For every charter school recently opened in Harlem, two Catholic schools have had to close because of financial trouble, observes Sol Stern in City Journal. It’s a pattern that is mirrored across New York City. “Since inner-city Catholic schools have historically provided lifesaving educational choices for minorities and the poor,” he writes, ”the result has been a net loss of good schools for Gotham.”
Stern’s piece profiles Harlem’s St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school, which has essentially “charterized” itself to survive. The school’s board last year broke away from the New York archdiocese and reconstituted itself as an independent Catholic school. “St. Aloysius is now something like a charter school within the city’s Catholic education sector,” Stern writes.
St. Aloysius easily bests neighborhood schools on standardized tests despite a refusal to make testing and test prep a centerpiece of its classroom practice. (“At St. Aloysius, there are no teacher bonuses tied to testing, students receive no special recognition for high scores, and very little test prep takes place,” Stern writes.) It also more than matches the results posted by the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy, featured prominently in Waiting for Superman. And St. Aloysius gets these results for about $9000 per pupil per year–less than half of the cost of New York’s neighborhood schools and the roughly $13,000 that charter schools get from the city. Stern says several factors may explain the school’s success, including extended learning time and separating boys and girls beginning in the sixth grade.
“It doesn’t take long, though, for a visitor to discover St. Aloysius’s most powerful asset: the rich content of its classroom instruction. St. Aloysius exemplifies the old-fashioned notion that school is a place where children learn about our civilization’s shared knowledge and values and where teachers remain the undisputed authorities in the classroom, imparting that knowledge and those values through a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. This traditional approach has stood the test of time and is still proving itself today in many inner-city Catholic schools, in the “no excuses” charter schools operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), in schools that have adopted E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, and, to some extent, even in run-of-the-mill Massachusetts public schools that adhere to that state’s back-to-basics curriculum reforms.”
Such schools, Stern writes, represent “an inescapable moral challenge” to the education-philanthropy community.
“It is painfully obvious that without a rescue effort, the number of Catholic schools in neighborhoods like Harlem will continue to shrink. The money certainly exists to mount such a rescue; for years, this glittering city has been awash in private philanthropic and foundation funds—hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars—spent on an assortment of education-reform schemes, including charter schools, the creation of small public high schools, and bonuses for teachers and administrators.”
When a school “that creates such effective classrooms for disadvantaged children, and that also builds character and personal responsibility in its students, still has to worry about where next year’s dollars will come from” he concludes “there remains a fundamental imbalance in these charitable efforts.”