We almost lost Harlem’s Rice High School a few years ago. And what a defeat that would have been for all New Yorkers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. For the past three decades, Rice has rescued at-risk African-American boys and turned them into responsible men who go on to college and then give back to the community. Yet despite this academic success, Rice almost succumbed to the demographic changes and financial pressures that have led to the closing of thousands of excellent inner-city Catholic schools and needlessly deepened the nation’s urban-education crisis.

It’s hard to exaggerate the challenge that Rice and similar schools voluntarily take on. Survey after survey shows that young black males lead the nation in homicides, both as victims and perpetrators; have the highest rates of unemployment and incarceration; and lag behind every other racial, ethnic, and gender subgroup in
academic achievement. That Rice High School accomplishes so much with its current student population transmits the hopeful message that the black-white academic achievement gap can narrow—and that we might, at last, overcome America’s lingering race problem.

Located in a 110-year-old former YMCA building on the corner of 124th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, Rice remained faithful to Harlem during the community’s near-disintegration in the seventies and eighties. When working-class Italian and Irish Catholic families stopped sending their sons to Rice and left the city, the Christian Brothers teaching order, which had founded the school, decided not to leave with them. Instead, Rice’s doors stayed open, more tuition scholarships somehow turned up, and poor minority kids (most of them non-Catholic) from the surrounding community and the South Bronx filled the seats. Rice has the highest proportion of black students—over 70 percent—of any Catholic high school in the city.

Rice advertises itself now as “Historic Harlem’s Catholic College Prep School for Young Men.” In fact, until a few years ago it was the only high school, public or private, in central Harlem. Recently, Harlem congressman Charles Rangel visited Rice and told a student assembly: “When I was growing up, Rice was a school for white people. Everything that was white left Harlem, except for Rice School. That’s a tribute to the Brothers, who could have walked away.”

Today, Harlem is experiencing what many
are calling a “second Renaissance,” though it’s more economic than cultural. Walk the streets surrounding the battered old Rice building and
you can almost see the money pouring into the neighborhood—sleek new storefronts sprouting along 125th Street, plus condo developments and renovated brownstones with price tags starting at seven figures. But now it’s Rice that is counting its pennies, uncertain whether angels will keep showing up every September to cover the $300,000 operating deficit.

Two years ago, the school was on life support. Enrollment had plummeted from 400 students in 1999 to a bankruptcy-threatening low of 265. Rice’s legendary principal of many years, black lay educator Orlando Gober, had passed away after working doggedly at the school while suffering from severe diabetes. His replacement didn’t seem up to the current job description for an inner-city Catholic high school principal, who must be both an inspirational educational leader and an effective collector of alms.

The regional council of the Christian Brothers convened to review Rice’s dire state. No one would have faulted the Brothers for acknowledging the bad news in the balance sheets and shutting the school down. The Catholic school closings that have become almost commonplace in inner-city communities across the country often result from less daunting economic circumstances.

But the order felt determined not to abandon Harlem—to find some way to keep the school going. Rice was special to the Christian Brothers, not least because it was approaching its 100th birthday and took its name from Edmund Rice, an eighteenth-century philanthropist who founded the order and dedicated his life to educating the Irish poor. Keeping Rice open fulfilled the Christian Brothers’ Catholic understanding of social justice. As Catholic school leaders from New York to Milwaukee have told me: “We don’t educate the poor because they are Catholic. We educate them because we are Catholic.”

Starting with renowned sociologist James Coleman’s 1982 report, studies galore have shown that Catholic schools do a better job of educating inner-city poor and minority children than do public schools with comparable student populations. Some scholars explain
this “Catholic school advantage” by pointing
to the sense of spiritual mission that pervades the schools. Others emphasize that Catholic schools focus their efforts, laser-like, on a no-frills, core academic curriculum, reinforce
the teachers’ classroom authority, and resist pernicious progressive-education fads, such as whole-language reading instruction.

