Keeping The Faith

Battered but proud, North Philadelphia's St. Bonaventura School takes kids from one of the worst neighbrhoods in the country and gives them a good, solid education. This Catholic school, like hundreds of others nationwide, survives on a wing and a prayer. But for how long?

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Vada Wiggins points to a crevice in the sidewalk where the concrete meets the front wall of St. Bonaventura School. “That's where they were hiding the drugs,” she says. Here at Ninth and Hutchinson streets in North Philadelphia, drug dealers are nearly as common as cockroaches. Wiggins, the school's principal, stumbled upon the hiding place one day at the beginning of the school year.

This section of town is known as Fairhill. It's a deceptively sunny name for one of the most blighted neighborhoods in the city, perhaps in the country. Indeed, the neighborhood earned the dubious distinction of a multipage pictorial in Life magazine, which described existence here as a “living nightmare.” It's a place where babies are born addicted, where empty crack vials sometimes substitute for Legos, and where more than a few teenagers learn what passes for a code of justice: Kill or be killed. No one is unaffected by the violence; even the youngest residents come to school telling tales of gun-fire echoing in the night.

In the center of it all sits St. Bonaventura School, hemmed in on all sides by the bleak, burned-out hulks of row houses that were once homes for prosperous German immigrants. Junkies stumble through the vacant lot on the other side of the playground or sit on the corner, chain-smoking and staring off into nowhere. Many of the stores on nearby Germantown Avenue are boarded up—all but the social clubs, which do brisk business. Here, in the very heart of a city's despair, St. Bonaventura stands, still rock-solid but not inviolable.

Yet students at St. Bonaventura routinely outperform local public schools on standardized tests. Last year, for instance, the 7th grade class far exceeded the national average in the math component of the California Achievement Tests. No less an authority than the Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools has described St. Bonaventura as “an island of hope in a sea of despair.” But lately, Wiggins concedes, “We're getting to be a smaller and smaller island.”

Last year, someone bent back a chain-link fence in the schoolyard, broke into a reading trailer parked in the playground, and set it ablaze. The school itself has been broken into several times. Wiggins can't understand the attraction. “There's nothing left to take,” she says.

But the main threat to the continued existence of St. Bonaventura School may not come from the junkies and the dealers, but from within. St. Bonaventura is crumbling under the weight of a severe financial burden and, faced with a dwindling enrollment, could be living on borrowed time.

In many respects, St. Bonaventura is representative of hundreds of other inner-city Roman Catholic schools across the nation. Enrollment at St. Bonaventura has fallen steadily, from a high of nearly 300 in the late 1970s to less than 100 today, largely as a result of tuition increases. Annual tuition has reached an all-time high of $800 a year, enough to place Catholic education beyond the reach of many families.

At a time when researchers are documenting remarkable academic gains for urban Catholic school students, enrollment in such schools is in steep decline in virtually every major city in the United States. In a few cities, such as Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Metuchen, N.J., and Denver, the numbers are up. But taken as a whole, Catholic school enrollment has declined more than 40 percent since 1970, from 4.3 million to 2.4 million. The result: school closings, particularly in inner-city areas, where parishioners are least able to support their schools and where fewer and fewer students even belong to the church.

The influx of non-Catholic students also poses a problem for church leaders. (Enrollment at St. Bonaventura is now about equally divided between Catholic Hispanics and non-Catholic blacks.) Some argue that Catholic schools are morally bound to serve all children, regardless of religious affiliation. Others resist the notion that limited Catholic dollars should be poured into a system that benefits an increasing number of Protestants.

Some critics—such as the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist better known for his best-selling novels than for his work as a scholar—hold the church itself at least partly responsible for the steady erosion of Catholic inner-city enrollment. “I think Catholic leadership has done a poor job of promoting the schools,” Greeley says. “If they had done a good job, they wouldn't be closing schools. They'd be faced with the job of building new ones.”

After what some see as a long period of benign neglect, church leaders are redoubling their efforts to save the schools. Many dioceses are turning to the business community for help. Others are taking to the airwaves with professionally produced, persuasive advertising. But church leaders are also banking on the burgeoning parental-choice movement, which could channel public money into private schools. Help, at last, may be on the way. But for schools like St. Bonaventura, a solution, when and if it comes, may be too late.

