Rice men: Lessons at a Harlem high school

The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem
By Patrick J. McCloskey
Published by University of California Press, $27.50

In the 1980s, James Coleman's studies of the effectiveness of Catholic schools showed that despite factors that would cause one to expect these schools to perform more poorly than their public school counterparts, they, in fact, did much better. Their students performed better on standardized tests, they had higher graduation rates, and they had, in the most difficult neighborhoods of the nation's cities, managed to keep the street out of the school. Although controversial when first reported, later studies almost invariably have confirmed Coleman's findings.

At the same time, Catholic schools were facing difficulties. The religious brothers, priests and nuns who once carried the most significant teaching burdens in these schools were disappearing, and rising costs and the inability of many parents to meet tuition exacerbated the problem. By the time the 21st century came, many of the schools were closing -- notwithstanding their successes.

There have been many efforts to support students in Catholic schools and thereby preserve the institutions that have served students so well. Vouchers have been tried and charter schools have become more established, really as a reaction to failing public schools. Generous philanthropists have come forward to make the connection between students and sponsors. In many cases the students get to know their sponsors. Several Catholic dioceses have begun the process of seeking more direct government support of the students in schools, conceding a measure of autonomy to satisfy First Amendment concerns.

If one needs to see at ground level why it is worth making the effort to save these schools, one should read Patrick J. McCloskey's The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem. Rice High School is an all-boys school on 124th Street in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. It was founded by the Irish Christian Brothers in 1938 and at first was staffed almost entirely by the brothers. Its student body then was overwhelmingly white boys from Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn. But through the 1960s it began to change its racial composition until by the 1970s it had become a black high school serving a significant number of non-Catholic boys. It was also struggling to maintain its academic reputation and to meet increasing budget shortfalls.

While others have told the story of Catholic education today, none have told the story on the school level better than McCloskey, who chronicles the 1999-2000 academic year by being a daily presence at Rice and engaging students, parents, teachers and administrators to tell their story in compelling ways. Total access, which is what McCloskey had, is an incredible testimony to the Rice administrators, who allowed the story to be told, "warts and all."

The principal, Orlando Gober, an inspiring black man of incredible strengths and some tragic flaws, is at the center of the tale. He is seen in his many roles at the school -- charismatic leader, mentor, child advocate, black empowerer and preserver of the faith. He has arrived at Catholicism by choice, takes God seriously and church authority less so. He clashes with many at the school with a take-no-prisoners mentality. He is determined to enhance academics and is less interested in Rice's storied basketball program. He teaches respect, enforces a dress code, bans the N-word and makes discipline a central part of the academic program. He does it with a staff of many personalities and strengths. Respect for students is also a key component of the program, and their academic success is treasured.

The odds are against these youngsters, who are portrayed in depth throughout the book. Many are from dysfunctional families, live in neighborhoods that are unsafe and risk the wrath of many of their peers who resent their success. They themselves are not angels. A number of them deal drugs, belong to gangs and live in a world that is barely barred at the schoolhouse door. They can be threatening to one another and experience more discipline at Rice than many of them can bear.

But Rice has something significant going for these students -- even if they don't realize it: At Rice, these young men are expected to succeed, and their human dignity is affirmed in their interactions with the adults who staff the school. College is the goal, and many of them make it. The formal religious practices of the Catholic faith are not frequent, but the fact that they are seen to be saints in the making gives the students a respect that is not found in too many public schools. They all know they are "Rice men," and that knowledge brings forth self-confidence and self-discipline.

Their stories, and those of the staff, are heroic ones. They defy the odds -- teachers work harder and longer days for less pay than public school teachers. Students are encouraged to overcome their difficulties and not bemoan their fate. And the stories are often hard ones. In fact, the enormous commitment and sacrifice of Gober ultimately results in a death several years after McCloskey's visit.

The book's publication date was delayed for several reasons, and the delay allowed McCloskey to track students several years after their time at Rice. In the last chapter, we see that while not all the outcomes are good ones, most are, overwhelmingly so. Those who are successful bring home the message that Rice High School does very good things for youngsters.

The Street Stops Here gives us reason to be hopeful for those lucky enough to attend a school that loves them, nurtures them, teaches them to be men and to live productive lives. Since getting this assignment, I visited Rice, met with Br. Michael Segvich, the current principal, talked to staff and students and saw a fine, safe school with fine instruction taking place. I realized as well that generous benefactors have made the difference that keeps Rice High School alive.

Policymakers who are thinking of what the loss of Catholic schools means should read The Street Stops Here. They will see why they must take action. Unfortunately, as with almost all issues in politics today, our leaders see solutions in terms of spending money rather than in terms of empowerment they can encourage and help provide. If President Obama would govern with this understanding about education, there would indeed be change we can believe in. We can only hope.

Frank J. Macchiarola is chancellor of St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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