Another explanation for the Catholic school advantage—perhaps the most powerful one—is school
discipline. Above the doors leading to Rice’s lobby through which all its students pass every morning, a plaque admonishes: “The ‘Street’ ENDS here!” The front-door message is Rice High School’s alternative to the metal detectors in many of our public high schools. It’s there thanks to Rice’s Head of School, 61-year-old Brother John Walderman, a lifelong Christian Brothers educator whom the order picked to save Rice. Walderman seems to spend all his waking hours at this holy mission; he even lives in the school, sleeping in one of the order’s residential units on the third floor. In his two years at Rice’s helm, Walderman has managed to stop the hemorrhaging, though the school’s condition is still precarious.

Walderman views the plaque’s “countercultural message” as a commandment, one that needs strict enforcement for the school to fulfill its educational mission. At Rice, students must cast off the destructive street culture that undermines academic achievement for inner-city black youths and that marches unimpeded through the front doors of most urban public schools. Right at the outset, Walderman informs entering freshmen that they’re in for a four-year grind of hard work and personal discipline, with no excuses accepted and no special dispensations given. Like boot-camp drill sergeants, Walderman and his aides relentlessly enforce the Rice ethos, day in, day out. There’s a strict dress code; lateness and absences aren’t tolerated; homework must come in on time. Violations trigger immediate consequences, such as detention or phone calls to parents. Disruptive classroom behavior, disrespect
toward teachers, and violence against fellow
students lead to suspensions, at a minimum. Expulsion is a final resort.

The cultural transformation that takes
place at the school is “symbolized when Rice students swipe their do-rags from their heads as they step into the building,” notes Patrick McCloskey, author of a moving book about Rice, forthcoming from the University of California Press. “The ritual is almost sacramental,” he writes. “The young men lose their street swagger and transform into students not much different than their peers at suburban, predominantly white Catholic schools.”

The high schools that most blacks in New York City attend may simply lack the will to keep the “street” out. But political correctness and “rights” restrictions imposed by the civil-liberties lobby and the courts get in the way of discipline, too. That’s why, despite all the metal detectors and cops on hand, bedlam reigns at many urban public schools. The chaos alone is a sufficient explanation for the dismal four-year graduation rate for black males in such schools, which rarely tops 30 percent. A public high school principal who lifts the minority graduation rate above 50 percent will win accolades for his genius. If Rice’s graduation rate ever dipped much beneath 90 percent, the school would consider itself a failure.

Still, Walderman starts each September with a pretty weak hand. Most of the entering ninth-graders are at least a year behind in reading and math. But he can’t afford to be choosy: families aren’t exactly beating down the doors to get their children into Rice, despite its reputation. And many of the students Rice does attract are dreaming of playing big-time high school basketball. Small as it is, Rice amazingly keeps producing winning teams and sending players to strong college programs; three Rice graduates have made it to the NBA.

The Rice counterculture was palpable when I visited on a cold day in February. No guards or metal detectors policed the school’s entrance. The boys filed through the doors into the lobby, doffed their black down coats and hooded sweatshirts, and suddenly transformed into sharply dressed Rice men, with pressed slacks, oxford shirts, neckties, and green school vests, sometimes adorned with colorful pins signifying the school’s numerous academic awards. When I went unannounced into classrooms, I encountered teachers standing at the front of the class and students working quietly at individual desks, aligned in straight rows. (This method of direct, teacher-centered instruction is, of course, anathema to progressive educators, but it surely works.) In the empty hallways, I could hear a pin drop: no teachers or other adults patrolled, and no students loitered.

It was Black History Month, and Walderman used the occasion to give the juniors an inspirational lecture about the challenges that they would confront in the next year and a half, as they headed into the college admissions process and toward graduation. Eighty or so black 17-year-olds moved into the school’s cafeteria (which doubles as an auditorium) and arranged themselves quietly in rows facing Walderman at the lectern. His presentation brought to mind a pregame pep talk that Notre Dame football coaching legend Knute Rockne might have
given to his team, but it also evoked the black civil rights struggle. “You are the rising seniors,” he boomed, “next in line to carry on the tradition.” Walderman implored the juniors not to let up—to pass the Regents exams in the five subjects that the state requires for graduating public school students and that Rice has voluntarily adopted as its own minimum standard. “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary,” Walderman continued. “But some of you are still afraid of being successful. So keep telling yourself that you did not come here not to be the best.” Then Walderman reminded the students about where they came from, and why it mattered: “This is Black History Month, but for you guys it is Black History Life. When you succeed here you are putting another nail in the coffin of racism.”

