American education needs more miracles

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By Stephanie Saroki de García

The Archdiocese of Memphis, Tennessee, announced last week that it intends to close ten schools, all of them part of the “Jubilee Catholic Schools” consortium. Hailed as the “Memphis Miracle” twenty years ago when previously-shuttered inner-city Catholic schools were resurrected to provide a preferential option for the poor in a city with too few good education options, they’ve now fallen victim to the systemic problems that plague so many other Catholic schools, above all an obsolete funding model. In the past, highly educated, truly caring, and strongly motivated religious sisters, brothers, and priests staffed these schools for little or no pay, making it possible to offer an almost free and generally excellent education to many of our nation’s most underserved children, as well as many middle class youngsters from Catholic families. But declines in Catholic religious vocations, anachronistic Blaine amendment obstacles to state funding, and strong public school lobbies render this model unworkable today in many places. In just a few decades, Catholic schools have gone from serving five million students annually to half that number.

This is heartbreaking for myriad reasons. Research, for example, has found that similar closings in Chicago were associated with more crime and disorder. And although charter schools often replace defunct Catholic schools, that same research found that charters “do not yet appear to generate the same positive community benefits.”

My theory, grounded in both personal and professional experience, is that these valuable communal benefits emanate from Catholic schools being schools of virtue. Places that educate the whole child—mind, body, and soul. Such models are increasingly rare, however, and will become extinct if we aren’t careful.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. It’s possible for charter schools to be similarly virtuous. And the story of how I came to open some is illustrative of why we need to—and can—open more of them.

I am one of six children born to an immigrant Iraqi Catholic family. Our parents taught us that, while we are on this earth, we are called to use the gifts God gave us to serve others. That message is why my older brother is a priest, why I joined Teach For America eighteen years ago, and what motivates my work today.

My time as a TFA corps member was pivotal. I had exited from Berkeley with a degree in rhetoric. My mother would often ask me, “What the heck is ‘rhetoric’?” “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m going to law school,” I’d say. But I never did. TFA assigned me to teach English in the second toughest high school in Oakland, California, and it changed everything.

Teaching consumed me. And so did my anger. I was angry that some of my tenth graders had never been taught to read; that forty-five classes had no regular teacher for the first three months of school; that having the S.W.A.T. team outside my classroom door was taken for granted. I was angry at the state, the district, and my principal. I was angry with myself for every child I failed. I had no idea what it would be like to fight and fight and fight and only sometimes win.

Something else happened during those two years of teaching: I returned to my faith, which I had largely lost during college. Student after student came to me with problems that no teenager should have to face and that no twenty-two-year-old should need to solve. So I turned to God. I prayed for my students and their families when I learned of their troubles. I prayed when I couldn’t make them better. I prayed for guidance. I prayed for forgiveness. But, always, those prayers were in private. I wanted to talk with my kids about God, to tell them that, even if their father on earth abandoned them, they had a Father in heaven who loved them completely and was always with them. But I had no idea how to navigate such a conversation in the context of a secular public school. Not being able to talk with my students about Christ was like teaching with one hand tied behind my back.

I decided that I needed to learn more if I were to help fix our broken education system. So when I finished my commitment to TFA, I went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to study public policy to better understand how this amazing country of ours could possibly allow children to attend the school where I taught, and to learn what I could do about it.

Upon graduation, I accepted a job at the Philanthropy Roundtable, which was much friendlier to my faith than Berkeley, Harvard, and TFA. My colleagues and I believed that America’s underserved children needed more great schools of all kinds—be they district, charter, or private, including those that are faith-based. We believed, like the Catholic Church, that parents should have the right to decide how to educate their own children. In this country, if you have money, you can move to a neighborhood with good public schools or send your child to a private school. But if you don't have money, you don't have this freedom. The Church tells us, as a matter of justice, that this is wrong.

At the Roundtable, I learned about the legacy of Catholic schools serving the poor. For two hundred years, they were the opportunity-equalizing force in America for underserved children—Catholic and non-Catholic alike. You could even say the original Teach For America was an army of nuns who founded and built and taught in schools that gave disadvantaged children—especially new immigrants—a decent shot at success. And they accomplished this by respecting the inherent dignity of all children, by holding them all to high academic expectations, by providing them a strong foundation in core subjects, and, vitally, by nurturing in them a deep sense of something greater than themselves.

During my five years at the Roundtable, I regularly spoke with Michelle Rhee about joining her team. And when she agreed to serve as D.C. Schools Chancellor in 2007, I thought I might be able to help her. But then I spoke with my older brother, who said something that stayed with me: “Stephanie, if you can’t help children to know God, you’ll only ever get so far with them.” So in 2009 I left the Roundtable, but not to work with Rhee. Instead, feeling called to help in that way, I co-founded—with KIPP pioneer Scott Hamilton—a national non-profit that we named Seton Education Partners.

