Parochial-School Lessons

A solution to a 19th-century problem finds success in a 21st-century setting.

The efficacy of Catholic schools in urban neighborhoods has been documented time and again, beginning with James S. Coleman’s landmark studies in the 1980s. His findings were so devastating at the time that the public-school establishment panicked. School officials heatedly claimed that Mr. Coleman’s results were flawed because public schools had to take everyone while Catholic schools could select more talented students — or at least those who came from more stable homes. But the economist Derek Neal exploded that myth in the 1990s, showing definitively that Catholic-school methods are both class- and color-blind. The stereotypical product of a poor, single-parent home generally does better in a Catholic school than a public one.


As Patrick J. McCloskey notes in “The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem,” urban Catholic schools in the U.S. have a long history of serving the poor and the rough. In the 19th century, the “social pathologies of the Irish,” he writes, “were seen simply as evidence of their genetic and cultural inferiority.” New York Archbishop John Joseph Hughes (1797-1864), when asked what he was going to do about the “Irish problem,” replied: “We are going to teach them their religion.” These Irish were largely from Ireland’s south and west, where the English severely restricted the teaching of Catholicism. Mr. McCloskey writes that “most Irish Catholics arrived in America with a hodgepodge of beliefs and religious practices that were more superstition than religion. They were Catholic in name only, more as a badge of honor against the hated English than as an identity they understood.”

The primary engine for the transformation of the Irish in America was the parochial school, established to turn poor Catholics into productive citizens without losing their religious identity. While Mr. McCloskey acknowledges this religious purpose, especially of early Catholic schools, he wisely distinguishes another characteristic. Citing Anthony Bryk, a professor at Harvard and later Stanford, he refers to “the common school effect.” That is: “All students, regardless of their ethnic background, social class, family problems, or future plans and regardless of their scholastic level before entering high school, are taught basically in the same way.”

Catholic apologists have argued that this approach is rooted in their theology, with its central belief in the dignity and worth of every human person, but it is an approach that was developed by 19th-century educators in both the Catholic and public systems. And while theology might have kept it vital in the Catholic schools, finances also had some influence.

The Street Stops Here
By Patrick J. McCloskey
(University of California Press, 456 pages, $27.50)

At Rice High School in Harlem, where Mr. McCloskey focuses most of his book’s attention, the per-pupil cost of an education is pegged at $5,800 a year. The cost of a public-school education in that same neighborhood is at least twice that and probably higher, depending how much debt service and pension cost is included in the estimate. The “common school” model, with its one-size-fits-all, liberal-arts focus, is simply more economical than the sprawling, desperate and failing public enterprise.

Mr. McCloskey obviously feels sympathy for the many hardworking and dedicated teachers and administrators in the public system. “The Street Stops Here” is not a polemic by any means. One of his principal arguments is that the public schools should adopt the best practices of the Catholic institutions — without the religious content. (After all, most of the students at the Harlem school and other similar institutions are not Catholic, and the schools make no effort to proselytize.)

Although he clearly believes that the success of these schools, especially in the inner city, merits some kind of state support or encouragement, the purpose of the book is not to advocate for vouchers or any other specific policy. At one point he estimates that Catholic schools in America save the taxpayers about $20 billion a year and wonders whether a little of that savings might not be plowed back into their entirely laudable efforts. But as a product of the Canadian Catholic schools, where taxpayer support is taken for granted, Mr. McCloskey also wonders whether the dead hand of government, with its mandates and work rules, are worth the price of admission.

Mr. McCloskey promises a warts-and-all portrait of one year in the life of Rice High School, and he manages for the most part to deliver. In Orlando Gober, the dynamic but flawed principal, he has a memorable and heroic central character. A former Black Panther, Mr. Gober defines himself and his mission in part through occasional conflicts with authority (in this case, the Christian Brothers who operate the school), but he also has obvious respect for the religious order, which was founded in Ireland to serve poor children.

Mr. Gober’s boss, Brother J. Matthew Walderman, also comes alive as Mr. Gober’s patron (over opposition, Mr. Walderman installed him as the school’s first black principal). When Mr. Gober’s demons, and diabetes, finally separate him from Rice, he has left behind a thriving culture of learning and authentic pride. But in the end it is the kids that merit the author’s keenest attention, and ours. Predictably, the wash-outs are the ones remembered best — Prince Youmans, who lives with his grandmother because both of his parents are dead from AIDS, and Yusef Abednego, who is expelled for drug dealing. This would be something of a downer if Mr. McCloskey didn’t note that Rice enjoys a 70% to 80% graduation rate — at least double that of New York public schools.

This is a first book — with a gracious foreword by Samuel G. Freedman, Mr. McCloskey’s former professor at Columbia University — and occasionally it shows. The narrative wobbles when the author moves back and forth in time, the writing style sometimes falters and even disappears, and some chapters can read like homework. But this is homework of a high caliber, and it should be required reading for anyone who is interested in the welfare of our kids.

Mr. Willcox is a writer in Ridgefield, Conn.

Published in: on December 8, 2008 at 9:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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