After meeting with the juniors, Walderman sat down with me, noting that his Irish Catholic ancestors “were a mistreated minority in their own country. The highest form of mistreatment would be not to let these kids be successful.” He handed me the program from last June’s graduation ceremony at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I counted 87 graduates, all but three listing next to their names the colleges that they would attend in the fall. Many Catholic high schools don’t keep accurate graduation statistics, because the state doesn’t require them to. When I pressed Walderman, though, he calculated the original cohort for the class of 2006 to be in the low 90s—making for a four-year graduation rate of close to 95 percent and a college admissions rate almost as high.

There was nothing preordained about a separate Catholic school system in the United States. Largely founded in mid-nineteenth-century New York by the city’s first archbishop, John Hughes, the Catholic school movement sought to combat anti-Catholic discrimination and to lift up Irish immigrants from widespread social dysfunction and unspeakable poverty (see “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish,” Spring 1997).

The Catholic schools succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest hopes. Little more than a century after Hughes’s schools opened their doors, Catholics had become one of the wealthiest Christian denominations in the country and—as the election of John F. Kennedy symbolized—fully assimilated into the American mainstream. The sixties also saw the high-water mark of Catholic school expansion. In 1965, 13,300 Catholic schools dotted the country, enrolling 5.6 million students—10 percent of all U.S. students in grades K–12. Almost all of them were practicing Catholics; roughly 50 percent of school-age Catholic kids attended parochial elementary schools.

But the Catholic community’s very success was what precipitated the Catholic schools’
long-term decline. Secure in the American mainstream, Catholics began to feel the tug of
secularism and became less inclined to send their children to parochial schools. By 1995, the number of Catholic schools in the U.S. had fallen to 8,220, with a total enrollment of just 2.6 million students, though the overall Catholic population had almost doubled since 1965. Some leading Catholic intellectuals began to ask whether maintaining a separate school system had outlived its usefulness. Perhaps it would be better instead to direct resources into religious education programs and revitalizing parish life. And with many having no personal stake in Catholic education, American Catholics also became less likely to make financial contributions to keep the schools going.

Despite American bishops’ strong backing, the schools continue to struggle. The most recent figures from the National Catholic Education Association show national Catholic school enrollment at an all-time low of 2.3 million. The total number of Catholic schools is down to 7,500, and only 15 percent of Catholic children now attend parochial elementary schools.

The decline has reached crisis proportions in the urban centers, primarily in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, where Catholic schools now valiantly try to do for poor black and Hispanic children what they once did for the Irish underclass and other white ethnics, long since departed from the cities. The full magnitude of the problem is apparent in Bishop Hughes’s city. Gotham’s two archdioceses—New York and Brooklyn—make headlines every year not for the considerable accomplishments of their schools but for their sorrowful announcements of more school closings.

Many of the black and Hispanic families who might want their children to fill the empty seats can’t afford to pay. Average annual tuition at a New York City Catholic high school in 1965 was $400. Next year’s bill at Rice will be $6,000—and that’s one of the city’s lower-priced Catholic high schools. The actual per-pupil cost at Rice is $7,500 (compared with $16,000 for the city public schools). The school scrambles each year to make
up its funding deficit, sometimes with a plea to alumni, sometimes with a last-minute donation by one of the school’s trustees.

At least one cause of the rising costs is well known. Until the mid-1960s, Catholic school faculties were predominantly teaching nuns, who received little or no pay. Today, almost all the teachers are lay, and most belong to teachers’ unions. Their demands for higher salaries would be hard for the schools to ignore, even if the Catholic Church weren’t bound by its own social-justice traditions to honor unions.

