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Innovative Catholic Schools Working for All Students

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January 25, 2016

The Tenderloin--San Francisco’s most brutal square mile. In the Tenderloin many seem to live hopelessly in their personal hell. Streets and alleys are crowded with drug addicts, homeless parolees, other lost souls.

But the Tenderloin also is home to hundreds of children, living there because their working poor parents cannot afford housing anywhere else.

Yet the Tenderloin has no elementary school within walking distance -- except for De Marillac Academy.

Inside De Marillac’s plain walls the environment is stunningly different from the grim streets outside.

It is a loving, extraordinarily hopeful environment where 120 Tenderloin children “receive the gift and beauty of a Catholic education,” explains President Mike Daniels, a veteran Catholic educator.

De Marrillac provides a life-changing, accessible Catholic educational experience for the underserved children in fourth through eighth grade, almost all Latino. Few have parents who completed high school.

Is it successful?

No question! Some 90 percent of De Marillac’s graduates complete high school, a graduation rate 50 percent higher than for Latinos in San Francisco’s public schools.

Moreover, 60 percent of De Marillac’s high school grads go on to college.

De Marillac community practices and teaches six virtues: responsibility, compassion, gratitude, perseverance, leadership and integrity. The Catholic school’s motivated staff try to model Jesus every day in their own lives and the lives of the taught.

For Daniels it is in part payback for the Catholic education he received in Philadelphia, where his mother was a Catholic school teacher and his father worked two jobs to keep his three children there.

De Marillac is a wrap-around program that works with the families and continues to provide support and family involvement after its students move on.

“It is education for the whole family,” Daniels explains.  “We help the parents understand the opportunities that are available to them.”

The school exists because of generous, committed groups and people. About 30 percent of its funding comes directly from the Brothers of the Christian Schools (FSC) and the Daughters of Charity (DC) . Another 65 percent by private donations, individuals, foundations and corporations. The final five percent is family fees; everyone pays at least a little.

De Marillac is one of 665 Catholic schools in California. Together they educate 212,000 children, about five percent of the state’s schoolchildren.

And they do it at a cost of roughly $2 billion, about half of what the state’s average spending is to educate that number of children in public schools.

Catholic schools educate their students without any notable financial help from the state. All expenses come from tuition paid by parents, contributions by parishioners, and the help of some generous wealthy donors.

Catholic schools vary widely in their background.

Some are powerful motivating programs in relatively affluent parish communities that have the resources needed. Others are in working class parishes where financial pressures are always strong.

But they never lose sight of their mission to reach further out to children who need help.

De La Salle High School in Concord is widely known for its powerhouse football teams. But at its core is a strong academic success rate. 

Two years ago it started De La Salle Academy, to help boys in fifth through seventh, escape the cycle of poverty. Today it has 50 students enrolled and will add eighth grade this fall.

It is organized on the San Miguel model, a proven model for getting pre-high school youths out of the cycle of poverty, named after Brother Miguel Febres Cordero, FSC, a native of Ecuador and the first American Christian Brother to be canonized.

Catholic schools are both solidly Catholic at their core and also continually innovative.

Located in Watts, Verbum Dei High School opened in 1962. The neighborhood is no stranger to civil unrest, first in 1965 with the devastating Watts Riots and later in 1992 following the Rodney King Trial.

The urban decay of the neighborhood soon affected Verbum Dei and it was on the brink of closure. Knowing how vital it is to keep schools open in economically depressed areas, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles asked the Jesuits to take over the school in 2000. 

The school joined the Cristo Rey Network, an innovative effort to give youth from economically disadvantaged families a strong college prep experience combined with an integrated work-study experience.

The school partners with corporations that employ the students to help cover their tuition costs and simultaneously give them real-world job experience. The goal is to acclimate students to corporate culture, build their character and motivate them to seek a higher education.

A Los Angeles Times’ headline in 2013 sums up what has happened since: “Next stop for disadvantaged kids: college. In 2002, Verbum Dei High School in Watts began accepting only low-income students and doubling up on core classes. It's working.”  All of Verbum Dei’s graduates are accepted into college, equipped to succeed.

These examples show how Catholic schools innovate and adapt while remaining focused on their core mission.

With increasing Latino populations in California, many Catholic schools are working to meet challenges inherent in serving them well.

Sister Julie Kubasak, DC, experienced an ah-ha! moment when she found herself locked out of her church for Mass. Why? Her parish church was packed to capacity for its Spanish language Mass.

As principal of its school, she realized how large its potential audience was among Latino parishioners.

Daughters of CharityInitially expanding “takes a step out in faith,” Sister Julie admits.

Yet in seven years after being locked out she doubled the school’s enrollment.

And she discovered that with flexibility and creativity “the cost to educate students drops as you fill more seats.”

Sister Julie now is part of the leadership team for the Daughters of Charity, which operates 10 Catholic schools in California and Arizona. She is working to expand and strengthen Catholic education, especially for Latinos. 

 “Working with the new immigrants is an exciting time for Catholic education,” Sister Julie says, “We must honor both our heritage and our responsibility to our children in new ways. It is the right thing for our church.”

That vision is shared by many Catholic educators, who are working to help California’s rapidly growing Latino population gain the benefits of Catholic school education, while continuing to serve the other communities who recognize the value of a solid Catholic education for their children.