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May 7, 2007 [feather]
In praise of parochial schools

It's hard to argue with a school that can reliably educate young, poor African-American men--one of this country's most challenging at-risk groups--and send them off to college. And yet one such school is struggling to stay afloat in the heart of Harlem. City Journal tells the story of Rice High School, linking it to the general decline of Catholic education (which is not just for Catholics anymore) in America as well as to the tremendous challenge of providing solid education for the nation's poor:

We almost lost Harlem's Rice High School a few years ago. And what a defeat that would have been for all New Yorkers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. For the past three decades, Rice has rescued at-risk African-American boys and turned them into responsible men who go on to college and then give back to the community. Yet despite this academic success, Rice almost succumbed to the demographic changes and financial pressures that have led to the closing of thousands of excellent inner-city Catholic schools and needlessly deepened the nation's urban-education crisis.

It's hard to exaggerate the challenge that Rice and similar schools voluntarily take on. Survey after survey shows that young black males lead the nation in homicides, both as victims and perpetrators; have the highest rates of unemployment and incarceration; and lag behind every other racial, ethnic, and gender subgroup in academic achievement. That Rice High School accomplishes so much with its current student population transmits the hopeful message that the black-white academic achievement gap can narrow--and that we might, at last, overcome America’s lingering race problem.

Located in a 110-year-old former YMCA building on the corner of 124th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, Rice remained faithful to Harlem during the community's near-disintegration in the seventies and eighties. When working-class Italian and Irish Catholic families stopped sending their sons to Rice and left the city, the Christian Brothers teaching order, which had founded the school, decided not to leave with them. Instead, Rice's doors stayed open, more tuition scholarships somehow turned up, and poor minority kids (most of them non-Catholic) from the surrounding community and the South Bronx filled the seats. Rice has the highest proportion of black students--over 70 percent--of any Catholic high school in the city.

Rice advertises itself now as "Historic Harlem's Catholic College Prep School for Young Men." In fact, until a few years ago it was the only high school, public or private, in central Harlem. Recently, Harlem congressman Charles Rangel visited Rice and told a student assembly: "When I was growing up, Rice was a school for white people. Everything that was white left Harlem, except for Rice School. That's a tribute to the Brothers, who could have walked away."

Today, Harlem is experiencing what many are calling a "second Renaissance," though it's more economic than cultural. Walk the streets surrounding the battered old Rice building and you can almost see the money pouring into the neighborhood--sleek new storefronts sprouting along 125th Street, plus condo developments and renovated brownstones with price tags starting at seven figures. But now it's Rice that is counting its pennies, uncertain whether angels will keep showing up every September to cover the $300,000 operating deficit.

I'm a pragmatist when it comes to education. If it works, we should do it. I'm also a huge fan of school choice. Parents should have the option of choosing a school such as Rice for their kids. For some families, it's the only way to give their kids a chance to get out of poverty's downward spiral.

On another note, I also believe that we can't talk knowledgeably about education in this country if we only talk in broad generalizations. We need to know what the big picture is. But we also need to know the stories of specific schools--details about how they work, what makes them work, what their failings are and where they succeed and how, at times, a school's particular failures and successes are two sides of the same coin. Thanks to Sol Stern for telling Rice's story, and for putting it in context.

posted on May 7, 2007 11:17 AM

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I attended Brother Rice High School in Michigan which is located in an affluent suburb but people tend not to realize that parochial education was founded by Jesuits and intended to serve many underclass and non Catholic people. Their focus has been on social justice and human rights for approximately 500 years. Because of the fine education that parochial schools provide, many second and third generation attendees become economically much more well off and consequently the schools acquire a reputation, deserved or not, as elitist. But this is not actually true. By any measure that I've ever seen parochial education outperforms secular government schools by a wide margin for a fraction of the price.

Posted by: Frank Latourell at May 7, 2007 4:46 PM

I've heard nothing but good things about Rice and I hope it continues to serve the Harlem community which ultimately serves the world as these young men go on and do great things for society at large.

Posted by: Supporter at May 10, 2007 12:43 PM

Frank: As an alumna of Mercy in Farmington Hills, I can only echo what you said. We had a racially, economically, and religiously diverse population than most public schools and probably less funding, but while my brother in the (good and rich) public school had a half an hour of AP European History homework a week, I had about an hour and a half every night. When people pay directly for their educations and for their childrens' educations, they have a stake in them. There's just no getting around this fact.

Posted by: Shannon at May 10, 2007 6:49 PM

Well RICE is an excellent High School. I am a product of this great school and a gem to the Harlem ommunity. I am sure that every one who has walked the halls of Rice High School feels the same way. Once a Raider always a Raider!!!!

Posted by: Kevin H at May 14, 2007 1:43 PM