Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Without Abandonment

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She joined Mr. Casey and several other neighborhood leaders in launching an exhaustive study of southeast Baltimore, which revealed more sobering news. Between 1980 and 1990, she says, the area lost more than 45 percent of its industrial jobs. Many of the smaller businesses in the area's major commercial corridors had closed, and more than 10 percent of the 30,000 housing units were vacant.

A stark reminder of the changes that have taken place sits framed in the window of the computer lab on the second floor of Our Lady of Pompei. The massive red-brick Esskay meat-packing plant, which once guaranteed livelihoods to hundreds of southeast Baltimore residents with only a high school education or less, sits vacant, many of its windows broken.

But Mr. Russo tries to view the transitions as just that: a change to something different, rather than something worse.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, a steel mill has laid off a lot of people; the economy is going down the tubes,'" he says. "It's not true. The American economy has just become a lot more efficient, so you don't need 20 guys to file anymore, you just need one."

Recognizing that many of his graduates will work in a service industry rather than in manufacturing like their parents, Mr. Russo has tried to marry work skills with academics whenever he can. When his students read Moby Dick, for instance, they also write a r‚sum‚ for Captain Ahab. Knowing the premium that employers now place on teamwork, the principal also goes out of his way to make students who don't get along work together on school projects.

Although Catholic schools traditionally have been praised for strong academics, Mr. Russo thinks the time has come for those schools to think more about integrating work-skills training into their programs.

"I'm not saying everyone needs to be a philistine," he says. "But for a kid to go to school for four years and not know how to write a resume is a crime."

School Ties

The community leaders in southeast Baltimore have similarly tried to meet the economic transition with an optimistic plan for survival. After completing their study of the region's strengths and weaknesses, they assembled a community proposal with recommendations for everything from securing more loans to start small businesses to revitalizing the neighboring industrial park by attracting more high-tech companies.

Their hope, they say, is to regain some of the area's lost stability without pushing out the remaining long-term residents. Early on, they realized the leading role the neighborhoods' Catholic schools played in accomplishing that.

"People with choices are moving out to where they perceive the public schools are better," Mr. Casey says.

Community organizers saw that the fate of a neighborhood was tied closely to the fate of its parochial schools. Many who worked in the schools also realized that their closure would only add to the many challenges facing southeast Baltimore.

This relationship of mutual dependence has been recognized in other cities as well. A recently released study of three St. Louis Catholic schools suggests that the parochial schools indeed are a stabilizing force in urban neighborhoods.

"It's beyond a church interest," says Bishop John J. Leibrecht of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese in Missouri. Bishop Liebrecht also chairs the NCEA's board of directors. "The city is interested not only as a resource for parents but as a resource to their own property values and to keeping people in the city."

The study was commissioned by the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, a St. Louis nonprofit that primarily seeks business support for the city's Catholic schools and their students. Its findings showed that in the neighborhoods around the three schools studied, about 43 percent of families said their neighborhood Catholic school was a very important reason why they had moved there. Further, nearly 78 percent said that the school was a very important reason for them to stay.

In southeast Baltimore, Catholic school officials feel they have a similar effect.

"No one directly across the block from this school has kids in this school," says Katherine Davis, the principal at the Bishop John Neumann School, which formed in 1974 through the merger of Sacred Heart of Jesus with another local Catholic school. "And yet, I think we're a symbol of stability to them because they see us working with the kids."

Ms. Davis knows that some of the nearby row houses serve as drug houses. She sees the deals made outside them when she returns at night for school board meetings. She fears that if the school were not there, the drug dealing would increase and take place throughout the day, driving out more of the older residents.

"We're called to serve the cities," Ms. Davis says. "And I think right now the Catholic and private schools are offering a better education, and if we abandon the city, the city will decline."

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