Inner-city Catholic school initiative launched

At a press conference held April 15, the third day of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) convention, the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE), in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Boston and Boston College, announced the launch of an initiative that will help needy students in Boston’s Catholic schools overcome a number of non-academic barriers to learning that they face.

“Our Church, through our education ministry, has a real commitment to the urban poor, and it is evident that we are serving the urban poor,” Steve Perla, executive director of PACE, said at the press conference launching the “Serving Urban Catholic School Students and Families Initiative.” PACE is a non-profit public policy and advocacy group dedicated to serving students in Massachusetts’s Catholic schools.

The urban initiative will provide services and programs to allow Catholic schools to serve more children more effectively. The initiative will also attempt to close the “achievement gap” between students in urban and suburban schools and between students who do not face hurdles to their success in school and those who do.

Sister Kathleen Carr, CSJ, archdiocesan superintendent for the Catholic Schools Office, welcomed the collaboration.

“The Church has a very clear mission to prepare children for life,” both academically and spiritually, Sister Kathleen said. “The archdiocese has been serving children in at-risk schools since its inception ... continuously working to ensure that we are responding to the new challenges of education in the new era.”

A recent study conducted by researchers at BC’s Lynch School of Education identified a number of barriers to learning that children in Boston’s inner-city Catholic schools experience. Among those obstacles are chronic health problems and poor nutrition, emotional and psychological challenges, disruptive behavior in school, a lack of discipline at home, family problems and poverty.

The BC study, surveying 35 Catholic elementary schools in Boston during the spring of 2003, found that of the 435 teachers surveyed in the study 72 percent felt that more than 25 percent of students in their schools “face significant social, psychological and/or emotional barriers to learning.” Approximately 86 percent of the 35 principals surveyed agreed with that assessment. According to the study, school staff considered family problems the highest barrier to learning.

Poor living conditions can affect how a student performs in school, said Father Joseph O’Keefe, interim dean of the Lynch School of Education. “Frequently, problems associated with poverty manifest themselves in behaviors that impede a child’s ability to learn,” he explained.

Despite the common perception that students attending Catholic schools come from financially stable families, another recent study conducted by PACE found that 68 percent of students attending urban Catholic schools live in poverty. The percentage is comparable to their peers in public schools.

“The student population that we are serving is not unlike the public school [population],” Perla explained.

Perla called the urban initiative a “pro-active program” that will help address these roadblocks to education that many inner-city Catholic school students face.

The initiative aims to improve student learning by addressing the non-academic barriers to learning through the creation of “Student Support Teams,” which will be established in the inner-city schools. The teams, consisting of school staff, will be run by a counselor at the schools and will provide services and resources directly to students. Through the establishment of the teams, school staff will have access to ongoing professional development and support.

The urban initiative will also help the schools access public and private funds, introduce nutrition programs to the students and attempt to increase parent involvement in their child’s education. Parents will be given advice and instruction on accessing resources available to them such as parenting classes to help them deal with discipline issues at home.

Also speaking at the press conference was NCEA president Michael Guerra; BC professor of education and innovative leadership Mary Walsh; president of the Center for Educational Partnerships Maria Webb; and PACE director of federal and community grants Berna Mann.