In New York, the schools are also feeling economic pressure from a public school monopoly that now has unheard-of sums of money to spend. In just the past three years, the city’s education budget has swollen by $4 billion. Teacher salaries have risen 41 percent across the board in six years, passing the $100,000 top-salary threshold for the first time. Ten years ago, the gap between the city’s top salaries for Catholic school teachers and public school teachers was around $28,000. It’s now $50,000. Catholic schools find themselves stuck on a treadmill in which they either have to raise salaries even higher—and pass the costs on to students’ families—or lose more teachers to the public schools.

The public school monopoly is even winning the philanthropy race. As if next year’s $19 billion New York City education budget weren’t enough—and newly elected governor Eliot Spitzer promises to hike that over four years to at least $23 billion, meaning a per-pupil expenditure of $21,000—Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein have run a major fund-raising drive that has brought in a whopping $400 million in philanthropic funds since 2002. Some of America’s wealthiest people, including Eli Broad, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Mort Zuckerman, have made major contributions. Gates alone has given about $125 million to New York’s public schools—enough to create an endowment that could have prevented most of the city’s Catholic school closings over the past few years.

It’s not that the Catholic schools can’t draw on generous benefactors. Student Sponsor Partners, founded 20 years ago by investment banker Peter Flanigan (a City Journal publication committee member), gave poor minority kids $5.3 million in scholarships to attend New York City Catholic schools for the 2005–06 academic year, an all-time high for the group. Teddy Forstmann and the late John Walton have given hundreds of millions to the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provides over $1.5 million annually to the city’s Catholic schools. A new fund, the Patron’s Program, will give those schools $7.5 million this year. But the total amount raised from all these sources in the past year is barely $40 million, far short of what it would take to stabilize the schools.

For the public school system, what drives the soliciting of millions of philanthropic dollars is appetite. For the Catholic schools, it is a question of hunger. In the gilded city, appetite is winning.

In one sense, the public school spending spree makes an even stronger case for the Catholic school advantage. The Catholics are still outperforming their much richer public counterparts in test scores and graduation rates. But under the mayoral control of Mike Bloomberg, the public school system has proved indisputably better at public relations and marketing. Bloomberg has lots of taxpayer dollars to spend on a slick press operation, which has convinced most New Yorkers that exciting new options are now available in the public school system and that the schools have shown historic academic gains (even though test scores have been flat: see “City’s Pupils Get More Hype than Hope,” Winter 2006). By failing to analyze the public school test scores critically, while almost never reporting on the achievements of schools like Rice, the mainstream media have been complicit in this distortion. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of New York’s school system has a one-person PR office. How many potential customers are the Catholic schools losing because they can’t compete with the public schools’ well-oiled publicity machine?

But the Catholic schools’ publicity deficit is a matter more of attitude than of lack of resources. Historically, Catholic school leaders have been reluctant to be seen as competitors with the public schools. They’ve been content to carry out their mission to educate poor children, assuming that if they built strong schools, the children would come. Clearly, that’s a luxury that they can no longer afford.

I discussed this issue recently with the superintendent of schools for the New York archdiocese, Catherine Hickey. When Cardinal John
O’Connor summoned Hickey from a Westchester high school principalship 18 years ago and made her the first woman ever to serve as a Catholic schools superintendent, he told her that her
first task was to try to deal with a looming fiscal crisis. She can’t recall any time since when she hasn’t had to worry about declining enrollment and the dreaded prospect of closing schools. “Every September when we open the schools, we think it’s a miracle,” she says.

Hickey concedes that the Catholic leadership has been too hesitant about making the case for their schools and fighting in the public arena for government aid. “We have done a very poor job of marketing our schools, even in our own community,” she says. “We didn’t do it for years, but we are beginning to do that now.” Why isn’t she trumpeting her schools’ scores on the same state tests that students in the public schools take? After all, on the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math tests, the Catholic school scores consistently run about 7 to 10 percentage points higher than those of the public schools; surely
a press conference would be in order. “No one would come,” Hickey responds. She’s speaking partly in jest, but her comment reflects the media indifference that Catholic schools must overcome to compete effectively in the new education

“We haven’t been able to make the case to the larger community,” agrees Michael Guerra, the recently retired president of the National Catholic Education Association and one of the shrewdest commentators on the history of the Catholic school movement. “The church sometimes thinks there’s a funny smell to the market,” he adds.

