A Catholic School Comeback in New York City — Just Don’t Call it That
By MAREESA NICOSIA, Jan. 25, 2016
(Bronx, New York) — Marianne Kraft moves through the hallways of the St. Athanasius school with an easy vigor, even after an hour climbing up and down the stairs. On a cold January morning, the 74-year-old principal is excited to usher a visitor from one bright, orderly classroom to another, each filled with attentive students.
A second-grade class — girls in plaid jumpers, boys in slacks with shirts neatly tucked in — are studying the War of 1812. Down the hall, sixth-graders are immersed in adding and subtracting fractions. Kraft beckons through the door to a modest auditorium, where students gather to start each day with a “power hour” of stories, songs or teacher shout-outs to do-gooder students.
The library, which houses some 8,000 volumes, is a particular point of pride for Kraft, as are the colorful bulletin board displays lining the walls.
St. Athanasius, located in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx, one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, has about 291 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The school looked and felt like a different place a few years ago. With enrollment and financial support plummeting, Catholic schools were closing throughout the city and the state.
Kraft, a former nun who had seen the school through the worst days of crippling student poverty, drugs and street gangs — its location on Southern Boulevard put it at the epicenter of the borough’s 1970s’ arson epidemic — was sure that hers would be next to close. She didn’t know what to tell the families of her 300 pupils.
“We were in survival mode,” Kraft says. “I knew we were going to have to be closed. There was no way. How can you continue to operate when you can’t pay the teachers?”
Instead, St. Athanasius and five other struggling Catholic schools were thrown a lifeline. In 2013, they became part of a school turnaround project created through an agreement between the New York Archdiocese and an independent nonprofit group.
The Partnership for Inner-City Education, as the network is called, runs six schools throughout the Bronx and Harlem: Immaculate Conception, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary, Our Lady Queen of Angels, Sacred Heart, St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Athanasius.
A superintendent and Board of Directors oversees finances, academics and building operations under an 11-year contract while the Archdiocese continues to own and govern the schools. Since it entered the schools three years ago, the Partnership has invested $10 million in student scholarships, building renovations, a math and English curriculum overhaul and staff training.
The mood these days when Kraft walks through the halls, poking her head into classrooms, is noticeably more positive.
She didn’t do much of the daily checking in on students and teachers before the Partnership came in and hired operations managers for each school. She was too crazed making sure the boiler got fixed and payroll was set, not to mention scrounging together fundraising dollars.
“I’m more involved in the teaching and learning and it’s so wonderful,” she said. “That’s the exciting part.”
This shift hasn’t taken place without some serious growing pains.
The teachers, who are unionized, were wary that the Partnership was there to transform them into a charter school. Some worried that the qualities that make urban Catholic schools safe havens for so many poor, immigrant children — the high value placed on service, humility and building good character, for example — would be squeezed out in favor of academic perfection.
There were also questions from staff and parents about what the network was and how it would look.
Though the Partnership shares some features with Catholic school turnaround projects in Camden, N.J., and Philadelphia, it was the first of those efforts to actually get up and running. Its operational independence from the Archdiocese also makes it different, officials said.
“As a person who knew financially this would be good, I was happy. Skeptical just because … it was an unclear model. It was hard to say it’s going to look like that, or that,” said Francine Rogers, a fifth-grade teacher who has spent most of her career at St. Athanasius.
And certainly, concepts borrowed from the charter model, such as data tracking and interim student assessments, were among the first initiatives Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer Kathleen Porter-Magee introduced when she joined in August 2014.
At the same time, Partnership leaders said one of the major realizations they had when they started meeting with staff was that preserving and championing the schools’ Catholic identity had to be held sacred — or it was not going to work.
Porter-Magee said her experience in the charter sector, at Achievement First in New York City, and in Catholic schools, which she attended and later taught in, both influence the vision for the Partnership.
“We are drawing lessons from (charters) but we are not becoming them,” she said.
Porter-Magee and other network leaders view the Partnership as contributing to a burgeoning renaissance in urban Catholic schools after decades of decline.
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