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.
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.
"That'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.
"I 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. "But 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. "The 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, "They 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 "worst" students.
Ironically, it was Albert Shanker, whom Time magazine calls "the 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: "You 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, "In 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. "We should be in favor of success for kids, rather than putting this moribund bureaucracy ahead of children," he said in a September news conference. "I'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. "I 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.
"Mayor Giuliani's championing of Catholic schools and recruitment of private support of them," Ms. Thurau continued, "on the premise that they provide superior education to public schools, smacks of state endorsement of religion."
But the firefight was brief; by the end of the week, the mayor said private donors had already pledged half of the $2 million the program is expected to cost to send as many as 1,000 students to parochial schools in its first year.
It's not hard to understand why the teachers' unions are worried: The Catholic schools do a better job educating inner-city youth. In 1990, the Rand Corporation reported that poor parochial school students averaged 803 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, compared to 642 averaged by similar poor kids in public schools.
It's even more bang for the buck when you consider that New York City's Catholic schools spend about $2,500 per year to educate a pupil, compared to more than $7,500 spent per pupil by the city's public schools. Also, in some areas of New York City, as few as 45 percent of the public school students stay in school long enough to graduate; in the Catholic schools in those same neighborhoods, the graduation rate is 95 percent.
What accounts for the disparity between public schools and parochial schools? Is it the uniforms, an idea that President Clinton rode during the campaign and in his State of the Union Address?
The trio is outside the library now, a tall, thin brick structure squeezed between two crumbling urban walk-ups. It's past 4 p.m., and the sun and mercury are dropping. A few presumably homeless men amble into the library, perhaps for one last warming up before night falls. The cop inside the library, near the door, ignores them. The St. Ann's kids stand out from other youths who come and go--and it's not just the uniforms,which are only slightly visible under their coats.
Rehena responds to the query first. "The uniforms are good," she acknowledges. "At public school, everyone's concerned about what sneakers you're wearing. You look at the clothes before you look at the person."
"I like my uniform," says Rory of his standard blue-blazer-and-tie ensemble. "I look good. Mature." (To which Rehena replies with the withering stare adolescent girls reserve for adolescent boys.)
"I still have the friends I had when I was in P.S. 125," continues Rehena, who came to St. Ann's in the sixth grade. "But I can see differences. Academically and socially, we're just not on the same level."
That shows itself in speech, she says, as the kids make their way into the library, through the doors and under the sagging frame of something that's either a metal detector or a theft-prevention scanner. Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be plugged in.
"My friends don't talk properly," Rehena continues. "And they don't even understand why it's important. They use street slang with each other, with their parents, even in school, and no one corrects them. How you talk shows who you are. I think it's going to be a real problem for some of them later in life."
Norma talks of how, if she were still at her old public school, she'd spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out with friends.
"But not here," she says. "Too much homework. Now I have to go to the library. In public school, they gave us assignments, but they never checked them. They didn't care if we did the work or not."
Rory, shedding his coat, says he's finally come up with his answer.
"I know what I'd change about the public school," he says, those large hands clutching his books. "God. Because when I came here, I didn't know who God was. Now I learn about Jesus, I say prayers, and I know that God is the reason I'm here."
Rehena nods. "I was bad when I came here," she says. "I was so bad. Lying, not doing what I was supposed to be doing. But I changed."