Public Schools, Parochial Schools

The Difference Is Not Just the Uniform

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While visiting a local, predominantly African-American public school, I was struck by the sight of hundreds of elementary kids dressed in matching plaid jumpers, white shirts, and dark pants. Even the principal and the teachers were similarly clothed. This current educational fad of dressing up public school kids to resemble their peers in Roman Catholic schools is yet another desperate "Hail Mary" play by educators and policymakers in search of simple solutions to complex achievement and discipline problems in schools serving high concentrations of African-American students.

The uniforms trend has such popular appeal that even President Clinton has endorsed the idea. But wearing school uniforms is not the reason Catholic schools have been historically successful in educating African-American students. My former Catholic school experiences may shed light on some important messages for public schools that transcend the triteness of uniform-wearing.

I, a non-Catholic, attended during the 1950s a segregated Catholic school in Phoenix City, Ala., one that was administered by white priests and nuns from the Midwest. There were obvious tensions created by this curious and often conflicting mix of cultures, races, and religious dogmas. As a child, I practiced two religions--the faith of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, known by the acronym AME, and Roman Catholicism. I attended Mass and catechism classes five days a week in school and weekly AME Sunday School classes, church services, and youth-group meetings outside school. These tensions were not insurmountable obstacles for school success. With much grace and fluidity I, along with my sisters and peers, watched private Catholic confessionals and public AME testimonials. We admired the white Catholic priest and the black Protestant preacher. Latin masses and altar boys' prayers were no problem; neither were gospel singing and revivals. We unabashedly and confidently interacted with white nuns in black habits as well as black ushers in white uniforms.

The pedagogy of Roman Catholic schools generally has ample research evidence showing its overwhelmingly rigorous and traditional nature. Catholic teachers during my school days were very ordinary by today's standards, yet the degree of engagement and achievement by their students was and continues to be very high. Catholic teachers had high expectations of their students. Guided by their sense of mission to teach, save souls, or escape the fires of hell, they were unrelenting in their determination that African-American students would achieve. All students were expected to master all subjects, and no course or assignment was considered too difficult, esoteric, or irrelevant. It appeared that the Catholic school teachers were either unaware of, or unimpressed by, the educational research that correlated student achievement with ethnicity and family income. The high-status, non-tracked curriculum and the religious fervor with which these mission-oriented nuns, priests, and lay teachers approached their work should be applied to secular schools.

The high-status, non-tracked curriculum and the religious fervor with which these mission-oriented nuns, priests, and lay teachers approach their work should be applied to secular schools.

Another important piece, however, was that the teachers' high expectations were matched by the equally high expectations of parents and the African-American community. My parents were as zealous as the nuns and priests, and perhaps even more committed to my achievement. Although they did not share the ethnicity, religion, or any other obvious cultural attribute with those who taught us, my parents did share with them and with the community strong, even dogmatic beliefs in the transcendent power of education over all obstacles, and in such values as discipline, resilience, achievement, and hard work. The hardship of growing up black in the South of the 1950s was never an acceptable excuse. We were told that we could and would excel.

The compatibility (although not always apparent) that existed between the Protestant African-American community and the white Catholic school is critical. During my childhood days in the segregated South, African-American children were, in fact, raised by "the entire village." We were praised lavishly by our parents, our extended family, and community members for our accomplishments in school, and we were encouraged and bolstered during times of failure. Individual achievements became opportunities for community celebration.

This is not a call for Roman Catholic or more-traditional education for all African-American children. Neither is it a call for reviving the Protestant ethic in black communities, or a mere reflection on a past era of racial segregation and subjugation. There are, I believe, some significant lessons from these experiences for the education of African-American students in today's public schools.

First and foremost is that when parents and schools have a common mission and shared values, and when expectations for achievement are high, African-American students (like most children) are capable of handling incompatible, contradictory, and even contentious settings that result when home and school cultures differ. Any potential conflict between the African-American Protestant community and the white Catholic school I attended was minimized because of a common focus on achievement.

Instead of focusing on uniformity of dress, let's talk more about uniformity of purpose, vision, and goals.

Beyond that, African-American students profit from a demanding curriculum, regardless of the nature of that curriculum or the particular pedagogical approach, and this curriculum must be taught by individuals who are committed and mission-oriented and who believe that African-Americans must (not simply can) learn and achieve in schools. African-American students need demanding and respectful teachers who refuse to give up on them and who will not allow them to pass courses with minimal or no effort.

There also must be a seamlessness between home and school based on a set of clearly articulated and accepted values such as excellence, discipline and order, mission and purpose, high expectations, and an understanding of the centrality of parents and family in the education of their children. African-American parents must share the values and mission of the school and support their children in ways that are not dictated by the school but are mutually agreed upon and constantly negotiated.

If my schooling 40 years ago is any indication, there are many factors that contribute to the school success of African-American public school students that are more significant than dressing them up in Catholic-like school uniforms. Instead of focusing on uniformity of dress, let's talk more about uniformity of purpose, vision, and goals. Then perhaps public school educators can leave the Hail Mary plays and the uniforms to Catholic schools and begin to focus on what is really important.

Vol. 17, Issue 15, Pages 37, 40

Published in Print: December 3, 1997, as Public Schools, Parochial Schools
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