Our goal was—and still is—to expand opportunities for underserved children in America to receive an academically excellent and vibrantly Catholic education. Seton partners with (arch)dioceses and others across the country to implement innovative and sustainable new models that bridge the best of Catholic education's rich tradition with new possibilities.

Part of our work is operating sixteen blended-learning urban schools in eight cities. Thirteen of these are Catholic schools; the other three are charter schools in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest communities. That latter effort began in 2011 when the Archdiocese of New York made the heartbreaking decision to close almost sixty schools due to declining enrollment and financial instability—the very same trouble that’s forced similar decisions in so many other cities, including last week in Memphis.

Most of the recently shuttered New York schools served mostly low-income and minority children in grades K–8. They provided these boys and girls a safe haven and a holistic education that nurtured theirs heads, hearts, and spirits. In response to these closings, and at the Church’s request, Seton Education Partners set out to pioneer a new charter school model that, when paired with a vibrant after-school faith-formation program, which is voluntary for children and that does not use government funds, would achieve the goals of Catholic education for the poor—and would do so in a financially sustainable way that complies with charter school laws in both word and spirit.

The first school to operate under this model was Brilla College Preparatory Charter School, which opened in the South Bronx in August 2013. Starting with two hundred kindergarten and first grade students, today it serves 650 children in grades K–5 across three campuses. Brilla students are primarily minority (roughly two-thirds Latino, one third African American), and more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The network has achieved academic growth results that parallel the nation’s strongest charter schools. And, more importantly, it’s pioneered a unique way to help children and staff grow virtuously by using a secular approach to character education that is rooted in Catholic tradition.

Alongside the Brilla network, Seton also launched El Camino, a daily, optional after-school faith-formation program that helps children know, love, and serve Christ and His Church. In just four years, more than seventy children have been baptized, and parents have said that El Camino has transformed their entire family.

Today, Brilla has a waiting list of over 1,600 children, and El Camino is at capacity. Even as we watch more Catholic schools get shuttered, we’re working to grow this pioneering, sustainable model to serve many more underserved children who no longer have access to a full-on Catholic education. But we’re doing something even more important. We are helping children to grow in virtue and to know, love, and serve Christ. We want our children to make it to college and heaven. That is the full package.

My friend Chester Finn recently penned an article titled “Truth decay,” which highlights the difference between critical thinking and knowledge in the pursuit of truth. Having attended the University of California as an undergrad, I saw relativism and post-modernism ravage every cranny of the campus—whether in the classes taught by misguided professors, the halls where I was a Resident Assistant, and even the Catholic Newman Center, where a Paulist priest once made fun of the Blessed Pope John Paul II in a homily, to cackles from parishioners. Taking their cues from these bad college-level examples, too many of today’s K–12 educators instill students with a universal skepticism that prevents them from determining and accepting facts where they exist. This is a dangerous distortion of critical thinking that harms our children.

Our schools, on the contrary, are rooted in truth—the kind that the ancient Greeks described, the kind that teaches right from wrong and reality from fiction. Our charter schools are not Catholic—institutions that cannot be explicit about Christ throughout the day cannot be considered religious. But like Catholic schools they take seriously the desperate need to educate children in virtues like courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control. Though not explicitly religious, these are transcendental values.

We need more schools of virtue, and not just of the Catholic variety. We need more Jewish schools, more Mormon schools, more Lutheran schools, more Baptist schools—more schools that are not only academically strong but that also give kids a solid moral foundation that aligns with their families’ traditions and values. We need more schools that respect what it truly means to be human and that educate the whole child, mind, body, and soul. We need schools that help provide an authentic understanding of true human fulfillment and flourishing, especially for children that may be living in abject poverty. And the thing is, if you ask black and Latino families, by and large, they want to see more of these schools too.

For the caring educators whose hearts break for their students but who are constrained by rigid bureaucracies or mentalities, we need to experiment and pilot new ways of teaching timeless truths and values. It may be a little messy, but doing the same thing while passively watching urban Catholic schools close does not seem right. I wish and pray for Memphis’s Jubilee schools to transition successfully into charters. Launching ten charter schools at once is not for the faint of heart, and is even harder when the charters are charged with imparting virtue, as well as knowledge and skills. But the city’s children are counting on leaders to get it right. All of us who care about the future of Catholic education in this country are.

Stephanie Saroki de García is co-founder and managing director of Seton Education Partners.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.