School Choice & Charters

Memphis Sees Catholic School Renaissance

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 17, 2003 6 min read
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It’s a miracle.

That’s how Mary C. McDonald, the superintendent of Roman Catholic schools here, describes the reopening of seven Catholic elementary schools over the past four years in some of this city’s poorest neighborhoods. After all, many Catholic dioceses elsewhere are closing such schools because of low enrollment and weak financial support.

The truth is, though, that Ms. McDonald and her colleagues in the Diocese of Memphis helped make the miracle happen by taking the unusual step of looking beyond Catholics for funding.

Their prayers were answered in 1999, when a group of white non-Catholic business people came forward with a “multimillion- dollar gift” to reopen the schools, said Ms. McDonald, who wouldn’t specify the amount of the donation. The group’s intention was to help provide high- quality schooling for some of the city’s underprivileged children, most of whom are African-American.

Ms. McDonald says the donors responded to a concern of Bishop J. Terry Steib, an African-American who grew up impoverished in Louisiana. The bishop had expressed dismay to her that Catholic schools in Memphis were increasingly becoming affordable only to people with means—and he articulated a vision that the diocese would reverse that trend. Ms. McDonald publicized that vision widely beyond Catholic circles by writing articles and speaking to community groups.

The anonymous donors also agreed to provide scholarships to cover most of the tuition—which is $3,700—for needy students. Other private donors have also stepped in to pay for scholarships.

The seven schools have reopened with one or two grades. They plan to add another grade or two each year until they serve students up to either 6th or 8th grade. The donors are so pleased with the schools that they’ve agreed to pay for the reopening of two more schools by 2005, Ms. McDonald said.

Meanwhile, the Memphis Diocese has a plan to ensure the fund-raising effort doesn’t fizzle out. This fall, the diocese is launching a campaign to ask individuals and foundations on a national level to set up a $38 million endowment to sustain the urban Catholic elementary schools here—and provide their graduates with scholarships to Catholic high schools.

Public Disappointment

Though divergent in their religious backgrounds, the donors share a common goal, said Larry B. Lloyd, an Evangelical Presbyterian minister and the executive director of a Memphis community foundation that manages donations from some of the non-Catholic benefactors of the schools. The donors, he said, have turned to the Catholic Church to educate children from low-income minority families because the local public schools are failing those children.

The public schools are large and in “chaos,” Mr. Lloyd asserted. By contrast, he said, “the Catholic schools are small and manageable. The student-teacher ratio is where it ought to be.”

Ms. McDonald said that a decent education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty for some of the city’s minority children. The diocese is educating non-Catholics not to convert them but because it believes education is an important mission of the church, she said. Seventy-six percent of the students are non-Catholics.

Mr. Lloyd and Ms. McDonald, both of whom are white, believe the newly reopened schools are doing a better job teaching some of the city’s very disadvantaged students than the public schools—albeit with a fraction of the students. The seven schools enroll nearly 600 students, while Memphis public schools enroll 66,400 students in its elementary schools.

The state recently reported that 22 of the 185 public schools in Memphis are two years away from a state takeover because of low student performance—and 144 were listed this month as having failed to meet annual yearly progress goals in at least one category under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The state report also noted disparities between the academic performance of blacks and whites in the district. For example, 90 percent of white children in grades 3 to 8 scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level in reading on state tests last school year, while 71 percent of black children in those grades did.

About 87 percent of the current 118,000 students in the Memphis public schools are black, and 73 percent are eligible for federal free or reduced-price lunches.

Similarly, 90 percent of the students in the seven reopened Catholic schools are African-American, and that same percentage of students qualifies for subsidized lunches.

District Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson, who is African-American and is retiring in December, said there was no way of proving that private schools were doing a better job than public schools with disadvantaged children, because private schools don’t have to take Tennessee’s standardized tests.

The Diocese of Memphis administers the Iowa Tests of Basics Skills. But the scores on those tests and the Tennessee tests can’t easily be compared.

In addition, Mr. Watson pointed out, parochial schools don’t have to tolerate some of the discipline problems common in public schools. “In the parochial schools, you come in, you sit down, you shut up, or you go home,” he said. “I can’t do that in a public school.”

Mr. Watson said he was glad that students had the new options for schooling.

Some parents who moved their children out of Memphis public schools say they are happier with the quality of education in the Catholic schools.

Tamece McKinney said she switched her son LaDarious from a public school to Holy Names School last school year after he was promoted from 3rd to 4th grade without knowing how to read. “You have to know how to read to do anything,” she said in a frustrated tone.

Holy Names reopened last school year with grades 2, 3, and 4, after being closed for more than three decades.

Now in 3rd grade after having repeated 2nd grade at the Catholic school, 10- year-old LaDarious can read, his mother said. “I wish I’d known about the private schools in the beginning—I would have put him in private schools in kindergarten,” she said.

One Neighborhood

St. Patrick School, the seventh urban Catholic school to be reopened by the diocese, started up last month with 44 pupils ages 3 to 5. It is located in an African-American neighborhood rich with civil rights history.

A few blocks from the school is the modest Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was slain 35 years ago.

The diocese built a new school to reopen St. Patrick because the original school that closed in 1950 was torn down. The cement-block school smelled slightly of fresh paint during opening week, and was brimming with new books, furniture, colorful rugs, and posters. Outside, the school is surrounded on three sides by boarded-up brick buildings and vacant lots.

One longtime African-American resident of the neighborhood, 81-year old Jewell “Pops” Vinson, said that illegal drugs and prostitution are so prevalent that the neighborhood isn’t safe for children, particularly after dark. For that reason, he said, the Catholic diocese should have built the school somewhere else.

But two African-American women recently chatting in Phillips Sundry & Grocery near the school disagreed. While the neighborhood has its troubles, they said, the new Catholic school is a much-needed symbol of hope.

“They should have had [a school] a long time ago,” said Barbara Miles, an accounts-payable clerk for the area transit authority. She had stopped by the store on her lunch hour to see her friend Del Phillips, who is a clerk there. Both of the women grew up in public housing in the neighborhood, but no longer live there.

But Ms. Miles returns to the neighborhood regularly to attend Mass at St. Patrick Church, located next to the school. She’s a product of Catholic schools, thanks to scholarships from the church, she said.

“I would like to see more of the children go to that Catholic school,” added Ms. Phillips, a Methodist who attended public schools, but who has watched many of her friends go to urban Catholic schools. “St. Patrick’s [Church] has gotten a lot of people out of the projects,” she said.

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