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Making the grade in Memphis

Catholic education’s success, however, was hard earned. The nation’s first urban underclass formed in the mid-19th century and was composed mostly of Irish Catholics who began arriving in significant numbers at port cities such as New York in the 1820s. Then in 1842, the first potato famine hit Ireland precipitating a deluge of even more impoverished immigrants, completely unprepared for urban life. The Famine Irish were mostly illiterate farm workers lacking the funds to venture inland and the job skills to integrate seamlessly. They took the least desirable jobs as laborers, domestics and seamstresses, and resisted assimilation clinging to clannish and often dysfunctional behavior. Vicious Irish gangs flourished, and jails, insane asylums, and poor houses filled with Irish Catholics. New York became the most populous city in the Western hemisphere in succeeding decades with the largest concentration of urban poor.

In succeeding decades, as the Irish inched up the socioeconomic ladder via small business, political patronage, and institutions such as the police force, a large underclass remained mired in squalor and dysfunction. Prostitution was rampant among Irish women and girls in an economy that paid females very poorly and was prone to frequent recessions. Not coincidentally, tens of thousands of abandoned Irish children roamed the streets forming junior versions of adult gangs—even establishing their own adolescent saloons—and soon becoming the next generation of criminals. In the 1870s, Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant philanthropist and founder of the Children’s Aid Society, whose primary purpose was to rescue these abandoned children, warned that this underclass might become permanent and wreak long-term havoc on the rest of society.

The racial theorist Edward Augustus Freeman, later Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, was so appalled by what he found on a well-received lecture tour of America in 1881-2, that he wrote “This would be a grand land if every Irishman should kill a Negro and be hanged for it.” The Irish poor were shunned, despised and their anti-social behavior inspired nativists to seek restrictions on Irish immigration and citizenship.

In response, Catholic bishops set began building schools and parishes at a furious pace, importing large numbers of nuns, brothers and priests from Europe to provide low-cost and tireless staffing. The religious teaching orders became very effective at socializing the children of the poor and making them into a functional working class, and then middle class. Irish women were noted for their modesty by 1900, many becoming schoolteachers in the public system too, furthering the influence of Catholic schooling. Wave after wave of white ethnic Catholics from Italy and Eastern Europe was absorbed by the parochial school system and the parish societies that reinforced the secret of pedagogical secrets: the Protestant work ethic.

By the 1960s, Catholics had been thoroughly mainstreamed and would soon catch up with Protestants in per capita income and education, thus completing the most profound social transformations in American history. In 1965, Catholic education reached its zenith with almost 13,500 elementary and high schools educated 5.6 million students.

The 1960s also saw Catholics moving to the suburbs in large numbers—away from the urban schools and parishes that had facilitated their success. At the same time, Vatican II precipitated a mass exodus from religious orders. Lay teachers had to be hired at much higher salaries (they now comprise 96 percent of staff) pushing costs relentlessly higher. Worse, Catholic superintendents bought into the idea that small-class size improves academic outcome, hiring twice as many lay teachers per student, despite the research showing that reducing the teacher-student ratio has only a minimally positive effect. The financial storm achieved full strength as African American and Hispanics families moved into the neighborhoods where most parochial schools were located but which had been vacated by white Catholics. Unfortunately these families had little capacity to pay rising tuition, and Catholic schools began closing at a rate of 1,000 per decade.

Few, if any, inner-city schools would have survived if the big-city dioceses had not raised hundreds of millions of dollars in support, even though many of the children attending these Catholic schools were not Catholic. This endeavor became the prime focus of the Church’s social justice mission. It turned out to be a mission backed not just by faith and money, but by statistics, as numerous studies, beginning in the 1980s, began to document the efficacy of Catholic education with disadvantaged minorities. Achievement levels for these students improve significantly and graduation and college acceptance rates are astoundingly higher. Remarkably, Catholic schooling’s positive influence increases in an inverse relationship to socioeconomic level. Impoverished black students benefit most from parochial schooling.

For several years after taking office in Memphis, Bishop Steib was appalled by the socioeconomic malaise afflicting many black neighborhoods and public education’s inept response. Well aware of Catholic school efficacy and feeling “the fierce urgency of now”—Martin Luther King’s searing dictum—the bishop announced that Memphis’s inner-city Catholic schools would reopen as “Jubilee” schools (in honor of the Church’s 2,000-year anniversary).

