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A Lifeline for Minorities, Catholic Schools Retrench

By  | June 20, 2013
The New York Times

Sonia Sotomayor lives in Washington, but she has never forgotten her roots in the Bronx. On a drizzly March afternoon, she returned to Blessed Sacrament School, where she began her celebrated, if improbable, journey from her South Bronx childhood to the Supreme Court. But instead of a joyous reunion, it was more of a valedictory for her and the children — the school is closing for good.

“I’m really upset,” Justice Sotomayor told a fourth-grade class. “It’s hard to say goodbye. I won’t tell you it’s easy. I won’t lie to you.”

The children drew close and peppered her with questions: Why is the archdiocese closing the school? Doesn’t it know their parents worked hard? Why couldn’t it come up with the money? One girl, crying, got up and slumped into Justice Sotomayor’s embrace. The justice, her voice steady and reassuring, reminded the children to cherish the good times and move confidently ahead. But later, she, too, revealed her pain.

“The worst thing is, these kids could lose their faith in the adults around them,” she said in an interview inside her old fifth-grade classroom. “Children need to feel secure. This makes it worse. These kids are going to carry this trauma with them for the rest of their lives.”

Justice Sotomayor’s emotions are shared by a generation of accomplished Latino and black professionals and public servants who went from humble roots to successful careers thanks to Catholic schools. But they fear that a springboard that has helped numerous poor and working-class minority students achieve rewarding lives is eroding as Catholic schools close their doors in the face of extraordinary financial challenges and demographic shifts.

Since 2011, the Archdiocese of New York has closed 56 schools, the vast majority of them elementary schools, including 13 in the Bronx. Now 219 schools remain in the education system. Blessed Sacrament is one of 26 schools closing this year throughout the archdiocese, which covers the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and seven counties north of New York City.

According to archdiocesan figures, enrollment in elementary and high schools shrank to 75,875 this year from 95,837 in 2006. While the Latino percentage of total enrollment increased during that period, the proportion of black elementary school students dropped precipitously, to 17 percent of enrollment from 31 percent.

Catholic high schools, which routinely boast of near 100 percent college admissions for their graduates, are worried that they will face harder times with fewer parochial schools to feed their ranks. And minority alumni are increasingly alarmed that New York will be deprived of a future generation of professionals — like lawyers, doctors and executives — to contribute economic and cultural vitality.

“The Catholic schools have been a pipeline to opportunity for generations,” said Justice Sotomayor, who was raised by her mother after her father, an alcoholic, died. “It gave people like me the chance to be successful. It provided me and my brother with an incredible environment of security. Not every school provides that.”

The story is much the same in other large cities, including Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, where church officials have closed or consolidated schools.

Besides Justice Sotomayor, the list of New York Catholic elementary school alumni includes Cesar A. Perales, the New York secretary of state; Fernando Ferrer, a former Bronx borough president; Bobby Sanabria, a Grammy-nominated musician and educator; Theodore M. Shaw, a former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Julissa Reynoso, the United States ambassador to Uruguay.

Like their Irish and Italian predecessors, their parents chose Catholic schools believing that they offered a better education than the local public schools and taught religious values that would help keep their children on the right path.

For its part, the archdiocese says it is not abandoning urban schools, even after several wrenching years of closings, shoring up finances and reassuring angry parents and fearful alumni.

Having moved away from the old parish-based elementary school model, Catholic school officials have created regional districts where resources and help are more efficiently shared. And for the schools that are vulnerable, especially those in places like the South Bronx, the officials have established a $20 million annual fund to provide scholarships and a $6 million fund for operating expenses.

“The inner city is where we do our best work,” said Timothy J. McNiff, the archdiocese’s superintendent of schools. “Why would we walk away from it?”

Accomplishing that mission was a lot easier during the school system’s golden era in the 1960s, when low-paid nuns taught classrooms bursting with youngsters in parishes where large congregations contributed enough to keep tuition low. Mr. Ferrer said his mother paid about $4 a month to send him and a sister to St. Anselm’s in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today it would be $420 for two children.

The draw, Mr. Ferrer said, was not only that the parochial school system provided a better education than available in the public schools, but also that it was a Catholic education rooted in shared values.

“Puerto Ricans by and large are culturally conservative,” he said. “My mother was faithful to the traditions from Puerto Rico, which valued that. There was enormous trust of religion. To whom else would you entrust your children?”

That trust was strong enough to lead Nelly Maseda’s father to insist she be taken out of public school in Washington Heights and enrolled at Incarnation elementary school in the 1970s. He was dying of cancer, leaving her to be raised by a mentally ill mother, a drug-addicted brother and a brother with a violent temper.

It was at Aquinas High School in the Bronx that she discovered her talents, motivated by teachers with high expectations and a guidance counselor who encouraged her.

She once thought she would be a secretary. Instead, she became a pediatrician.

“I had no self-esteem,” Dr. Maseda said. “But Aquinas, without a doubt, made all the difference. It gave me a vision of what I could be.”

For some black students, Catholic schools were a place to compete and prove themselves. Mr. Shaw, now a professor at Columbia Law School, said his experience as one of the few blacks at Holy Family School in the Bronx taught him a valuable life lesson.

“I was near the top of the class,” Professor Shaw said. “That myth of racial inferiority and superiority was dispelled for me because I went to school with white students.”

A more formative experience awaited him in high school, when he was selected for one for the earliest classes of the Archbishop’s Leadership Project in the late 1960s, which took promising black teenagers and exposed them to black literature, history and culture.

“It was not a college-bound program, per se,” Professor Shaw said. “It was to train people to be leaders in their communities.”

He thinks the stakes are even higher now. He said the wave of parochial school closings could not come at a worse time. The Supreme Court, which includes his Cardinal Spellman High School classmate Justice Sotomayor, will soon rule on what is expected to be a landmark affirmative action case on college admissions.

“This could be an opportunity for the court to strike a fatal blow against affirmative action or diversity efforts,” he said. “At the same time that is happening, you’re seeing the closure of many of the Catholics schools in black and brown communities. That is a double blow, since the only way they had been in a position to compete for admission into elite institutions has been because of their Catholic school education.”

The system that educated tens of thousands of working-class and poor children has itself been substantially transformed. The Second Vatican Council prompted droves of nuns to leave teaching for other careers, and a steep, and continuing, drop in the vocations led the schools to rely on lay teachers who demanded fair wages and better working conditions.

While some local public schools in poor areas continue to perform below average on reading and math scores, the rise of charter schools and small theme-based academies has presented parents with alternatives that a previous generation did not have. Many of these newer schools try to replicate the discipline, core curriculum and even the uniforms of Catholic schools.

But Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, said part of the reason for the success of parochial schools was the partnership forged with parents and the community, which is not always the case with charter schools.

“I think it is a mistake to say the charter schools will fill the void left by parochial schools,” said Dr. Noguera, whose research has focused on the achievement of black and Latino boys, adding, “It is a huge void that unfortunately the public schools cannot fill because they do not have the same values and culture.”

The close bond between parents and Catholic schools has been tested as the system has faced financial disaster. In 2008, Dr. McNiff, the schools superintendent, noted, there was a systemwide deficit of $23 million that had to be paid not by individual schools, but by the archdiocese.

The result was a series of closings that have left many bitter. But Dr. McNiff said closing half-empty schools that were in aging buildings provided significant savings. And the fact that about two-thirds of the students in closed schools transferred to other parochial schools helped strengthen the remaining schools.

He is now looking to next year, when he expects the State Legislature to consider tax incentives that could allow corporations to finance scholarships for parochial school students — something already happening in 17 states.

“We’re trying to hold the line,” he said. “It’s a false impression that we’re walking away from Catholic education. We closed a number of buildings, but there are still seats for all the children who want to go to our system.”

As the archdiocese goes forward with fewer schools, the task is to reassure parents.

At Blessed Sacrament, Justice Sotomayor’s old school, three quarters of the fourth-grade class is transferring to Santa Maria School, a few stops away on the No. 6 line. Liz Luciano, a single mother and surgical sales representative, had thought of sending her son Edward to a charter school, but decided against it in favor of Santa Maria.

She is still angry about how the archdiocese went about closing the school, after suggesting parents might be able to devise a plan to save it before the decision to close it was made. “I think they lied to us,” Ms. Luciano said. “We never had a chance.”

The transition for her is a bit easier, since she can drive her son to school as well as benefit from a scholarship that allows her to pay $200 a month, instead of the full $440 tuition.

“We have to go out of our way now to take our kids to a different school that we’re not sure is not going to close,” she said. “They say it’s not. But we know they’ve wanted to close these schools for a long time.”

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