Catholic Schools An Unexpected Answer for Inner-city Families

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.
Fiona O'Sullivan


Margaret D.
Margaret D8 years ago

Mary M,.I agree with you 110%.We had large classes, too and did not have problems. I believe that with the discipline, it created a healthier learning environment. No one can learn in chaos. I cannot believe that now, I have heard of classes of 20 considered as "too large." Sister Anthony could teach a class of twice that size AND without an assistant teacher.

Mary M.
Mary M8 years ago

Margaret D, we had 50 kids in a class in grade school, about 35 in HS - all Catholic Schools. We really learned in the school because of the discipline. Not that it was cruel, but you knew the rules. We had a great education by both nuns and teachers. My son who went only to 5th grade in Catholic School agrees today that he did get a better education there then when he went onto public schools. Children need to learn, and they need an environment which encourages learning.

Julia W.
Julia W8 years ago

I worked in a private special education school that supported a convent. Some of the nuns worked with my students and they were/ are lovely people. Catholic schools aren't always the answer and neither are charter schools, we must commit to strengthening and empowering the public schools and/ or public school classrooms that work.

Sheila L.
sheila l8 years ago

For all you atheists out there, the Catholic School system has always set the bar high on education, graduate from a Catholic school and you know you have a good solid education and can compete anywhere.

Katy H.
Katherine H8 years ago

It's good to hear positive things about Catholic schools. I teach at a Catholic school and I am proud of our staff and of our students' accomplishments.

Robert S.
Robert S8 years ago

I'm glad that my parents sent me to a Catholic school. It may have seemed too strict for my tastes as a kid, but looking back, it was a good thing!

Sakura l.
Yu L8 years ago

i agree with you ^.^

Mary L.
Mary L8 years ago

Education is complicated. What works for one does not work for others. Catholic schools since the loss of religious teachers operate with annual contracts for principals and sometimes unlicensed teachers. In general the students are self-selecting, motivated to succeed. Disruptive and special-needs students can be refused or expelled. So it is not a simple apples-to-apples comparison. It may all be moot as more Catholic schools and parishes are closing every year.

Elaine Dixon
Elaine Dixon8 years ago

never hear of any thing happening at a catholic school like they do at public schools I don't think the teaching standards are as high either.

Jen A.
Jen A8 years ago

Jaime: Not all, not even most of the Catholic priests have abused children. There are more people who have nothing to do with the Catholic church that have harmed children. Catholic churches do allow women to have birth control...what are you talking about?!

Pam: I agree with Marilyn L. Have you gone to a Catholic school or know anyone who has? They do not demean women or anything else you claim. The teachers in these schools help you learn, while allowing you to use your own mind. I am 43 and have gone to a Catholic school my entire school years and now my children attend a Catholic school. My daughter has never been discouraged to think for herself. My son and daughter are taught true Christian values...respect, love no matter who, tell the truth, always try your best, etc.! Maybe you should have gone to a Catholic need help!