The Magical Success of Private Schools: It's Mostly Blue Smoke and Mirrors

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It's as though the Enlightenment had never happened. What I can only call a medieval frame of mind still persists among us. Some people who should know better still want to believe in magic when they're faced with knotty and irksome problems.

The latest instance of this is probably part of the larger campaign to give tax credits or some other direct aid to parents of children in parochial and private schools. Reports and studies keep popping up in the media puffing the superiority of such schools compared to the public system. "Free choice" is fast becoming a shibboleth among the elect, used with a necromancer's authority. Invoke it and problems will disappear--poof!

I'm not going to quarrel with the "facts" used to support the argument that private schools are better. Let's suppose they are. But, after all, it's only a trick and, as with all tricks, there's really no magic involved. Let me don my iconoclast's robe and explain how it's done. One example will suffice.

I first met Alphonse (no real names, of course) in September of 1979 when he came into my office in Bayside High School as a late registrant. I learned from his records that he had finished three years at St. Cuthbert's, a nearby parochial school. He was already over 17, and I was naturally suspicious about such a late and sudden change of venue.

"Why did you leave Cuthbert's?" I asked.

Of course he expected the question and had a ready answer, which told me nothing that I couldn't guess.

"I had a difference of opinion with Father Parrish." He smiled at his own euphemism.

We had no choice but to admit him. After all, we're a public school.

As Dean of Boys, I was one of the first to get a clue regarding the nature of Alphonse's quarrels with authority. Two weeks after he joined us, he went home after his last class in the middle of our school day. He returned to the building walking his German shepherd. He was also carrying a BB pistol. According to the story that was later passed on to me, he intimidated a group of black students who were waiting for their bus. He and a friend also took a few shots at them from across the street.

Nobody pressed charges though he nearly caused a race riot, but he was suspended from school for five days, the legal limit. His parents weren't overwhelmingly cooperative or impressed with the urgency of the situation. They cancelled one meeting with the principal, so the post-suspension hearing wasn't held until the second week in October.

This only had a transient salutary effect. Despite the assurances of the family and the pious vows of the boy, Alphonse continued to give us a hard time. He simply wouldn't accept our benign and modest authority. Whenever a teacher crossed him, he ended up in my office, sullen, unresponsive, self-righteous. And his infractions were not the usual adolescent pranks. They were always serious--acts that other students had been suspended for. And everyone who tangled with him felt the threat of his violent personality, always within a hair's breadth of exploding.

Alphonse's next encounter with the principal took place in January. He was found wandering in the halls. He had no ID, pass, or program card. Of course, he resented being stopped. He simply walked away, irritable and hostile, and his father was summoned for another conference.

At the beginning of the spring term, he threatened a teacher, again after being stopped in the hall. "I'll bust you," he said. Since the incident happened near my office, I was able to intervene and defuse the situation. So we had another conference with his father, which led to this touching notation on his dean's record: "Alphonse understands that he must follow rules and regulations."

Predictably, his understanding was faulty because a week later he threw a snowball at a teacher "which fortunately missed."

At this point, Alphonse must have begun to mellow. Love intervened, and his only infraction of school discipline was his absolute and continual refusal to stop kissing his girlfriend and go to his homeroom when the bell rang.

In his last term with us he only needed four credits to graduate, but he never made it. He simply couldn't hack the hassle of the discipline of homework and test taking, of going into a classroom when the bell rang, of not necking with his girlfriend when he felt the urge. He was discharged in May, a month before he might have gotten his diploma.

So Alphonse became a negative statistic--a drop-out from public school, another bad mark against us, another bit of evidence to damn the system. He also, of course, contributed his jot to our downward slide. St. Cuthbert sent him down the block to us, and we couldn't send him back. That was a great trick you played on us, Father Parrish, to make you and your school look good. It was a trick all right, but anyone can see there's nothing magical about it, particularly now that I've shown how it's done.

Vol. 01, Issue 05, Page 19

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