In the past three years, three elite Catholic institutions—Boston College, Georgetown University, and the University of Notre Dame—have hosted major conferences on the condition of the Catholic elementary and high schools. There was no attempt to sugarcoat the depressing numbers on school closings or enrollment decline, and what that trend portended for the future of Catholic schooling. The Notre Dame conference report noted the widespread belief that “the glory days of Catholic schools have passed. The religious are almost gone. Pastors are overwhelmed. Mass attendance is down. So are collections. Faculty salaries are still too low. Costs and tuition are rising. Enrollments are declining. So goes the litany.”

While acknowledging the problems, the meetings also focused on the most promising strategies for renewal, such as rethinking the structures that link Catholic schools to parishes and dioceses. This is particularly pressing for inner-city elementary schools, much harder hit than the high schools by enrollment declines. Father Joseph O’Keefe, dean of the Boston College School of Education and the organizer of the Boston confab, summed up the reform proposals with a paradoxical thought: “The strength of the Catholic schools has been their autonomy. The weakness of Catholic schools is their autonomy.” Autonomy, he explains, gave Catholic school principals the freedom to innovate without concern about bureaucratic meddling. But now, with financial pressures mounting, Catholic principals need to band together for survival, seek economies of scale, consult with other principals on best practices, and pool fund-raising strategies. They won’t weather the coming storms unless they collaborate.

Internal reform efforts are already under way in several cities, most encouragingly
in Washington, D.C., where Catholic schools hit rock bottom in 1999. That year, a committee appointed by Cardinal James Hickey (no relation to Catherine) looked into the condition of 16 of the diocese’s most financially and academically troubled schools. The committee recommended closing down eight of the schools completely and consolidating the rest into four sites. But Hickey refused to accept what would have been a humiliating defeat for the archdiocese, and instead charged the committee with coming up with a rescue plan.

What eventually emerged was the Center City Consortium, presently led by innovative Catholic educator Mary Anne Stanton. Fourteen of the troubled schools are now in the consortium, in effect forming a new school district. The consortium’s central office coordinates fund-raising, financial planning, and collecting tuition. Stanton brought in research-backed instructional curricula, including the phonics-based Open Court reading program and Saxon Math, which emphasizes fundamental skills. The consortium
also took over professional development and teacher retraining. It then developed a public-relations arm and got the word out that good things were happening in the school district. Recently, the Washington Post reported on the consortium schools’ amazing five-year academic and fiscal turnaround.

Inner-city Catholic schools around the country should take a lesson from Washington, D.C., and do much more to reform old habits. Ultimately, however, the Catholic community alone may not be able to solve its schools’ problems. “It’s an open question whether inner-city Catholic schools are viable without vouchers or other forms of government aid,” acknowledges Guerra. The consortium schools, it’s important to note,
received a substantial financial boost in 2004, when Congress passed a limited school-voucher bill for the District of Columbia. The bill allowed 400 poor students from failing D.C. public schools to transfer into the consortium schools, with vouchers paying full tuition.

It’s almost fashionable these days for politicians to acknowledge Catholic schools’ history of lifesaving work with poor children. But inner-city schools like Rice High School are now on the brink. They need something more from Congressman Rangel than public kudos for staying in Harlem. The powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee can surely find some creative ways and means to begin paying back the debt. And Governor Spitzer, who has similarly praised parochial schools, can surely do better than his proposed $1,000 tax deduction for private school tuition, worth nothing to the poor minority parents desperately trying to find the means to get their kids a Catholic school education.

For 150 years, America’s Catholic schools have helped turn millions of disadvantaged children into responsible, productive citizens, thereby contributing mightily to the public good. Now that serious obstacles are slowing them, will the public—either philanthropists or government—help them stay in the race?

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.


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