As the headmaster of a school that has served the young men of Newark, N.J., for generations, I’ve been an eyewitness to the education reform efforts that the journalist Dale Russakoff investigates in her recent book, The Prize. It’s quite a story, describing the most ambitious and highly publicized of numerous efforts to get our schools working for all kids in Newark. Those who live here and know Newark’s deep-seated challenges would have been right to be skeptical about a reform agenda driven by a politically aggressive governor, a rock-star mayor, and a $100 million gift from a novice billionaire philanthropist to spend on changing public education as we know it. Having lived through the promises and the expectations, I found Russakoff’s book to be a fair account of an intensely political and complicated debacle.
But like the parable of the peril of building on sand and not on a rock, the fracturing of this effort could have been foreseen. Our long history of troubled attempts to reform schools shows how many have foundered because of the shifting sands of besieged school leadership, political loyalties, and aggrieved families. And all that transformation was to be accomplished in one election cycle.
Like so many others in Newark, we had hope that this latest effort, which brought a new level of energy, money, and commitment from education advocates with different political viewpoints, would succeed in ramping up the pressure for change in Newark. They and thousands of public school teachers over many years have tried to help the city’s young people learn and thrive. What’s at stake for our youths when the schools fail them and the streets welcome them is too important to leave up to career administrators. Sure, I’m the long-serving headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep, an anchor of the community and source of educational excellence in Newark since 1868. Nevertheless, I have seen numerous efforts fall short, not for lack of trying, but because meaningful change requires courage and fresh ideas and, perhaps most importantly, persistence. Tenures of political and, oftentimes, school leaders can be short. In my own work, the vow of stability my brother monks and I have taken has given us a long-term perspective and commitment to address the changing needs of our students over many years. But I also recognize that none of us has a monopoly on transformation.
The Prize features some compelling stories of particular teachers in both charter and district schools who seek to provide whatever their struggling students need to make progress in school and to believe in themselves as learners. But overall, it saddens any reader to see that even the best of intentions on the part of reformers to improve opportunities for more students, unless motivated by sensitivity to genuine community concerns and long-standing grievances, can be so divisive and potentially dispiriting. A great teacher himself, Pope Francis urges teachers to see the great personal challenges many students bring to school and offer them the consistency of support and guidance they need to have a real chance to learn.
At my school, we are devoted to educating boys and young men of color, many of whom live at or below the poverty line. They often come to us as witnesses to and survivors of violence, racism, and ineffective schooling. Most of our kids enter the 9th grade testing below grade average, and yet 98 percent of our graduates attend college, and 87 percent earn a college degree within six years of graduating. They fulfill their potential as emotionally mature, morally responsible, and well-educated young men.
What's at stake for our youths when the schools fail them and the streets welcome them is too important to leave up to career administrators."
While I’m a priest, I’m no miracle worker. This work is really hard. But here are some of the lessons we’ve learned and keep learning by staying engaged. I think what works for us would help the same kids who struggle in the rest of Newark, in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and throughout urban America.
We see every child as an individual. We address our students’ nonacademic issues head-on, believing that ignoring them leaves many struggling students stuck in anger and depression that prevent real learning. We invest in both individual and group counseling that give our young men a chance to understand their personal challenges and learn to handle them effectively. We expect our teachers to be available to students, to encounter them as they are and provide the personal attention they deserve and need to grow.
We instill and foster leadership and responsibility. From a fellow monk who was a scoutmaster in an earlier life, we have learned not to do for our young men what they can do for themselves. We give our students tremendous responsibility and significant opportunity to serve as leaders in all aspects of school life—from facilitating Convocation, our schoolwide morning meeting, to running peer-support groups. And it is not the adults but the students who have the responsibility of promoting positive behavior in living our motto: “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me"—our homegrown rendering of “the golden rule” that the pope has stressed as a guide to justice in all societies.
We encounter and engage. Above all, we believe that encountering our students as they deal with the many challenges of this critical stage in their lives, filled with potential while fraught with pitfalls, gives them the best chance to achieve the dreams they hold for their best selves. Ultimately, our aim is simple: to help form young men of strong character, not just students who achieve academically.
I have no gotcha political messages for Mark Zuckerberg, Gov. Chris Christie, or Sen. Cory Booker. I’d suggest that we adults responsible for the real well-being of the children who depend on us put our concerns for them at the heart of our efforts. If their success were at the core of the relentless motivation for our work in schools, we’d all be doing more good. The Holy Father’s recent visit to the United States provided for me strong encouragement for our efforts just as I was reading The Prize. We would do well to follow his message and example of seeing the young people in our midst desperate for hope and opportunity. That’s “the prize” that’s really worth all our talents and best efforts.