Given St. Bonaventura's record of achievement against impossible odds, the thought of closing the school due to financial difficulty seems all the more tragic. But in the school's teachers' lounge, there isn't much talk about the grim possibilities. Everyone knows what could happen in the future, but the staff focuses on making St. Bonaventura School the best it can be right now.

Outside in the schoolyard, boys in blue ties and girls in plaid jumpers run and jump rope, oblivious to the drunks and junkies arguing in the trash-strewn lot on the other side of the chain-link fence. The squeals and shouts of children echo down the pale yellow corridors, past the empty classrooms with the well-worn wooden floors and the plaster-of-Paris Madonnas. In the lounge, Wiggins and four teachers are tearing open foil-wrapped sandwiches from the nearby deli.

Wiggins is a tall, handsome woman. Speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and rhymes, she sounds more like a preacher at a tent revival than an educator. Around her neck she wears a little gold charm, given to her by her staff. It reads, “Live, Love, Laugh.” When visiting a classroom, Wiggins pauses and writes the following on the blackboard: “It's more than win or lose. It's the side you choose.” Throughout the school, her influence is evident. On the bulletin board that greets visitors as they enter the three-story brick school, there's a sign that reads: “Just Do It.” In the 1st-2nd grade classroom, there's another: “Anyone can paint a flower, but to give it fragrance only God has the power.”

When she is asked what makes St. Bonaventura so special, she answers, true to form, with a slogan. “It's a vision community,” she says. “You have to have a vision and be committed to the vision.” For Wiggins, vision has many meanings—none of them precise—but it comes down to everyone pulling together in the same direction, from the custodian who patches together Wiggins' terminally ill car to the police officer who organizes softball games to the neighbor who teaches PE for free.

Lynn Marsh, the school's 1st and 2nd grade teacher, provides another example of the vision. On the staff for 13 years, she has never earned enough to make a living from her teaching job alone. And so, for all those years, she has also waited on tables at a department store restaurant. Last year, Wiggins says, Marsh gave up her “summer money”—the pittance the school sets aside to help teachers make it through the vacation—to pay a student's tuition. “Without that money, he wouldn't have been able to come back,” Wiggins says.

Of course, Marsh knows she could make more money by teaching at a public school. A job in a suburban school district would pay more and be safer, too. At one point 10 years ago, she says, she even went so far as to tender her resignation. But the vision kept her at St. Bonaventura.

“At the end of the year, I had notified the pastor that I wouldn't be returning,” she remembers. “But then I sat and stared at my class for three or four days, and I just couldn't stand it. I decided to stay. I don't have the slightest desire to teach in the kind of public school I attended in the suburbs. The kids here take your heart away. It's nice to pay your bills, but it's also nice to wake up in the morning and be happy about going to your job.”

Teacher dedication, of course, is not unique to Catholic schools, as everyone gathered around the lunch table admits. But at St. Bonaventura, teachers have something that teachers in public schools don't always have: freedom. Most parish schools, about 85 percent, are independent of any central authority. “We have more control over the things that are important,” Marsh says, “and I don't just mean discipline. The curriculum in the city schools is very often non-bending. Every child in the city is supposed to be doing the same thing in the same way in the same week.”

At a time when education experts are calling for increased use of technology, and every special-interest group wants to be represented in the curriculum, St. Bonaventura's teachers preach that old-time religion of reading, writing, and arithmetic. There's a computer lab in the basement, and 7th and 8th graders are schooled in computer literacy, but the basics hold sway.

In the 7th-8th grade classroom, teacher David DeMarco leads 30 students in an algebra exercise. Across the hall, in Yvette Calvin's 5th-6th grade class, students concentrate on geography questions scratched across the blackboard:

    Name the Midwestern states.
    Where are the Great Lakes?

It's all fittingly elementary, and yet it is taught with a particular intensity. Says Aiyshah Wilson, an 8th grader who has attended St. Bonaventura since kindergarten: “We have drills every morning. The teachers always keep after us. They challenge me.”

Wesley Stevenson, a 6th grader who attended public school for four years before coming to St. Bonaventura, says the teachers find “interesting ways” to teach subjects such as math. In public schools, he says, he always had trouble with that particular subject. At St. Bonaventura, it's one of his favorites.

