Tag Archives: character education

My Slow-Motion Catholic School Epiphany

I am not Catholic and I have never worked in a Catholic school. I’d always known there are urban Catholic schools with a mission very similar to Bellwether’s, but the schools themselves were somewhat of a black box to me. I haven’t been for or against Catholic schools — just indifferent (or agnostic?). Knowing that Catholic schools are by far the largest group of private schools in the world, this felt like a miss.

However, I’ve been on a sort of Catholic school pilgrimage over the past two years. I’ve built a close relationship with Bellwether client Partnership Schools (PNYC), a nonprofit organization (somewhat akin to a CMO) that manages seven New York City Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. I’ve also worked with EdChoice and Brilla Public Charter Schools, and collaborated with colleagues who’ve written a whole lot about Catholic schools. 

P012506PM-0291 Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John react as they watch the arrival of Marine One to the South Lawn of the White House with President George W. Bush aboard Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

Photo by Paul Morse

As I learned more, a few things immediately surprised me about Catholic schools in general and PNYC’s schools in particular:

  1. Many (sometimes most) kids who attend PNYC schools aren’t actually Catholic! The primary goal of urban Catholic schools isn’t to create little Catholics — it’s to serve those in need. As one PNYC team member put it (echoing what others have said): “We teach our kids because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
  2. While connected to a massive international church (and sometimes an operator like PNYC), Catholic schools are strongly committed to local control because of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions be made by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralized competent authority.
  3. While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
  4. Few PNYC teachers are nuns (or have any formal connection to the church). Most teach for reasons similar to other teachers — a belief in the transformative power of education, a desire to serve, and a love of children. The key addition in the case of PNYC is the faith-based motivation that inspires many to choose Catholic schools over their charter or district-run peers.
  5. PNYC’s teachers are unionized. While this is rare in the private school sector, there are actually a few different Catholic educator associations operating nationwide.  

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Violence Prevention Efforts Hit Close to Home for Me and My Students

I — like many Americans — have been engaging in a daily routine of relief every afternoon that the news does not report another school shooting.

But the violence in low-income, urban areas where I’ve lived and worked are also on my mind. I was a teacher in South Central Los Angeles, where my students risked their safety simply by walking to school. I’m from Chicago, a city notorious worldwide for its rate of violent crime (when I lived in London and mentioned I’m from Chicago, a typical response was, “Isn’t that the murder capital of America?”). And a prior student from St. Louis, Reh’yen — a black, male teenager, one of my all-time favorite students — was shot and killed a few months ago, an incident I am still grappling with.

“Violence in Chicago: Realities + Root Causes” panel brought young civic leaders and Cook County State’s Attorney @SAKimFoxx to the stage to share personal stories and real solutions. #ABetterChicago – at Venue SIX10

Panel photo via @_abetterchicago on Twitter

And yet, data presented at a recent conference — A Better Chicago’s annual Education Summit — was still shocking to me: In a survey of six hundred African American students in Chicago, one third reported seeing a dead body not related to a funeral. How can we possibly expect kids to focus (let alone flourish) in school when this kind of violence is an inescapable reality? And how can we accept that there is only 1 social worker per 1,200 students in Chicago Public Schools?

Weeks later I continue to be taken aback by the raw, simple, and necessary words of the panelists who spoke on the topic of violence at the Summit. Continue reading