFE) school—a partnership between Amazon and Edhesive to improve access to computer-science education in communities currently underrepresented in technology. The school will offer two AP courses in computer science, beginning next year.

By the standards of public education, All Hallows is under-resourced. It spends about $11,600 per student—less than half of what neighboring public high schools spend and about 64 percent of outlays at the city’s public charter schools. All Hallows teachers earn dramatically less than their public school counterparts. The 90-year-old school building is compact, vertical, and spartan. Its gymnasium has no bleachers for spectators, though its walls are adorned with banners commemorating past and recent glories.

Despite such constraints, the school is achieving at high levels. In recent years, 85 percent of the students entering the school in ninth grade made it through 12th grade, and almost all the 12th-graders went on to college, ranging from city and state schools to highly regarded private universities. Almost every year, a graduate or two goes on to the Ivy League or other highly selective universities.

All Hallows’ success continues despite a large institutional challenge, faced by almost all Catholic schools: the loss of a traditional talent pool for staffing. The first school established in the United States by the Irish Christian Brothers, All Hallows opened in Harlem in 1909 before moving to its current location in 1929. For much of the school’s history, the Christian Brothers made up a significant portion of the teachers. Today, two of the three remaining brothers (out of 41 staff members) are in their late fifties, while the third is in his mid-seventies. The school has made a challenging transition to lay leadership, including the establishment of a governance board that includes one sister and no brothers. This shift is the norm in U.S. Catholic schools today, where the number of religious brothers is down two-thirds from 1970 and that of religious sisters has declined even more, to just 28 percent of their earlier ranks, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The Irish Christian Brothers were formally established in 1820 by Edmund Rice, today deemed “blessed” by the Catholic Church. Neither a priest nor educated as a theologian, Rice was a prosperous businessman, having joined his uncle in the merchant trade, one of the few professions open to Catholics under the British Penal Laws in force in Ireland at that time. His life was transformed by the death of his young wife and concurrent premature delivery of a disabled daughter following a mishap with a horse-drawn carriage. In his bereavement, Rice considered entering a monastery but was persuaded instead to turn his attention to the educational needs of poor Irish boys suffering under British restrictions. This he did with vigor. Prior to founding the order, Rice started his first school for boys in Waterford, Ireland, in 1802. From their establishment, the Christian Brothers were dedicated to educating boys whom society’s elite deemed unworthy of education. After Rice’s time, many Irish fled to America, and the Christian Brothers followed them there to tend to their educational and spiritual needs, establishing the order in the U.S. in 1909. “The cultivation of an ethic of compassionate care is at the heart of an Edmund Rice education,” writes Australian academic Denis McLaughlin.

Today, the lobby of All Hallows High School has at its center the school’s Great Seal, never to be stepped upon. It features an American eagle that “represents the All Hallows Community’s commitment to the United States,” as the school website explains. Around the edge of the seal is the Latin phrase Pro Fide et Patria—“For Faith and Country.” A wreath of palm surrounding the seal “refers to victory and achievement in both athletics and scholastics. The circle surrounding the eagle is a reminder of our continuing faith and the four corners of the seal are represented by the Gaelic symbol for the continuation of life.”

With a vision embodied in the deeply held religious faith to love what God loves and an ethic of compassionate care, the school’s tenets embody a critical challenge to oppression. The American eagle image demonstrates the commitment that the brothers and their immigrant students made to their new nation. The school’s mission statement is straightforward: “A school for young men in the heritage of Blessed Edmund Rice that develops students: who are prepared to realize their fullest potential; who can effect positive change in society; who possess a lifelong desire to learn. We do this by offering a challenging, structured curriculum.”

“Beyond their financial contributions, alumni serve as mentors, inside and outside school, to current students.”

School president Ron Schutté (class of 1974) described the enduring mission of the school this way: “Our school was founded to serve the largely Irish, and later some Italian, marginalized sons of immigrants. It’s the same today: the students’ names are different from ours, and they come from different places, but they live in the same apartments that we once lived in and they come to us with the same issues that we faced.” Schutté sees the school’s work as rooted in the Gospels and driven by an exhortation to “discipline, love, and competition.” Asked to explain, he said, “The success of All Hallows goes beyond providing a comprehensive academic program that prepares students for college. All Hallows is a Catholic school. Catholic schools are communities of faith. Through the teachings of the Gospels, our students develop strong character and a moral compass that will guide them for the rest of their lives. . . . A very structured, disciplined, and safe environment coupled with a positive support system allows the student to achieve success both academically and socially. Love and respect go hand in hand to create a community that can challenge and overcome the unholy trinity of poverty, racism, and academic failure.” Schutté is not unique as a graduate of the school on staff; more than a third of the staff are alums, from across generations. Four of the teaching alumni graduated in the 1960s or 1970s. The remaining 12, all nonwhite, graduated after 1980.

