Why Catholic Schools Matter


They’re still the best hope for poor, inner-city kids.

Who can doubt that the fortunes of charter schools are on the rise? Philanthropists both liberal and conservative have been showering money on charters, viewing them as a promising alternative to traditional public schools because of their relative freedom from union contracts and education bureaucracies. The number of charter schools across the country has soared. Charters have even inspired movies, including the 2010 documentary Waiting for "Superman," which tells the story of several successful charter school networks in Harlem – where black and Hispanic parents, desperate to avoid the awful public schools, enter their children in lotteries to try to secure seats in the charters.

What's missing from this narrative, however, is an alarming fact: for every charter school recently opened in Harlem, two Catholic schools have had to close because of financial trouble. The same holds for New York City as a whole. Since inner-city Catholic schools have historically provided lifesaving educational choices for minorities and the poor, the result has been a net loss of good schools for Gotham.

To appreciate what's at stake, consider St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school struggling to survive in its redbrick building in central Harlem. Named for the sixteenth-century Jesuit educator Aloysius Gonzaga, the school opened over 70 years ago as a haven for poor and working-class Catholic immigrant families. But as Harlem turned overwhelmingly non-Catholic, St. Aloysius kept its doors open, building a solid record of elevating the academic achievement of poor black children while spending less money than either public or charter schools.

The school's success offers crucial lessons to education reformers. St. Aloysius also exemplifies the new thinking and entrepreneurship that must emerge among Catholic schools if they are to survive. Above all, with political prospects for vouchers or even tuition tax credits dim in New York, St. Aloysius's financial woes – and those of the Catholic schools in general – have become a challenge for the same education philanthropists invested in the charter school movement, whether they like it or not.

The demography of today's St. Aloysius exactly mirrors that of Harlem's other schools: almost all of its 240 children are black and non-Catholic and come from low- to moderate-income families. Nevertheless, St. Aloysius has far outperformed the much more lavishly funded public schools in New York City's District 5, which encompasses central and northern Harlem. Between 2006 and 2009, the fraction of St. Aloysius fourth- and eighth-graders achieving proficiency on the state's reading tests ranged from 20 to 40 percentage points higher than the equivalent fraction of Harlem's public school students (excluding those in charter schools). In the state's math tests, the St. Aloysius advantage was 15 percentage points.

That advantage persisted in 2010, when state officials, acknowledging that New York test scores had been grossly inflated, raised the tests' standards (see "Can New York Clean Up the Testing Mess?," Spring 2010). All schools – public, charter, and parochial – saw their reading and math scores drop. Nevertheless, St. Aloysius continued to maintain a big lead in reading, with 63 percent of fourth-graders achieving proficiency, compared with just 27 percent of Harlem's public school students; the eighth-grade rates were 38 percent and 24 percent. In math, 54 percent of St. Aloysius fourth-graders were proficient, compared with 38 percent of public schoolers, while 48 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of eighth-graders reached proficiency.

St. Aloysius has also kept pace with one of the most celebrated of Harlem's charter schools, the well-financed Promise Academy, which is run by Harlem Children's Zone and gets top billing in Waiting for "Superman." The pass rate of Promise Academy fourth-graders on the 2010 reading tests was 40 percent, well below the 63 percent achieved by St. Aloysius's fourth-graders, though Promise Academy beat St. Aloysius by 10 percentage points on the fourth-grade math test.

The school has done all this without heavy spending. A school official estimates that next year, St. Aloysius's per-pupil cost will be approximately $9,000. That's more than most archdiocese elementary schools spend, true, but less than half of what Gotham's traditional public schools spend and lower, too, than the $13,000 or so that charter schools get in taxpayer funds.

School President, Mr. John Lavagnino,
with students from Pre-K3.

Despite this admirable performance, St. Aloysius remains 35 students short of enrollment capacity. Tuition – a maximum of $2,600 per student, though most families pay considerably less – is outstripping many parents' budgets, and the New York archdiocese is providing less financial aid than before. Neighborhood charters, moreover, are providing tough competition, launching expensive marketing campaigns in the area that stress the fact that they're tuition-free. St. Aloysius may well fill its empty seats next year, after two nearby archdiocesan elementary schools in similar straits have been shuttered. But that will go only so far because tuition revenue, plus scholarships bestowed by other organizations, accounts for just 20 percent of St. Aloysius's $3 million annual budget. The school must raise the rest through foundation grants and individual gifts.

In early 2010, St. Aloysius's board of trustees decided that it would have a better chance of marketing the school to the Harlem community and attracting potential funders if it broke away from the New York archdiocese and reconstituted St. Aloysius as an independent Catholic school, though maintaining an affiliation with the education arm of the order of Jesuits. Archdiocese schools superintendent Timothy McNiff, ready to consider any outside-the-box solutions for the Catholic schools' financial crisis, gave his blessing. So St. Aloysius is now something like a charter school within the city's Catholic education sector.

