Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anger, hurt... and then some.

The big announcement came, after much anticipation and speculation, and 49 schools in the Archidocese of Philadelphia will close or combine at the end of this school year.  It was a day of angst for many who waited to hear if their schools were on 'the list' and the afternoon brought sadness for all, even if their own school wasn't one that would be closed.  Sadness because Catholic education as we know it is forever changed, and for many it will not be an option in the future.   This is not just a local phenomenon either, as Catholic schools throughout the country are facing similar questions of closing and/or consolidation. 
It is particularly troubling from the angle of justice.  Many of the young children, particularly in the inner city, who depend on Catholic education as an alternative to their neighborhood public schools will be forced to attend the school district of Philadelphia, with a high school graduation rate of 56% over four years.  Now, when the Catholic schools close or consolidate, there are alternative sites where the students can attend (the schools that weren't on the list).  But for many, the distance to travel is too far or poses difficulty for parents who may need to accompany their children to school.  Additionally, many of the economically disadvantaged students have received scholarships or decreased tuition, which is becoming (or has become) a rarity in the current economic climate in the Catholic Church.  So, these kids are left to fend for themselves, in schools where violence is a given on a daily basis.  They'll pass through metal detectors on their way to homeroom.  They'll sit in over-sized classrooms without sufficient learning materials and try to be among the 56% who graduate.  This doesn't seem fair, or at least, it doesn't seem to be true to the message of Jesus.
I was educated in public school up until high school.  But, I am fairly certain had I attended the public school in my hometown, I'd be just as successful (if not more) than I am, having attended a Catholic high school.  I grew up in an area (at the time at least-- they've been affected by budget problems, too) where the public schools provided an excellent education in an environment that was caring, loving, and an extension of our community.  I am still friends with some of my (public) grade school teachers on facebook and our families regularly exchange Christmas cards.  So I didn't have to face the dire circumstances in Philadelphia public schools as a child.  But I've seen them firsthand when I was a social worker.  It's not pretty.  It's depressing in many of the schools.  And Catholic education provided an alternative, a safer option, providing not just physical safety but also a sense of stability and empowerment for kids who might not get that at home.
Do we give up hope, then?
Well, just because you asked... there is a wonderful new model of Catholic education about to make its debut in Philadelphia that provides that element of hope for the kids I am describing.  The Cristo Rey Network will open the doors of its first Philadelphia-area high school in September of 2012 to 125 freshmen.  Cristo Rey is a coeducational high school, the product of collaboration between various religious orders in the US to provide affordable Catholic education and expose them to career opportunities to populations of students who may not otherwise be able to attend (often due to economic circumstances).  Cristo Rey has a different model of school, as students typically attend classes four days a week and then work one day per week.  Their placements provide job training, spark curiosity for future career options, and help to defray the cost of tuition for the students.  The school day is extended and the school year is extended, providing a community setting for students and their families to be involved and benefit from this unique opportunity.  Oh, and their graduation and college acceptance rate?  Um, 99%!  (check out their website) Yes.  So there is hope, in the creative vision of people who are seeking, living and advocating for the voiceless.  Thank God.

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