Students are guided by a motto—learn, earn, and return—first coined by late alumnus Tom Burke, class of 1964. Burke led an effort to reengage the alumni in the mid-1980s when enrollment had diminished to a point that threatened closure. This was the beginning of the school’s alumni-giving campaign. Beyond their financial contributions, alumni serve as mentors, inside and outside school, to current students. The two young men who showed me around the school—Bernie Ramirez and Thomas Rivera-Patterson—are also graduates. Rivera-Patterson was student body president at All Hallows and went on to Skidmore upon graduation. The leafy Skidmore campus is a different place from the South Bronx; a young man would have to be quite sure of himself or well prepared to make the transition. In Rivera-Patterson’s third year at Skidmore, the local newspaper interviewed him and asked, “Who has been the most inspirational to you?” He replied, “The first is Sean Sullivan, the principal of my high school.”

Those I spoke with described multiple support structures for students as they adjust to the school’s academic and social demands. In addition to the alumni mentoring, the Big Brother program pairs seniors with freshmen. The school’s 34 teachers (as well as two vice principals who also teach) get support from five counselors, who work to keep students on pace toward graduation and guide their search for colleges and scholarship opportunities. The school also designates a staff member as director of campus ministry.

All Hallows students don’t just get support; they provide it to others. All students must take part in the Christian Service Program by volunteering at local nonprofits—churches, hospitals, nursing homes, youth centers, soup kitchens, shelters, or food pantries. Freshmen must provide ten hours per year of service; sophomores, 20 hours; juniors, 30 hours; and seniors, 40 hours. Students who double the minimum service requirements get extra academic credit.

In a tradition that dates to Rice’s original Irish schools, All Hallows imposes no religious screen for students seeking admission. The school asks only that non-Catholic and non-Christian students respect its traditions. Liturgies are celebrated at various points in the year, and prayer is part of the religious program. “We don’t evangelize,” school administrators told me, “but last month, 22 students received their first sacraments at the school.” At times, the decision to enter formally the life of the Church comes about from being surrounded by others practicing their faith, rather than as the result of proselytization. Church people call the practice of being a good example for others “practicing Christian witness.”

All Hallows has achieved some financial equilibrium, but challenges remain. Seventy-five percent of students receive scholarship assistance from the Inner City Scholarship Fund, the Student Sponsor Partnership, or from alumni contributions. The school makes every effort to see that all its students complete four years and graduate, even when the family cannot meet its tuition obligations. Thus, the mantra of “learn, earn, and return” reminds current students to support those who will come after them, just as they were helped by those who preceded them.

Even with scholarships, the annual fund-raising challenge is daunting. With a per-pupil expenditure of $11,600 and tuition currently set at $6,600, the school must raise $5,000 per student. That’s more than $2.5 million annually.

All Hallows is also dealing with dramatic decreases in the number of students completing Catholic elementary school, the historical feeder schools for Catholic high schools. Today, almost half of All Hallows’ entering ninth-graders come from Department of Education or charter schools. These students must adjust to the unique culture of Catholic schools; each year, a handful of ninth-graders decide that the cultural shift is too much, and they transfer to district or charter high schools.

Slightly more than half of All Hallows graduates earn college degrees within six years of entering. The nationwide six-year completion rate is 56.9 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While below the national average, All Hallows outperforms the national statistics for Hispanic (48.6 percent) and black (40.2 percent) students. And to improve these outcomes, All Hallows is hiring a counselor to work with alumni to provide support for those struggling to complete their college degree.

The lesson of All Hallows is that effective and liberating education comes from hard day-to-day work, year after year. The task is not for the faint of heart. Each year brings a new freshman class and the challenge to re-create the relationships of trust and respect that support learning. The adults who do this work must believe deeply in it to succeed. The school’s traditions, and their grounding in faith, sustain that belief. The challenges can be great, but the work can be done because it has been done by others in the past. Love what God loves, the school teaches, as those who came before you did.

By no means, of course, is religious faith the only path to educational success—the best public schools show a similar dedication and effort—but it requires belief in something both workable and larger than oneself. Some public schools, tied to the political winds and dominant culture of today, can easily conceive of specific programs to respond to the needs of every conceivable student group—all in pursuit of equal outcomes. At All Hallows, students are viewed as fundamentally equal, regardless of their backgrounds or characteristics, so there is no need to place them on a hierarchy of oppression or victimization. The school focuses on the commonality of its students—past, present, and future. It offers no virtue-signaling list of initiatives; instead, it maintains that it will provide students with a “challenging, structured curriculum.” In the All Hallows vision, all students are children of God, deserving of the best education possible. The school has no need of the latest theories of social justice—its own enduring approach to social justice has moved mountains for more than a century.

In pursuing their private mission, schools like All Hallows provide an invaluable service to their communities. Their success predates the most recent era of public school reform, now fading in many quarters. These religious schools continue to operate, thanks to the generosity of alumni, civic-minded individuals, and targeted scholarship programs. Donors and supporters are doing what states have failed to do: sustain schools that provide real educational opportunity to disadvantaged students.

It’s not too late for New York’s political leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the students of the South Bronx, Harlem, and other communities, in the form of a tax credit for contributions to scholarship funds that support schools like All Hallows. This would not be a diversion of public education funds but rather, a targeted investment in institutions providing a great public benefit.

All Hallows enrolls more than 500 young men from Harlem and the Bronx, most from low-income families. (COURTESY OF ALL HALLOWS HIGH SCHOOL)

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