Catholic schools' success
As public school educators and policymakers search desperately for a solution
to the declining achievement of African American students in urban schools,
many, including President Clinton, have suggested that school uniforms be
required-much like those worn by Catholic students. However, school uniforms
and strict discipline are not the only reasons Catholic schools have been
historically successful in educating African American students.
based on more than uniforms
In my recently co-edited book, Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools,
African American professors, mostly non-Catholic like me, reflect on their
elementary and secondary parochial school experiences. The reflections,
in addition to a literature on student achievement, a historical piece and
a case study, are persuasive stories of achievement, racial identity, resistance,
biculturalism and adaptation.
I attended a segregated Catholic school in the South which was administered
by white priests and nuns from the Midwest. This curious mix of conflicting
cultures is pertinent and instructive because it illustrates the resilience
and adaptability of African American children in handling contradictory
and potentially contentious worlds. As a child, I practiced two religions-the
faith of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and Roman Catholicism.
I attended Mass and catechism classes five days a week in school and AME
Sunday School classes, church services and youth group meetings outside
So, with much grace and fluidity, I watched private Catholic confessions
and public AME testimonials. I admired the white Catholic priest and the
black AME preacher. Latin masses and altar boys' prayers-no problem; neither
were gospel singing and revivals. I unabashedly interacted with white nuns
in black habits and and black ushers in white uniforms. I am amazed now
at how well I mastered this fine art of cultural switching.
There are some significant messages for public schools in this book that
transcend the triteness of uniform-wearing. As far as the pedagogy in Catholic
schools, there is overwhelming evidence that it was rigorous, traditional
and unremarkable. Catholic teachers were ordinary by today's standards,
yet the degree of engagement and achievement by their students was-and continues
to be-very high. It appeared that the Catholic school teachers were either
unaware or unimpressed with research that correlated student achievement
with ethnicity and family income.
A prevailing theme throughout the book is that Catholic teachers had high
expectations for their students. Guided by their sense of mission to teach,
save souls or escape the fires of hell, Catholic teachers were unrelenting
in their expectation that African American students achieve. All students
were expected to master all subjects and no course or assignment was considered
too difficult, esoteric or irrelevant. The religious fervor with which these
mission-oriented nuns, priests and lay teachers approached their work should
be applied to secular schools.
Equally important, however, was that teachers' high expectations were matched
by those of parents. My parents were even more zealously committed to my
achievement than the nuns. And while my parents did not share ethnicity,
religion, or any other obvious cultural attribute with the Catholic nuns
and priests who taught me, all believed in the power of education over oppression
and discrimination and in values such as discipline, resilience, achievement
and hard work. The hardship of growing up black in the 1950s South was not
an excuse. We were told that we could and we would excel academically.
This book has no interest in sentimentalizing my or my colleagues' past
education experiences. It is not a call for Catholic education of all African
American children or a call for a revival of the Protestant ethic in black
communities. Rather, it presents readers with some lessons for the education
of African American students. First, there must be a strong set of clearly
articulated and accepted values embraced by educators, students and parents.
This seamlessness between home and school should be based upon common values
such as discipline and order, a sense of mission and purpose, high expectations
and an understanding of the centrality of parents and family in the education
of their children. Second, African American students profit from a demanding
curriculum, regardless of the nature of that curriculum or the particular
pedagogical approach. This curriculum must be taught by individuals who
are mission oriented and who believe that African Americans must-not simply
can-learn and achieve in schools.
I have attempted to use these principles in the Center for Urban Teaching/Learning
and Urban Research in Education and Schools (CULTURES) at Emory. CULTURES
is a professional development center that assists Atlanta area elementary
and middle school teachers in working effectively with culturally diverse
students and enhances the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools.
Ninety teachers in groups of 15 have completed the 40-hour course that includes
cultural immersion experiences in other communities. These encounters and
conversations with parents and other community members are intended to help
teachers begin meaningful dialogues with parents so they can begin to discover
the common values that will form the foundation for the type of parent/teacher
connection that existed in Catholic schools.
Finally, CULTURES provides a supportive environment in which teachers move
beyond simple interventions such as uniforms and examine their beliefs and
expectations, as well as those teaching practices that impede the achievement
of their students.
Jacqueline Irvine is Jordan Candler Professor
of Urban Education in educational studies.
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