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How to teach young dogs some old tricks

National | Catholic schools ready to accept public-school incorrigibles

Issue: "Drawing the Line," Feb. 22, 1997

The intersection at the corner of 110th St. and Second Ave. in East Harlem is a busy one. The light changes, and a line of panel vans, cabs, and sedans creeps through the intersection. Three eighth graders from St. Ann's School wait for a battered and belligerent City Taxi to rattle past the corner before they step from the curb. This far uptown (north), Manhattan's buildings no longer block the sun quite so much, so the dirty slush that lines the gutters is beginning to melt and spread into puddles.

As the students make their way to the library for some homework research, they pass an area that illustrates the gulf separating New York City's public and parochial schools.

Drugs--most visibly crack cocaine--are being sold openly at Lexington and 110th by listless young men who seem numbed to the cold and the consequences. They lean against steel burglar bars that frame the shop doors and windows. They sit on overturned buckets, smoking cigarettes and watching the passing cars. A disturbing number of kids, as young as the St. Ann's trio and often younger, idle at the edges of this zone.

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Drug use is on the rise among their peers. Columbia University reports that nearly 10 percent of the eighth graders in the United States have used illegal drugs. It's such a problem in New York City public schools that the district has a 3,000-member police force and dozens of drug-sniffing canines.

And yet at St. Ann's, just two blocks away, there has never been an instance of drug abuse at the school in its 71-year history. Nor has any student ever brought a weapon to class.

The contrast is so sharp that New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, long frustrated by the vast, immovable New York City public school system, is asking what the public schools need to learn from the Catholic ones.

&quotThat's a good question," grins Rory, a dark, lanky 13-year-old who looks like he just might someday grow into his feet and hands. He pauses from time to time and points out a few landmarks, the kind boys know are important: the fortress-like 12-story housing project he lived in until he was 11, a section of sidewalk where he saw a fight, the crime-ridden apartment building where his grandmother still lives.

&quotI know what I'd tell 'em. I'd tell 'em about the fights, and the teachers that don't care, and, um, everybody tearing everything up."

His grin fades, but just a little. &quotBut those are the problems. I don't know what to do about them. Maybe I don't know what I'd tell 'em."

Norma, a 13-year-old Hispanic girl cocooned in a huge down coat, is slower to speak. &quotThe teachers, I think. I would tell them to find teachers like ours. Computers and things like that are fine, but they can't explain things, they can't care about the students."

Adds Rehena, also 13, &quotThey need more books and things, but those don't matter if the teachers aren't good. If they're not teaching and disciplining, they're wasting everybody's time."

Next fall many more inner-city youth will be in a position to offer answers. That's because, in addition to asking questions, Mayor Giuliani is taking up a long-standing offer by the Catholic Archdiocese to educate some of New York City's &quotworst" students.

Ironically, it was Albert Shanker, whom Time magazine calls &quotthe father figure of the American Federation of Teachers," who first proposed the idea. At a regional education conference in 1991, the union head made a sarcastic aside during his keynote address: &quotYou people in the Catholic schools, take the lowest 5 percent of the achievers."

A few minutes later, during the question-and-answer period, Catherine Hickey, New York City's Catholic schools superintendent, stood and responded to Mr. Shanker, &quotIn the name of Cardinal O'Connor and the Archdiocese of New York, I accept your challenge."

Although she was serious, no one called her, she says. Still, the idea wasn't dead. It resurfaced last year when Cardinal O'Connor extended the offer again. Faced with overcrowded schools and dismal test scores, Mayor Giuliani responded favorably. &quotWe should be in favor of success for kids, rather than putting this moribund bureaucracy ahead of children," he said in a September news conference. &quotI'm tired of it, I think it's horrible, and I think this is a matter of conscience."

Although the mayor didn't propose public funding, teachers' unions and civil liberties groups still complained. &quotI have a problem with the public system relying on the sectarian system in a moment of crisis," said Lisa Thurau, the head of a group that in 1985 sued to prevent public school teachers from going into parochial schools for remedial programs.

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