Public schools in New York City consistently underperform. U.S. politicians, lobbyists, advocates and school administrators have been searching for solutions to this systematic problem for decades.
Since 2003, 91 public schools in New York have been “phased out” and 335 new schools were created. These replacement schools are often charter schools. Proponents praise charter schools and believe they are the panacea for underperforming public schools. Because charter schools are tuition-free, they offer an alternative to low-income families who cannot afford expensive private schools and want to avoid poor performing public schools.
However, the charter school system is a relatively new establishment and there are still some “kinks” in the system. To name a few:
1. Charter school students are admitted by lottery when applicants exceed available slots. In cities like New York, where the chance of success in public school is dismal, the demand for charter schools exceeds the supply. In 2008-09 there were 39,200 students on waitlists to attend the city’s charter schools.
2. There is no formula for what makes a successful charter school. A Stanford University study found that nearly half of charter schools have results that are no different from local public schools.
3. Charter schools can be unpredictably transient. Some charter schools open up and often close their doors within a few years, leaving parents little time to enter other charter lotteries or apply to private schools.
Where can low-income children in New York City find a solid education and a promising future while the administration irons out these issues?
Ironically, one answer lies in the age-old Catholic school system. According to City Journal, when New York City public schools began deteriorating in the 1970’s, Catholic schools opened their doors to the poor who at the time were mostly minority and non-Catholic. Minority enrollment in Manhattan’s Catholic schools shot up-from 12% in 1970 to almost 60% in 1991 and 85% in the Bronx. Today, Catholic school tuition in New York City still runs less than one-fifth of the privates’. In low-income areas like the Bronx and Harlem, elementary school tuition typically costs around $3,000 – $4,000 per year. Their affordability and quality continues to draw non-Catholics.
Catholic school students score well above the national average on tests of reading, math, science and social studies. According to the National Catholic Education Association, 99% of Catholic high school students graduate in four years compared to 56% of students who attend public high school. Ninety seven percent of Catholic high school students go on to college.
How are Catholic schools able to provide a good education while keeping their tuition so low? The true cost of educating a student in Catholic school is higher than their tuition. The tuition remains affordable thanks to support from parishes, donors, board members and the generous support of a scholarship fund run in conjunction with Archdiocese of New York. This fund provides about $11 million per year in scholarships to needy families.
Twenty-three percent of the 131 Catholic Elementary schools in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, are also supported by an amazing organization called The Patrons Program. Housed in the Archdiocese building, The Patrons Program “facilitates systemic changes in 30 inner-city Catholic elementary schools.” Last year, the Patrons Program raised $6.9 million and impacted more than 12,000 students.
The Patrons Program recruits individuals who make significant financial contributions and donate their time to needy schools. These Patrons are paired with a school and become active members of their school’s Advisory Board. The school’s Patron and Advisory Board collaborate with its administrators to improve all aspect of the school – from the physical facilities to academic performance. For example, schools have begun outstanding music programs, increased test scores and hired tuition collection companies to improve their financial oversight. Other schools have built science and computer labs, established after-school activities and instated effective professional development programs for teachers.
More than half of the students that attend Patrons Program schools live at or below the Federal poverty level and 93% are minorities. The hard work of The Patrons Program and their 30 partner schools creates an option for these inner-city families who know that their children will not succeed in local public schools. By offering strong academics in a nurturing environment these schools give their children the skills they need to excel in life.
Reproducing Patrons Program model in other cities across the United States could do wonders for thousands of inner-city children who deserve a chance to achieve academic and personal success.
Do you know any other organizations similar to the Patrons Program? Is it possible to reproduce this model on a large scale?
*Full disclosure: I am a Development Fellow for the Patrons Program.