Catholic schools offer stability, choice to neighborhood parents

Editor's note: The Archdiocese of Boston is finalizing plans this month to restructure our neighborhood's remaining Catholic grammar schools, a process known as the 2010 Initiative. Cardinal Sean O'Malley is expected to announce details of the plan, which is likely to include school closings, by the end of this month. In this context, this article looks back at the roots of Catholic education in Dorchester.

Marie St. Fleur was 6 years old when her family left Haiti for the United States. After being excluded from a Catholic School in New Jersey, she would become one of the first black students at St. Patrick's School in Roxbury, and only the second at Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School.

"The reason we came to Boston was Catholic schools," she said.

The future state Rep. for Dorchester was a pioneer, but she was also following in the footsteps of her parents, who had gone to Haiti's Catholic schools. Catholic immigrants from Haiti, Vietnam, and Cape Verde have made Dorchester's Catholic schools and parishes more diverse. But the attraction of Catholic schools for immigrants is hardly new.

In World War II Boston, Catholic schools were part of a flourishing institution. The prolific fund-raising powers of Cardinal Richard Cushing pushed unprecedented school expansion. Religious nuns who took vows of poverty taught classrooms that might seat more than 50 children.

Even when students chose an elite public school or went to high school outside their parish, they could keep a connection to the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). Under supervision of clergy and adult volunteers, teens could perform in marching bands, play for sports teams, or stage a production with their CYO.

In the decades before WW II, Catholic schools around Boston expanded with the population. But, according to historian James W. Sanders, the rate of expansion in Boston lagged behind that of other Catholic communities around the country. Among other factors, Boston's overwhelmingly Irish-American Catholics - unlike large French, Polish, or German Catholic concentrations -didn't need a separate school system for teaching children their parents' native language.

Additionally, by 1915, Irish-American political control in Boston had spread to the public school system. Public school teachers and administrators were required to be non-denominational, according to Sanders, but they were strongly influenced by their own Catholic educations.

"Because Catholics were in almost total control of the Boston public schools by the 1920s, many Catholics probably saw little difference between them and the parochial schools," wrote Sanders. "The two systems seemed to be converging."

During the early 20th century, Sanders noted, the idea that all students should finish high school was a novelty. But post WW II, the GI Bill made higher education more common. It was during these decades that the Archdiocese saw dramatic growth in the number of trans-parish Catholic high schools. Instead of just being a part of parish life, Catholic schools could give students an edge getting into college.

In these same years, Sanders believes the paths of public and Catholic schools began to diverge. In public schools, the changing student population led to a growing disconnect with teachers and administrators in some schools, and a growing recognition of racial inequality. Attempts to remedy this through desegregation, for better or for worse, only increased the upheaval in the public system, compared to the relative stability of the Catholic schools.

When state Rep. Martin Walsh attended St. Margaret's School on Columbia Road in the early 1970's, he noticed the students coming from the William E. Russell School - just down the street - usually came home without books.

"If I didn't come home with a book," said Walsh, "there was something wrong."

Walsh's parents were from Ireland, where, Catholic education was "very strict." Any lapse in his Dorchester classroom would be reported to his parents. Skipping homework was not an option.

"I think there was a lot more emphasis on education," he said.

St. Fleur remembers her Catholic school teachers as "engaged," with "authority over students to make sure they did what was necessary."

"I think the authority of the teacher is very important," said St. Fleur. "If you're in a classroom that's being run by children, there's no learning going on."

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about his travels around early America, he described Catholicism as preparing parishioners more for obedience than inequality - and the Protestant approach more toward independence than equality. But there was also a difference from European Catholicism, often a state religion. Catholic clergy in America saw themselves as leaders of a vulnerable minority, so they were more disposed to carry the idea of equality of conditions into the realm of politics.

More than a century and a half later, Dorchester legislators still see the potential of Catholic values to further equality, now by breaking down racial barriers.

"One of the beautiful things about Catholicism," said St. Fleur, "is that it's universal."

Walsh sees the effect of those values on little leaguers he coaches in Savin Hill.

"I have kids from different backgrounds on my team [that] go to the same (Catholic) school," he said. "There's a sense of respect."

The dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, Rev. Joseph O'Keefe, S.J., says urban Catholic schools can still combine "a sense of high expectations about academics and behavior" with values that reinforce the sense of self-worth among all students. And the message for each student is, as he put it: "This kid is a child of God and has potential."

And, by Catholic teaching, self-worth is not defined strictly by scores on tests or playing fields.

"It's also a sense of how you want to live your life," said Rev. O'Keefe, "of community service, and dedication."

Rev. O'Keefe believes students from disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit from urban Catholic schools, provided there are certain conditions.

"They tend to be smaller. They tend to have a higher level of family engagement," he said. "For every kid who goes to a Catholic school, somebody made the choice for them to go there."

Boston Archdiocese spokesperson Terrence Donilon said Catholic schools have a very high percentage of students who complete grade 12, and then go on to college. By contrast, he referred to charter and district public schools that lose relatively high numbers of students before grade 12, as "dropout factories."

There's also concern about how advantages of a Catholic education can be sustained, given the shift of Boston's Catholic population and assets to the suburbs.

In the 70s, Walsh said his family spent $280 a year to educate two children in St. Margaret's.

"But, today," he said, "you're talking about three, four, and five thousand dollars per kid, and you're talking about a working-class neighborhood."

Rev. O'Keefe said the struggle for resources could force urban Catholic schools to leave the parish model behind. There will have to be more partnerships with community agencies and even public schools.

"Bake sales just don't make it any more," he said.

Urban Catholic schools will also have to be more responsive to neighborhood violence, he said, and compete with public schools that can demonstrate their advantages through test scores.

But St. Fleur said she's concerned that consolidation might leave some students in Dorchester behind.

"These kids are looking for a place where they can have what I found," said St. Fleur. "My hope is that there is a fair assessment of where the demographic growth is in the Archdiocese."

Walsh acknowledged that as the number of urban Catholic schools must decrease along with enrollment, they will have to attract families by adding new programs, and even take on some of the features of charter schools. But, he said, a sense of community would be even more difficult to retain in Dorchester if school or parish consolidations turn more Catholics away from the church.

"Dorchester is still a neighborhood-driven part of Massachusetts, unique to the rest of the country. And if we lose the churches, we lose our identity," he said. "If we lose that sense of community, people are going to go where they can find that sense of community."

Chris Lovett is the news director of Neighborhood Network News on Boston's BNN-TV.

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