The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem, by Patrick J. McCloskey (University of California Press, 456 pp., $27.50)
Announcements of Catholic-school closings in New York have become melancholy annual rituals. In January, the New York Times reported that the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn would shut down 14 of its elementary schools next fall, and that Brooklyn and Queens now have 40 percent fewer Catholic schools than they did when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002.
So dire is the Brooklyn Diocese’s financial situation that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Mayor Bloomberg have agreed to draw up a plan to convert some of the threatened Catholic schools into publicly funded charter schools. If this pilot program works, it could expand to other Catholic schools in the city. It resembles a similar arrangement made last year in Washington, D.C., where seven Catholic schools facing closure (despite benefiting from federally funded vouchers that paid full tuition for a significant number of students) were converted into taxpayer-funded charters. In accepting this last-ditch solution, Catholic leaders are raising the white flag and giving up on the religious mission of their schools.
That Catholic schools have reached this sad state has nothing to do with the quality of education that they’ve historically provided to millions of disadvantaged children. Rather, the crisis is entirely about money. New York’s Catholic schools have been hit by the same crippling economic and demographic shifts that have afflicted urban Catholic education all over the country. First, starting in the 1960s, the formerly poor Irish and Italian families who owed their economic success to no-nonsense, traditional Catholic education began moving out of the cities and into the suburbs, and became less inclined to send their kids to parish schools or to support the schools they left behind. Second, the teaching nuns who once supplied free instructional services in the classrooms became a vanishing breed and were replaced by lay faculty, who eventually organized into unions and demanded higher salaries. Third, many of the new black and Hispanic families who would surely send their children to fill the Catholic-school seats vacated by white ethnics are less and less able to afford the higher tuition payments necessitated by the schools’ rising costs.
But Gotham’s Catholic schools have lately faced an additional challenge—tough competition from a remade public school system that aggressively markets itself and touts its accomplishments. The city’s education department has succeeded in convincing many low-income families that the public schools in their neighborhoods, including the new charter schools, have become good educational options. Indeed, some of the charter schools—including the KIPP schools and the Harlem Success Academies—are in fact excellent options (in no small measure because they have adopted the approaches for educating underprivileged kids perfected over 50 years in the city’s Catholic schools). The charter schools are not only free, but often provide a longer school day and longer school year. By contrast, even scholarship recipients in the Catholic schools must come up with some part of the total tuition cost. Moreover, public education spending has increased from $13 billion to $21 billion since Mayor Bloomberg took over the schools, allowing the city to raise salaries for public school teachers by 43 percent—putting even more pressure on the Catholic schools to raise pay scales for their own teachers. Under the leadership of the billionaire mayor, the public schools have also been soaking up most of the philanthropic education spending in town.
At this time of peril for the entire Catholic-school enterprise, civic-minded New Yorkers should remember what these schools have accomplished and how much poorer the city will be if they disappear. That’s exactly what The Street Stops Here, an extraordinary new book by Patrick J. McCloskey, manages to do. It tells the compelling story of embattled, 100-year-old Rice High School for boys in central Harlem. Other excellent books and research reports (including the famous Coleman Report of 1982) have quantified the “Catholic-school advantage.” But McCloskey provides a deeper understanding of how some Catholic schools succeed against all odds, something that all the number-crunching of student test data and graduation rates can never express. McCloskey spent an entire academic year at Rice, making audio and video tapes of classroom sessions and school events. His reporting puts the reader in the classrooms, the teachers’ lounge, the principal’s office, the basketball games, and the students’ tough neighborhoods. More than in any other book on Catholic education, McCloskey lets us see exactly how dedicated, underpaid educators doing the right thing in the classroom and in an atmosphere of mutual respect and order can transform the lives of at-risk African-American boys.
McCloskey himself is a product of a Catholic-school education in his native Ontario, where the state funds religious schools on an equal basis with the regular, secular public schools. He is bemused by the anomaly that a thoroughly secularized country like Canada feels comfortable providing public funding for religious schools, while in the far more religious United States, such an arrangement is constitutionally taboo. But he doesn’t argue for vouchers or any other education reform, instead providing readers with an immersion experience in Catholic education.
McCloskey’s title derives from the sign that hangs over the entrance to Rice, located in a former YMCA building on 124th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. The words succinctly capture the key ingredient in the school’s culture, without which nothing else would work. I witnessed this myself when I spent a few days at Rice in 2007 for an essay I wrote on the Catholic school crisis. Passing through the entrance underneath the sign every morning and walking into the lobby, the boys (over 90 percent African-American) are physically transformed, leaving the “street” and its culture behind for the duration of their day in school. No security guards or metal detectors greet them at the doors. But the boys remove their do-rags and hooded sweatshirts and presto, they become Rice men, with pressed slacks, oxford shirts and ties, and green Rice jackets. “The ritual is almost sacramental,” McCloskey writes. “The young men lose their street swagger and transform into students not much different than their peers at suburban, predominantly white Catholic schools.” That transformation does not come in a sudden revelation. As McCloskey’s detailed daily reporting shows, it is won through the incredible persistence of Rice’s teachers and administrators, through incremental steps, and through little victories (and sometimes setbacks), until a counterculture of middle-class values and an ethos of hard work has taken hold.
Through a laserlike focus on a no-frills, core academic curriculum, and by resisting progressive-education fads, Rice takes most of the students who enter in ninth grade—many of them two years behind in reading and math—and gradually gets them up to grade level. The kids pass most of the necessary state Regents exams. There are no Jaime Escalante miracles here, no AP calculus whiz kids. But Rice’s graduation rate is a legitimate 90 percent, compared with the public schools’ rate of 50 to 60 percent—despite per-pupil spending in the city’s public high schools triple that of Rice’s. Most Rice graduates go on to some form of higher education.
School-reform experts often argue that money is overrated as a factor in school improvement. For the most part, I agree. But in the case of Rice High School and most of the other Catholic schools in the city, money is the issue. With a little extra each year, we could almost guarantee that Rice will go on doing an excellent job of educating at-risk black boys far into the twenty-first century, just as it educated underprivileged white boys throughout the twentieth century. I estimate that if the city’s Catholic schools could get just 1 percent of the budget for the public schools, there would be no more Catholic-school closings. And if the people and political leaders of this wealthy city can’t figure out how to get such a small amount of money into the Catholic schools, Patrick McCloskey’s inspired book can serve as a requiem for one of New York’s most noble institutions.