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Pondiscio Op-Ed Challenges “Diddy” to Support Partnership Schools

When it was announced that hip-hop mogul Sean Combs as he is known to his mother (and Diddy or Puff Daddy to fans) was opening a charter school in Harlem, it was welcomed as more good news for the neighborhood. But in the Friday online edition of U.S. News & World Report, Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote a compelling piece encouraging Mr. Combs to consider his and his family??s own Catholic school education and support inner-city Catholic education generally and the Partnership for Inner-City Education specifically. 

As a frequent writer on education and education-reform issues, Mr. Pondiscio knows his turf especially from his perch as a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York.

Another great shout out for the Partnership. Anyone who knows how we can get in touch with Mr. Combs, we are happy to place the call. Seriously.

Diddy, Patron Saint of Education? Sean Combs should help lead a revival of urban Catholic schools.

By Robert PondiscioApril 8, 2016, at 12:30 p.m.

Late last month it was revealed that Sean Combs, the hip-hop mogul better known as Diddy or Puff Daddy, was behind the creation of a new charter school set to open in Harlem this fall. Good for him and good for Harlem. We can never have too many good schools.

But truth to tell, the neighborhood is already awash in successful, high-profile charter schools, including Success Academy, KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone and Democracy Prep, where I’m a senior adviser and civics teacher. Harlem is one of the most robust charter school marketplaces in the country. If Diddy is in it for the long haul and determined to make a difference in for low-income kids of color, let me offer an alternative suggestion: He should lend his name, resources and celebrity aura to lead a revival of urban Catholic schools.

He’s perfect for the role. Back when he was still Sean Combs, Diddy attended and graduated from Mount Saint Michael Academy, a Catholic school in The Bronx. He must have thought highly of the education he received, since he sent at least one of his children to Catholic school too. Diddy’s oldest son, Justin, was a standout athlete at Iona Prep in New Rochelle, New York, where he graduated before heading off to play football for UCLA.

For much of the 20th century Catholic school was how much of working class America educated its children. At their zenith in the 1960s, 5.2 million kids attended 13,000 Catholic schools in the U.S. Enrollment is well less than half of that today; only about 6,500 Catholic schools remain, despite a burgeoning U.S. Catholic population (from 45 million in 1965 to almost 70 million today). The reasons for the decline are many and unsurprising: the rising cost of tuition, white flight to the suburbs, a steep decline in the number of nuns (almost all Catholic school teachers today are laity) and yes, the rise of free public charter schools. Each has contributed to a steep decline in the number of inner city Catholic school seats and students to fill them.

This slow, steady decay is one of the saddest stories in American education. Charter schools have enjoyed their greatest successes in our inner cities, but a compelling argument can be made that charters have not been as effective in the aggregate as the Catholic schools they have largely supplanted. Children of color are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college if they attend a Catholic school than a public school. Writing in the current issue of Education Next, Harvard researcher Martin R. West describes a large body of research showing that black and Hispanic kids learn more and achievement gaps are smaller in Catholic schools than in traditional public schools. Some researchers “attribute the success of Catholic schools to the high levels of ‘social capital’ available in the tight-knit communities that many of these schools served,” he notes.

The bottom line is that we are all poorer ?? and inner-city families are particularly hurt ?? by a weak and declining Catholic school system. If you’re a supporter of school choice and concerned about educational outcomes for kids of color, a robust Catholic school sector is indispensible. And irreplaceable. It is far easier to save a good school than start a new one from scratch. Catholic schools are a good investment and a national asset.

But all is not lost. While Catholic schools may be on the wrong side of demographic and economic history, there are pockets of innovation worthy of support. One promising model, New York City’s Partnership for Inner-City Education, runs six Catholic schools in the South Bronx and Harlem. It’s the closest thing in Catholic education to a charter school network. In math, they’ve nearly doubled the number of students meeting New York’s ambitious proficiency bar; in English, their results are on par with some of the highest performing charter management organizations in the state. Pope Francis visited one of the partnership’s schools, Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, on his U.S. tour last September. It was a badly-needed PR boost for Catholic schools, but much more is needed. Perhaps a bit of Diddy’s star power and magic would help.

Meanwhile celebrity-fronted charter schools have a spotty track record. Tennis star Andre Agassi launched a fund that started 50 charter schools, including several of the successful Rocketship charter schools. However, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit has struggled. Prime Prep, a charter school started by Deion Sanders, was a train wreck and has closed.

To be clear, Diddy could not merely open a Catholic school the way he or his partners applied for and won a charter from New York state. But if he or other high-profile and public-spirited celebrities who graduated from Catholic schools (the list includes Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Lady Gaga and most of the Kardashians) wanted to help, they could advocate for tax credits and increased school choice, and speak up for the power and potential of urban Catholic schools. Diddy could also give and raise money. Catholic schools are inexpensive compared to private schools at large, but even modest tuition can be a dealbreaker for the families who need it most and who have the most to gain from a rigorous education in cohesive social environment and rigorous academics that are still the hallmark of Catholic education.

Catholic schools are almost certainly never again going to touch their high-water mark of a half-century ago. But neither should we allow them to wither and die. The data make clear that Catholic schools have a lot to teach us about effectively educating low-income children of color.

How about it, Diddy? 

To read the original posting, click here.