THE schools that have the best record in our inner cit ies are also the most endan gered. It's a system that largely started here in New York City, too: America's Catholic schools.
Consider Rice HS in Harlem, run by the Christian Brothers religious order. For 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 it nearly closed down two years ago, and remains on the edge.
Demographic changes and financial pressures have led to the closing of thousands of excellent inner-city Catholic schools and needlessly deepened the nation's urban-education crisis. Philanthropists - and policymakers - need to help these schools continue their mission.
It's hard to exaggerate the challenge that Rice and similar schools voluntarily take on. 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.
More than 70 percent of Rice students are black - and more than 90 percent of its entering students finish high school and go on to college.
Of course, 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. Why this "Catholic school advantage"? One explanation - perhaps the most powerful - is discipline.
Above the doors leading to Rice's lobby, through which all its students pass every morning, a plaque admonishes: "The 'Street' ENDS here!"
That message is Rice's alternative to the metal detectors in so 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 picked to save Rice two years ago, when enrollment had plummeted from 400 students in 1999 to a bankruptcy-threatening low of 265.
In his two years at Rice's helm, Walderman has managed to stop the hemorrhaging, though the school's condition is still precarious.
He views the plaque's "countercultural message" as a commandment. At Rice, students must cast off the destructive street culture that undermines academic achievement and that marches unimpeded through the front doors of most urban public schools. Walderman tells 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.
In the morning, the boys file through the doors into Rice's lobby, doff their coats and hooded sweatshirts - and suddenly transform into sharply dressed Rice men, with pressed slacks, oxford shirts, neckties and green school vests, sometimes adorned with colorful pins signifying the school's many academic awards.
Like boot-camp drill sergeants, Walderman and his aides relentlessly enforce the Rice ethos: There's a strict dress code and no tolerance of lateness or absences; homework must come in on time. Violations trigger immediate consequences, such as detention or calls to parents. Disruptive classroom behavior, disrespect toward teachers and violence against fellow students bring suspension, at a minimum. Expulsion is a final resort.
Public schools 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. As a result, for all the metal detectors and cops on hand, bedlam reigns at many urban public schools.
That chaos alone is a sufficient explanation for the dismal four-year graduation rate for black males in such schools, which rarely tops 30 percent.
Another way to see the power of the Rice approach: Walderman used the recent occasion of Black History Month to give the juniors an inspirational lecture about the challenges that they will confront as they head into the college-admissions process.
"You are the rising seniors," he boomed to 80 or so black 17-year-olds, sitting quietly in rows in the school's cafeteria/auditorium, "next in line to carry on the tradition." He implored them 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.
Then he 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."
At last June's ceremony at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, 87 young men graduated from Rice - with all but three headed for college in the fall. Walderman estimated 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.
Largely founded in mid-19th-century New York, the Catholic school movement sought to combat anti-Catholic discrimination and to lift up Irish immigrants from unspeakable poverty and widespread social dysfunction.
The schools succeeded beyond anyone's wildest hopes. Little more than a century after the city's Catholic schools opened their doors, Catholics had become one of the wealthiest Christian denominations in the country, fully assimilated into the American mainstream.
But that success precipitated the Catholic schools' long-term decline, as "mainstreamed" Catholics saw less need to send their children to parochial schools. The total number of Catholic schools in America fell from 13,300 in 1965 to 7,500 today.
The decline has reached crisis proportions in the urban centers, 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. Yet many families who might want their children to fill the empty seats simply can no longer afford it. Next year's bill at Rice will be $6,000 - and that's one of the city's lower-priced Catholic high schools.
It's almost fashionable these days for politicians to acknowledge Catholic schools' history of lifesaving work with poor children. The Catholic schools still outperform their far wealthier public counterparts in test scores and graduation rates - but inner-city schools like Rice are now on the brink. They need something more than public kudos.
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?
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/05012007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/save_the_catholic_schools_opedcolumnists_sol_stern.htm