If something doesn't work, Wiggins says, teachers are free to change direction. “We have certain things we have to get done, but we can attack them in any way we wish. We can find a way to meet the particular needs of our children.”

Of course, Catholic schools have one course offering that public schools do not: religion. Once, in the years before Vatican II, every teacher taught from The Baltimore Catechism. Children memorized questions and answers about their faith, starting with the question, “Who made me?” Today, at least at St. Bonaventura School, less attention is paid to reciting the catechism and more to the lessons of the Bible and the life of Jesus. Class days begin and end in prayer, as does lunch. And the lessons do have a decidedly Catholic slant, obviously, but none of this seems to bother the roughly 50 non-Catholic students who attend St. Bonaventura.

If anything, says Wiggins, non-Catholic parents seem to prefer the imposition of some values, even values that are somewhat alien to their own, as opposed to the public school alternative—which is, very often, expected to be value-neutral.

“When I'm saying things to kids, instilling values, I think, `Could I say the things I'm saying in a public school?”' Wiggins asks. “You know, when you're little, knowing that you have to be good for God helps.”

“Even our 1st graders know what's going on out in the street,” she says. “They live it. They have to walk past the drug dealers to go home. And we're here to help them see that that's not the way to go.”

Those three features—vision, autonomy, and traditional values—make Catholic schools a fitting model for other urban schools, according to a recent study by the RAND Corp., titled High Schools with Character.

“The whole message of High Schools with Character is that a school has to stand for something,” says Paul Hill, senior social scientist in RAND's Washington, D.C., office. “It can't just be a clone of a central model that happens to be located in `our' neighborhood. It has to have a sense of mission, its own self-conscious strategy for influencing kids. On the whole, public policy has beaten that kind of character out of public schools.”

Despite their redeeming values, inner-city Catholic schools are in danger, partly because the original immigrants who built the schools have long gone, leaving behind only the poorest of the poor. But the schools also appear to be the indirect victims of dwindling Catholic generosity.

Greeley, together with Bishop William McManus, pointed out a disturbing trend in a controversial study of lay Catholic giving. They found that in 1960, the average church contribution for both Catholics and Protestants was just over 2 percent of gross income. For Protestants, the percentage remains about the same. But in the Catholic church, lay contributions have dropped to less than 1 percent.

“That's largely a result of lay anger at how the church is run,” Greeley postulates. “They had the generosity once, and they blew it.” According to Greeley, lay Catholics who disagree with the church on such issues as birth control and clerical authority have voted with their paychecks and pocketbooks.

Not everyone agrees with Greeley's assessment of the underlying causes, but most acknowledge that the well appears to be running dry—and the drought is having its effect on urban Catholic schools.

“We know we have money concerns,” says Bishop John Leibrecht, of Springfield, Mo., chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference Education Committee. “What has happened to the economy over the last five to 10 years has had an impact on those schools.”

Whether or not church leaders agree with Greeley, the Catholic bishops within the last year have recommitted themselves to saving the schools. The strategies vary from one diocese to the next, but most entail some combination of subsidies for poor schools, sophisticated marketing, and grantsmanship. In Philadelphia, the archbishop went one step further, mandating a three-year moratorium on school closings pending the outcome of an in-depth study of archdiocesan parishes, schools, priorities, and finances.

The increased cash flow will help for a little while, says the Rev. Eugene Kelleher, pastor of St. Bonaventura, but it's not a lasting solution.

Kelleher reflects on the financial status of St. Bonaventura while sitting in his office, a couple of large, cluttered rooms on the second floor of the church rectory, across the street from the school. The air in his study is heavy with the secular incense of Borkum Riff and Carter Hall, and a rack of carved, well-worn pipes sits atop a bookshelf. Over on the coffee table sleeps a large patchwork quilt of a cat named Mary Magdalene.

“We call her Maggie for short,” Kelleher says with a chortle, chewing on a pipe stem as he lights up. “She used to be a woman of the street, but we converted her.”

Gentle humor notwithstanding, Kelleher describes how the school ran into serious problems during the 1989-90 school year. Faced with a projected $24,000 shortfall in school funds, Kelleher required that each student sell $250 worth of candy, key chains, and other trinkets. Parents were enraged, and some filed a lawsuit, charging that Kelleher had unilaterally altered the terms of enrollment in midyear. The lawsuit was later settled out of court.

In response to the controversy, dozens of parents pulled their children out of school. Enrollment, which had stood at 213 at the beginning of the 1989-90 school year, dropped to less than 100 the next year. Kelleher had to lay off three of the school's seven teachers, and he was forced to raise tuition from $600 to $800, in addition to accepting extra support from an archdiocesan fund designed to keep inner-city schools afloat.

Kelleher says he has no regrets about what happened. “We really lost a lot of families who didn't have their hearts in this school,” he explains. If anything, Kelleher believes the school is now stronger, with an essential core of dedicated parents who really want their children to have the advantages of a Catholic education.

Kelleher and others see several possible solutions to the financial problems facing Catholic schools. He considers centralized funding of parish schools a workable option. The way the system works now, parish schools are independent of central authority and determine their own tuition costs. (On average, tuition covers about two-thirds of a school's costs, with the balance made up from the Sunday collection plate.) Parishes in affluent suburbs often receive high donations and are able to charge lower tuition than schools in low-income urban areas. But if parish schools agreed to centralize their funding, all schools would charge the same tuition. This might mean that students in more affluent areas would pay more tuition than they now do, but students at hard-hit schools like St. Bonaventura would pay significantly less, perhaps as little as $300 or $400.

Critics of centralized funding argue that it may be the first step toward centralized authority—the feature most characteristic of urban public schools. “Catholic school autonomy has something to do with their success,” says Michael Guerra, executive director of secondary schools for the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, D.C. “But it also means the school isn't part of a larger network of support.”

Another solution is block grants. Many schools in the Philadelphia area, for example, now have full-time personnel pursuing cash donations from outside donors, including major corporations. And nationwide, nearly one out of four Catholic elementary schools have created endowments or development funds to help ensure more stable financing. Says Missouri Bishop Leibrecht: “We believe we have a good story to tell businesses. We need to let them know how good private schools are.”

At the same time, the church is attempting to spread the good news about Catholic schools among its own flock. The Newark, N.J., archdiocese, for example, hired a former AT&T marketing executive to head a well-oiled campaign to bring Catholics back to their schools. There are billboards, radio ads, posters, and fancy brochures.

But even as they employ their various strategies for survival, most Catholic school leaders have their eyes trained on yet another solution: parental choice, which was given a big boost from President Bush last spring.

Virtually no one in the church leadership sees choice as a panacea, says Guerra. Nevertheless, it is a part of the battle plan, one that neatly coincides with the church view that inner-city Catholic schools belong to everyone.

“Our schools were built to serve immigrant populations,” Guerra says. “Yet many of the new immigrants are not themselves Roman Catholic. The schools serve a large percentage of non-Catholics. Many in the church think that's quite appropriate.”

At the same time, support for choice might not necessarily benefit only Catholic schools. It's significant that while Catholic school enrollment has dropped nearly 40 percent since the mid-1960s, registration at non-Catholic religious schools increased 149 percent. In Chicago, for example, Catholic enrollment slid from about 132,000 to 98,800 just in the last decade. At the same time, enrollment at other Christian schools—most of them evangelical—jumped, from 2,200 to 5,700. Obviously, what's good for Catholic schools would also benefit non-Catholic schools.

In Guerra's view, this is not a major concern. “We are not about market share,” he says. “It isn't as though we were attempting to establish a particular niche. Education is best served by having available to parents a wide range of choices, including choices within religiously affiliated schools.”

At St. Bonaventura School, the teaching staff goes about its business, not unaware of the swirling national debate, and not unconcerned. No matter what the outcome, Wiggins and her skeleton crew of teachers have a job to do. If they ever start to doubt it, they have only to look out onto the open-air drug market beyond their windows.

“Every morning, when I open my eyes, I know it's borrowed time,” Wiggins says. Lapsing into bumper-sticker mode, she adds, “What's important is to do what you can with the time you have now.”

Vol. 03, Issue 01, Pages 34-36, 41-45

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories