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Pray we can save our Catholic schools

BY Charles Sahm, Sol Stern

Two dozen city Catholic schools shut their doors last year, including Blessed Sacrament in the Bronx. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, valedictorian of the Class of 1968, lamented her alma mater’s closing: “Do you know how important those eight years were? It was a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative.”

Gotham’s Catholic schools have been saving poor kids like Sotomayor — originally Irish and Italian immigrants; today, mostly low-income black and Hispanic kids — for more than 150 years. Many aren’t even Catholic.

“We don’t educate the poor because they are Catholic. We educate them because we are Catholic,” is a common phrase.

Probably no institution has done more to lift families out of poverty than the schools of the New York and Brooklyn dioceses. Catholic schools do an excellent job educating kids and instilling strong values, at a third of the cost of public schools.

Scholars explain the “Catholic school advantage”: focusing on a core academic curriculum, reinforcing teachers’ authority, and resisting progressive-education fads. Unfortunately, this lifesaving mission has been compromised in the past 15 years.

A hundred Catholic schools in the city have closed since 2000. A decline in the clergy, which once provided much free labor, and rising costs have led to tuition increases, squeezing low-income families. Competition from charter schools has also hurt. Catholic schools can close the gap only with more private philanthropic money. Mayor Rudy Giuliani understood the need and sponsored a private voucher program for the schools. Since then, city and state political leaders have shown little interest in preserving this precious asset.

This year, state legislation that would have encouraged philanthropic donations to parochial schools gave hope. Unfortunately, the bill became mired in Albany politics and the opposition of teachers unions. Thankfully, New York’s Catholic schools now understand that some solutions must come from within. Following a national trend, social entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative ideas to make Catholic education more efficient and effective.

Leading the way is the Partnership for Inner-City Education, a nonprofit that reached a historic agreement last year with the New York Archdiocese to independently run six Catholic elementary schools in Harlem and the Bronx.

The partnership, part of a new breed of “Catholic School Management Organizations,” seeks to emulate the successes of strong charter school networks. “Having a half-dozen schools under one umbrella creates operational efficiencies,” says Jill Kafka, the partnership’s executive director, “and makes it easier to share best practices for academic enhancement.”

It’s part of a quiet revolution in Catholic education. Similar networks have been created in Camden, N.J.; Philadelphia, and Chicago. Cristo Rey, a growing national network of Catholic high schools, includes an innovative work-study program. Other nonprofits are using “blended learning” technology to improve Catholic education. The Partnership for Inner-City Education not only seeks to keep schools open but to make them, as Kafka notes, “shining examples of student achievement.”

It has hired respected curriculum expert Kathleen Porter-Magee as superintendent and purchased cutting-edge Common Core-aligned English and math curricula: Core Knowledge, which outperformed other reading programs in a New York City pilot, and Math in Focus, based on the highly rated Singapore Math program.

Until recently, Catholic schools seemed to be nearing extinction; now, they’re beginning to fight back. That’s good news. But it could be better still if Albany politicians ignored the usual education special interests and did the right thing for the city’s poor kids.

Stern is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Sahm is deputy director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership.