Thursday, May 03, 2007

Young black males lead the nation in homicides, unemployment and incarceration while lagging behind in academic achievement

Sol Stern:

THE schools that have the best record in our inner cities are also the most endangered. It's a system that largely started here in New York City, too: America's Catholic schools.

Consider Rice HS in Harlem, run by the Christian Brothers religious order. For decades, Rice has rescued at-risk African-American boys and turned them into responsible men who go on to college and then give back to the community. Yet it nearly closed down two years ago, and remains on the edge.

Demographic changes and financial pressures have led to the closing of thousands of excellent inner-city Catholic schools and needlessly deepened the nation's urban-education crisis. Philanthropists - and policymakers - need to help these schools continue their mission.

It's hard to exaggerate the challenge that Rice and similar schools voluntarily take on. Young black males lead the nation in homicides, both as victims and perpetrators; have the highest rates of unemployment and incarceration; and lag behind every other racial, ethnic and gender subgroup in academic achievement.

More than 70 percent of Rice students are black - and more than 90 percent of its entering students finish high school and go on to college.

Of course, studies galore have shown that Catholic schools do a better job of educating inner-city poor and minority children than do public schools with comparable student populations. Why this "Catholic school advantage"? One explanation - perhaps the most powerful - is discipline.

Above the doors leading to Rice's lobby, through which all its students pass every morning, a plaque admonishes: "The 'Street' ENDS here!"

That message is Rice's alternative to the metal detectors in so many of our public high schools. It's there thanks to Rice's head of school - 61-year-old Brother John Walderman, a lifelong Christian Brothers educator picked to save Rice two years ago, when enrollment had plummeted from 400 students in 1999 to a bankruptcy-threatening low of 265.

In his two years at Rice's helm, Walderman has managed to stop the hemorrhaging, though the school's condition is still precarious.

He views the plaque's "countercultural message" as a commandment. At Rice, students must cast off the destructive street culture that undermines academic achievement and that marches unimpeded through the front doors of most urban public schools. Walderman tells entering freshmen that they're in for a four-year grind of hard work and personal discipline - with no excuses accepted and no special dispensations given.

In the morning, the boys file through the doors into Rice's lobby, doff their coats and hooded sweatshirts - and suddenly transform into sharply dressed Rice men, with pressed slacks, oxford shirts, neckties and green school vests, sometimes adorned with colorful pins signifying the school's many academic awards.

Like boot-camp drill sergeants, Walderman and his aides relentlessly enforce the Rice ethos: There's a strict dress code and no tolerance of lateness or absences; homework must come in on time. Violations trigger immediate consequences, such as detention or calls to parents. Disruptive classroom behavior, disrespect toward teachers and violence against fellow students bring suspension, at a minimum. Expulsion is a final resort.

Public schools may simply lack the will to keep the "street" out. But political correctness and "rights" restrictions imposed by the civil-liberties lobby and the courts get in the way of discipline, too. As a result, for all the metal detectors and cops on hand, bedlam reigns at many urban public schools.

That chaos alone is a sufficient explanation for the dismal four-year graduation rate for black males in such schools, which rarely tops 30 percent.

One reason why black students in Catholic schools do better than other blacks may be that they have higher IQ's.

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