"As an archdiocese school, our board of trustees functioned mainly as a fund-raising entity, with no fiduciary or governance responsibilities," says William Buckley, a retired Goldman Sachs partner and one of the board's most active members. "We have now taken ownership of St. Aloysius and are responsible for making the school succeed." Among the 15-member board's new responsibilities: setting the budget, selecting a president and CEO for the school, and hiring its two principals – one for the elementary grades and one for middle school. Buckley is typical of the many board members who, after successful careers in business, academia, or the law, volunteered their talents to St. Aloysius because of their commitment to Catholic education. He arrived as a math tutor in 1998 and still shows up at the school three days a week to work with remedial students. "The Jesuits sent me up to St. Aloysius, and I could see how this school positively changes the neighborhood," says Buckley. "We save kids from getting pregnant, going on welfare, or becoming drug runners. We make it possible for any child to achieve their potential."

The school's challenges aren't only financial; it also faces handicaps in teacher quality and recruitment. Until it expires, the archdiocese's current labor contract with the Federation of Catholic Teachers continues to apply to St. Aloysius. Like the one in the public schools, the contract carries onerous seniority provisions; for example, it requires St. Aloysius to give preference in filling staff vacancies to tenured teachers from recently closed Catholic schools. The contract also locks into place a glaringly noncompetitive teacher-salary schedule. St. Aloysius's teachers start at $38,000 and reach a maximum of $57,000 after 18 years of service; each of the school's two principals earns less than $70,000. By contrast, a first-year teacher's salary in the public schools is $44,000 and reaches $100,000 after 22 years; principals now earn over $130,000; and some charter schools pay even more than that. Not surprisingly, then, many of the Harlem charter schools receive hundreds of job applications from bright young graduates of elite colleges, recruited by the Teach for America program. Catholic schools like St. Aloysius find it hard to compete.

Given these financial and contractual restrictions, what accounts for St. Aloysius's muscular academic performance? One factor is doubtless a time-intensive and hands-on education program. Recognizing that inner-city children need extra time on task, the school offers after-school tutoring for the early grades, and it extends the school day for students in grades six through eight until 5 pm. Middle school students must attend a four-week summer session followed by a two-week summer camp. St. Aloysius also offers intense guidance services to help eighth-graders apply to high schools, particularly to the city's more selective Jesuit schools, and it provides tuition aid for needy graduates, who repay it by returning and doing volunteer work with the younger children.

Another reason for St. Aloysius's success, school officials say, is that it educates boys and girls separately beginning in the sixth grade, with the boys' classes held in a few rooms at another Catholic school a few blocks away. This requires hiring three or four extra teachers and thus adds to costs, but the educators believe that it helps maintain discipline and a focus on academics during the risky preteen years and the transition to high school.

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 (see "E. D. Hirsch's Curriculum for Democracy," Autumn 2009).

In the third-grade reading class I recently dropped in on, students sat at individual desks facing their teacher, Lauren Carfora, a 25-year-old who holds a master's degree in education from Boston College. The children receive two intense 45-minute reading lessons each day. In her first lesson, Carfora skillfully focused on the decoding skills and phonetic exercises that should continue through the third grade, according to the best reading research. Her second lesson emphasized close reading of a literary text to build comprehension and content knowledge. She guided the students through the narrative structure of the assigned story, the relationship of the characters, and the author's use of literary technique, simultaneously expanding the students' vocabulary and background knowledge. Barely a moment of distraction occurred during those 90 minutes of teacher-centered instruction. The classroom calm allowed Carfora to cover a great amount of substantive material efficiently.

Carfora's reading class runs against the grain of the dominant practices in the nation's education schools. If a professor from Columbia University's Teachers College, New York's leading teacher-training institution, had observed Carfora's class, she almost certainly would have been horrified to see the children sitting still and paying attention to the teacher. Carfora might have found herself admonished for being a "sage on the stage" rather than a "guide on the side" – a motto used in ed-school classes these days. The Teachers College approach to teaching reading and writing in the early grades, called "balanced literacy," wants children to acquire language "naturally," spell inventively, work in groups, and "edit" one another's writing – all with minimal direction by the teacher. Children are innately curious, the theory goes, so the teacher's role is to encourage them to become "critical thinkers," rather than force them to recall facts learned through rote "drill-and-kill" exercises.

Another reason for St. Aloysius's success, school officials say, is that it educates boys and girls separately beginning in the sixth grade, with the boys' classes held in a few rooms at another Catholic school a few blocks away.

Despite the absence of any research proving that this approach works for disadvantaged children, the New York City Department of Education has awarded contracts worth over $15 million to Teachers College to bring "balanced literacy" to the public schools over the past eight years. The approach remains the norm in many of those Harlem elementary schools in which barely one in four children achieved proficiency in the state's 2010 fourth-grade reading tests.

What is perhaps most gratifying about St. Aloysius's performance in the state tests is that the school doesn't focus on them. Inner-city public schools are now under intense pressure to produce higher test results, so many have made test-taking skills the centerpiece of classroom instruction. The test scores may rise, but the children are not necessarily learning what matters most. 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. Though Carole Martino, the 28-year-old lower school principal, is aware of the importance of test scores to the school's reputation, she tells me that "at St. Aloysius, we are not willing to sacrifice any of the other learning experiences provided to the children just for the sake of the test."

The St. Aloysius parents I spoke with unanimously identified the school's strong academic focus and sense of order as the main reasons they were willing to take on tuition bills rather than settling for a free public school. "It's St. Aloysius's philosophy of education that's most important to me," says Steven Richardson, an employee of the New York Police Department and a non-Catholic. Richardson has two children in the school and qualifies for only a small discount from the official tuition. "It's more than worth it to me," he says. "My children come home and they get right to their homework. They have developed a love for learning that comes from their dedicated teachers and also a sense of responsibility and independence to do the hard work."

St. Aloysius's classroom instruction is fortified by the school's moral tone, which manifests a shared spiritual mission that begins anew every morning at 8 am, when students and teachers gather in the basement cafeteria for a reading from Scripture and a homily intended as inspiration for the day's work. Not everyone at St. Aloysius teaches as well as Lauren Carfora, needless to say. But the hiring handicap posed by financial and contractual limitations is partly offset by the fact that every staff member embraces the school's mission. In such a small, purpose-driven community, it is unlikely that any teacher can coast. With teachers and administrators following the same rich, organized school curriculum, moreover, there are limits to the damage that a weaker teacher might cause.

I was able to appreciate the power of that mission-driven culture when I attended one of St. Aloysius's Friday afternoon staff meetings. The teachers and the principals were working on revising a statement of core principles for the school, derived from Jesuit education doctrines, called "The Graduate at Graduation." The purpose of the document is to remind St. Aloysius teachers in every grade of the character traits and intellectual qualities that they should develop in their students before graduation. Teachers discussed the "competencies" that graduates should exhibit in areas like intellectual growth, commitment to social justice (as defined by the Gospels, not by Teachers College), openness to others, and religious knowledge. As several teachers made clear, the underlying premise of the document was to nurture good "Christian behavior" in the children. At one point, several teachers brought up the Jesuit ideal of becoming "men and women for others" and how that might translate into specific guidelines for classroom instruction. There then ensued a wide-ranging conversation about the meaning of generosity in students' everyday behavior.

I listened to the conversation with amazement and thought about how unlikely this would have been in any public school.

I listened to the conversation with amazement and thought about how unlikely this would have been in any public school. The constitutional prohibitions against religion-based activities in tax-supported institutions wouldn't be the only obstacle; another would be the entirely self-imposed taboo against encouraging such virtues and practices as sexual restraint, hard work, and charity. At St. Aloysius, I heard ordinary elementary school educators get to the heart of what it means to be fully educated, as well as how their school might be able to mold young people into responsible citizens of a diverse democracy.

How much is it worth to New York to retain schools that are dealing with questions so essential to our society? 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.

There remains a fundamental imbalance in these charitable efforts 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. Because the government has washed its hands of the problem, the future of schools like St. Aloysius has become an inescapable moral challenge confronting the city's education-philanthropy community.




Sol Stern. "Why Catholic Schools Matter." City Journal (Spring, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of City Journal.

City Journal is published by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.


Sol Stern is a contributing editor to City Journal and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. He writes passionately on education reform, and his writings on that topic have helped shape the terms of the current debate in New York City.

Stern is the author of the newly released Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice. Aside from his work in City Journal, Stern’s articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Magazine, Commentary, The New Republic, the Daily News, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York, Sports Illustrated, and The New Statesmen.

Mr. Stern was an editor and staff writer for Ramparts magazine between 1966 and 1972. He then spent the next 12 years as a freelance writer and editor. From 1985 to 1994, Mr. Stern served as Director of Issues, Press Secretary, and Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the City Council President of New York. In 1994, he was appointed Executive Director of a New York State Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform, where he served for one year. After leaving state government, Mr. Stern returned to journalism.

Mr. Stern grew up in New York City and graduated from Stuyvesant High School and the City College of New York. He received an M.A. in political science from the State University of Iowa and did further graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Ruth Stern, who teaches in a New York City public junior high school, and their two children, who both attend public school.

Copyright © 2011 City Journal

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