McDonaldHowever, the enterprise seemed absurdly optimistic: Catholics comprised only four percent of the city’s residents and few inner-city families could afford tuition. Nor did the diocese have any money to invest in the endeavor. Fortunately Bishop Steib had a gifted administrator on staff who had begun her education career as a math teacher at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia in 1966. Ten years later, Mary McDonald, Ed.D., moved to Memphis, when her husband was transferred by Dun & Bradstreet to become the district manager. She taught and then served as principal in several of the city’s Catholic elementary and high schools, winning numerous national educational and humanitarian awards.

“I wear brightly colored suits since it shows the students I’m a real person,” McDonald said, laughing. Her voice was high-pitched and she spoke in quick rhythms, the lilt of her Irish heritage scored with the musical cadences of the South. She smiled readily, “I see myself as conduit of hope,” she said.
Bishop Steib saw McDonald the same way. In July 1998, he asked McDonald, then 54, to replace the outgoing schools superintendent and focus on reopening the Jubilee schools.

McDonald poured her ferocious optimism into presentations to philanthropists and corporate officials about the public benefits of Catholic education. To make prospective non-Catholic donors feel more comfortable about aid requests, McDonald set up the schools’ office as a non-profit corporation separate from the Catholic Church. Soon a group of local Protestant business leaders came forward to create a $47 million endowment. The business community grasped the value of investing in an educated workforce to foster positive civic and economic outcomes.

Each dropout costs taxpayers $260,000 over his or her lifetime for various services, according to a Princeton University study McDonald always mentions to donors. A recent report by a leading management company estimates that the yearly gross national product would be $1 to $2 trillion dollars higher if achievement gaps between white and Asian students on the one hand, and black, Hispanic and other minority groups on the other hand were closed.

The first Jubilee school reopened in 1999 with 26 students. Six other schools were soon reconstituted, including St. John’s, all serving a 98-percent black population. In 2006, a new school was built for the recent influx of low-income Hispanic immigrants. Currently, there are 1,045 Jubilee elementary students, along with 109 graduates now in Catholic middle and high schools in the diocese.

Jubilee scholarships follow students through secondary school, which was the major reason Shirley McKay visited the principal in early July. Jason was graduating from St. John’s, which is pre-K3 through sixth grade, and a decision needed to be made about which Catholic middle and high school would be best for him. Niedzwiedz recommended Memphis Catholic (grades seven through twelve) since the school was closer to St. John’s where McKay will still drop off and pick up her granddaughters.

McKay, however, was noticeably agitated as she discussed options with the principal. Jason’s mother had petitioned for custody in January making false accusations that McKay was abusing the children. This launched a lengthy investigation by the state’s Department of Children’s Services, which placed the three youngsters in foster care for almost three months. Janarria began acting out at school, where she was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and at the foster home. The children were moved to three successive foster homes as a result, with foster parents calling McKay often to calm the youngsters’ bewilderment and anger.

“Janarria spent a lot of time in my office talking about family problems,” said Niedzwiedz. “Jamya, the second-grader, held in her emotions and coped better, focusing more on schoolwork and made the principal’s honor roll.”

While Jason seldom acted out in class, “his whole demeanor changed because his mother tells him Catholic school is bad,” Niedzwiedz recounted. According to McKay, Willams denigrated St. John’s to prepare her children to transfer to public school if she won custody, since she didn’t want to pay any tuition.

During this period, Niedzwiedz said she “met often with Jason and made it very clear I expected the same behavior and grades.” McKay was awarded custody in June and she’s been working to regain the children’s confidence. Not understanding the legal system, they became suspicious of all the adults in their lives.

She was upset, though, that the custody ruling also directed that the children live with their mother during the summer break, from July 17 to August 17, when the new school year began. Both McKay and Niedzwiedz worried that the mother would encourage negative attitudes about Catholic education, even though it’s very unlikely that the youngsters would graduate from the public schools she advocates. It’s even less likely that they would finish academically prepared for college. Whenever Jason spends just a few days with his mother, he takes on hardened street attitudes that could undermine his career at a Catholic high school.

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