How do you educate in the midst of widespread Catholic school closures and a dysfunctional public school system?
The Irish-American, William Ford, a soft-spoken, enigmatic high school principal from the Bronx, is familiar with the scene at many city schools: police patrols, metal detectors, not enough chairs or books, too many children, too many foreign languages, and too unwieldy a curriculum for any semblance of effective education to happen.
“Parents need savvy,” said Ford, “or they end up in the dumping grounds.”
These are the schools where teachers are assaulted and guns are confiscated, where gangs and drug dealers maraud the hallways, and teacher turnover is so high they rarely know the students who usually don’t bother coming to class anyway.
It is all too common that minority children do not finish high school, and disciplinary expulsions seem to just pave the way back to a dangerous cycle.
Catholic schools — once a haven for poor families — are unable to attract quality teachers with competitive pay. The resulting drop in grades and attendance are forcing them to close in some neighborhoods.
In the midst of this breakdown, Ford discovered a Jesuit school in Chicago that was serving the city’s most needy urban children. It combined the Catholic educational tradition of smaller classes, higher expectations, quality teaching and personal attention with the resources of corporate America by adding a work-study program whereby four students share one entry-level job, the salary from which pays 75 percent of their tuition.
When venture capitalist B.J. Cassin and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation later provided $18.9 million in development funds to build a network of 16 more of these schools nationwide, Ford seized the opportunity to open one in New York.
He turned to Donegal-man Conor Murphy, Vice-President and CFO of MetLife Financial Services for much needed business acumen.
“I thought it was a great way to help immigrants get a start,” said Murphy who, with help from other trustees, took on the daunting task of assessing costs, finding student jobs and raising funds for families who couldn’t afford the nominal fee for the school, christened Cristo Rey New York High School.
The Archdiocese offered the use of a ramshackle building in Spanish Harlem and volunteers soon cleared four rooms to accommodate 100 students. Ford set about designing a bilingual curriculum, while some very motivated teachers joined the staff including Jesuit Joseph Parks, former school president of the prestigious Fordham Preparatory School.
“It started with a few jots on a bit of paper and a post office box,” Ford recalled. “Parents would come to meet us then come back to find the building empty and we were asking them to trust us with their children.”
It was a trust born of faith and fear of the alternative.
It was three years before the school was ready to start enrolling 100 children in the summer of 2004 at its 106th Street location in East Harlem, most of whom turned out to be so ill-prepared by their previous schools that they couldn’t be assessed by their grades and had to be interviewed instead.
“We tried to determine the intangible element of potential,” Ford said, grasping at air, knowing he needed to find students who would earn the price of their ticket.
One successful first-year student is Amarylis Feliciano, 15, a shy child who grew up jostled by the roster of foster children her mother took in. She is working with the elderly and wants to be a pediatrician.
“Because she’s quiet she was passed over and ignored at earlier schools,” said Ford. “She’s very strong. She thinks of others first always.”
“I came with a public school attitude,” confessed William Nunez 15, a high-spirited, street savvy kid from the Bronx. “Public school was wild, you didn’t have to go to class. Catholic school is so strict and structured I can’t do anything like I used to.”
Nunez almost dropped out of what was a gruelling year of class, homework, after-school activities and five days a month at the New York State Capital Defenders Office.
But when the attorneys discovered he was struggling, they tutored him and Nunez went on to win the Outstanding Freshman Award.
“This school saved me from the gutter,” he said. “I’ve never seen teachers who care like this. No more wild street stuff or I’ll end up back on the streets.”
This fall, after an exhausting but rewarding year, Ford noticed a change in the kids.
“They’re more outgoing, even tempered and professional,” he said. “They’re learning to escape fatalism and survive.”
Encouraged by the student’s academic progress and delighted they’re getting invaluable work experience at some of the City’s most prestigious firms, Ford and Murphy started searching for new students and new entry-level jobs for their second year.
The unemployed single mother of aspiring applicant, Alyssa Reyes, 13, worried that her daughter “has lost out on a lot” at her South Bronx public school, waited patiently for her interview in the early morning hours.
“It’ll be hard here,” said Reyes, “but you got to do what you got to do.”
Christopher Perez, 14, who knows this school is his only chance of getting the grades necessary for a college scholarship and a shot at being a pro-basketball player, traveled 20 miles alone on the subway to his interview.
“It’s a pretty nice school,” he says wringing his hands nervously and glancing about. “I can feel it.”
This demonstrated commitment paid off for both teenagers recently when they tore open long-awaited letters and discovered they’ll be part of the student roster at Cristo Rey this year.
“They demonstrated that great intangible,” says Ford, “what we call ‘ganas,’ the passionate desire to be and to do something more.”
It seems that with everyone involved with this little school in Harlem, ganas is one thing that’s not in short supply.