Tuesday January 15, 2013

Shame, Shame On The New York Archdiocese

The bad economy forces the parochial schools to depend on higher tuition or scholarships to keep them viable. Vouchers are vigorously fought against by the United Federation of Teachers which would rather keep the students in bad schools with bad teachers than have them get a worthwhile education.

By Alicia Colon

I was tempted to address Cardinal Dolan in my headline but I'm not yet sure how responsible he is for the decision to put two Staten Island schools on the "at risk" list for closure. I met the affable Cardinal at the 125th anniversary of Immaculate Conception Church but that didn't stop its inner-city school from being targeted. Clearly the archdiocese has abandoned its educational mission for the needy which was established hundreds of years ago. Instead the economic bottom line seems to count more than educating minority children in the neighborhoods with poor performing public schools and few alternatives.

Since 1606, schools were founded to teach children Christian doctrine. Jesuits instructed Native American students such as Saint Kateri Tekakwitha who went on to teach Indian children in Canada. In California in the 1770s, Franciscan Junipero Serra and his order established the California mission system which educated them not only in religion but farming, skilled crafts and other fields to develop their independence.

St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton set up a school for the poor in Emmitsburg, Md. in 1809 and founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and made the creation of parochial schools for the disadvantaged a lifetime cause. I could go on and on and cite more examples of parochial school history in the ghettos and barrios of the country but I'd rather mention my own experience in Spanish Harlem.

The Sisters of Mercy operated the Commander Shea Memorial elementary school for girls on 111th Street. The Irish Christian Brothers operated the school for boys on the other side of the building. In a class of 51 students, 49 were Hispanic and spoke perfect English, knew American History, geography, mathematics, science, and of course, our Catholic faith.

We had a wonderful music teacher, Mrs. Pearson, an African-American and Protestant, who taught us how to sing beautiful hymns and noted our musical abilities. I learned I was an alto and my sister was a second soprano. Mrs. Pearson's son was a conductor who debuted at Carnegie Hall and we were selected to perform at this event from special seating in the balcony.

To describe us as merely poor would be an understatement because in addition, most of us came from dysfunctional families. For many students in the inner city schools, Shea was an oasis of calm and discipline. Immaculate Conception School reminded me so much of my grammar school every time I visited the school my six children attended and which seven of my grandchildren now attend. Most of the students are from the Stapleton housing project and crime riddled areas nearby. The local area public school has such poor reading levels that many Muslim and Protestant parents send their children to Immaculate Conception where their children can learn in a safe environment.

Mrs. Pearson was not the only non-Catholic who knew what a treasure these schools were. During the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, generous Christians and Jewish donors would invite us into their homes for dinner and gifts at their high end apartments in the city, a memory I will never forget - which is probably why I never fell into that hate the rich crowd. Before they were demonized by the statists in government, the wealthy of New York City made it possible with their endowments to the various institutions for the underprivileged like me to enjoy the libraries, museums and rich culture of the city.

Patrons like Brooke Astor and other generous community leaders are not as plentiful today as they were in the '50s and '60s but every now and again an angel arises who recognizes the importance and excellence of the parochial schools doing the jobs that the public schools can't or won't do.

In 2007, that angel ironically turned out to be a self described atheist, Robert W. Wilson, who donated $22.5 million to an inner city scholarship program. He later saw a greater need for a better alumni support network and in 2010 he donated over $5 million to the archdiocese of New York.

"Most of what the Catholic schools teach are the three Rs," said Wilson, 83, in a phone interview, referring to reading, writing and arithmetic. "And they do it better than the union-controlled inner-city schools."

Students attending Catholic inner city elementary schools in the Archdiocese have routinely outperformed New York City public school students in the 4th and 8th grade math and English standardized tests. This profile is of the inner city schools where more than 50% of the students come from single-parent homes and 50% are near or below the federal poverty level.

Meanwhile, the bad economy forces the parochial schools to depend on higher tuition or scholarships to keep them viable. Vouchers are vigorously fought against by the United Federation of Teachers which would rather keep the students in bad schools with bad teachers than have them get a worthwhile education.

The Archdiocese of New York started a program called Pathways to Excellence to guide archdiocesan elementary schools as they move ahead in the 21st century. I went to a meeting which explained that the program aimed at ensuring the high quality and long-term viability of Catholic education in the archdiocese. This was all baloney. The administrator who came up with this regional program really meant to weed out the costly inner city schools in poorer parishes.

In Staten Island, Immaculate Conception School in Stapleton and St. Joseph's in Rosebank are now set to close at the end of the school year. Some of the first graders at I.C.S. are so proficient at reading they sometimes become lectors at Mass and some read at an 8th grade level. Their teachers earn a fraction of what public school teachers earn but their professional dedication and self sacrifice encourage superior results. There is no such thing as a bullying problem because they are taught Christian values. Why on earth would such a treasure be imperiled?

I'll tell you why. The Archdiocese of New York has abdicated the mission of St. Elizabeth Seton, Father Junipero Serra and the other education warriors of a glorious past to educate the needy. It's become too big a burden for the archdiocese to cover the economic shortfall of the lesser parishes so why not just close them all?

Wordsworth warned against the world being too much with us and that is exactly what is in the minds of the bureaucrats at 1011 First Avenue.

Shame on the archdiocese. I am very disappointed with Cardinal Dolan. I knew Cardinal Egan for years and knew he fought hard to stop the closures but his successor seems to be delegating that dirty task to non-New Yorker pen-pushers. Dolan can look teary-eyed but why not have a telethon reaching out to graduates who benefitted from parochial schools?

I've been told that unless the schools can raise $2 million by February 1st, the die will be cast. We lucked out once with Mr. Wilson but unfortunately we do not have billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg or George Lucas to help us. Mr. Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark's troubled public school system and Lucas will be giving most of the $4 billion he gets from a Disney sale into a foundation that will primarily focus on educational issues. More money for a public school system that doesn't work because the real problem isn't money. It's that it no longer knows how to teach.

If anybody out there knows where there's a leprechaun with a pot of gold please send them to:

Fr. Peter Byrne, Pastor
Immaculate Conception Parish
128 Targee Street, Stapleton
Staten Island, NY 10304

Fr. Michael T. Martine
171 St. Mary's Avenue, Rosebank
Staten Island, NY 10305

Meanwhile, Saint. Elizabeth Ann, pray for these families. Alicia Colon resides in New York City and can be reached at and at

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