Perhaps more than ever before, America’s education system is helping to reinforce social inequalities.
“It’s called ‘social reproduction,’ and it’s real,” said Lynda Kennedy, a Queens resident who is a curriculum and program developer. “Kids who have tutors are going to do better. For people where I live — cops, firemen, barmen — it’s very hard.”
After a Sunday Mass in Woodside recently, Stephen, a Co. Monaghan immigrant, said: “There’s no such thing as a middle class anymore. The rich here get everything.
“I’m very happy with the school,” he said, nodding toward St. Sebastian Catholic elementary school where his two children have started their education: But it’s costly, and he and his wife have made sacrifices.
“Everything’s equal at home,” he said of the Irish education system. He plans to return to Monaghan.
“Education is far superior at home,” said Michelle, a mother of two who spent four years in the Catholic system in Queens before returning to finish secondary school in Ireland. For this and other reasons, she said, she and her husband are relocating to their native Co. Longford soon.
However, should immigrant parents decide to stay, Irish-American educators argue that they are well-placed to take advantage of the strengths of the public and private systems in New York.
Research is key, they contend.
“Know enough to know what your options are,” Kennedy said.
She cited the Web site www.insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City schools, as an invaluable tool and recommended that parents consider alternative public schools.
“The training New York City teachers get is excellent,” said Matt Curran, who taught for a time in the Bronx, and now works in Westchester.
“I have a lot of faith in the public school system,” said Katrina Vogel, who was born into an Irish family on Staten Island. “You have to stick with it.”
In the early 1990s, Vogel passed the rigorous entrance test for an elite magnet school in the public system. However, she didn’t do well, dropped out and was eventually expelled. She survived and thrived, however, in a “bad” school, eventually qualifying for one of the nation’s top art colleges.
Now in her mid-20s, Vogel has a Masters degree and is teaching writing at a well-regarded public high school in Brooklyn. “I think all students can succeed,” she said.
Educators agree that parents must find the right fit for their child.
Fr. Steve Katsouros S.J., principal of the fee-paying coeducational Loyola School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said that a child must like a school.
“If they spend a day there, they’ll know. Dialogue with your son or daughter is critical,” he said.
Educators believe, too, that by focusing on the relative strengths of systems in Ireland or America, parents can underestimate how important they themselves are in their children’s education.
“Parents are the first teacher, the best teacher,” said J.R. McCarthy, who teaches at a Catholic high school in the Bronx.
Vogel said that education begins when a child is still a toddler on its mother or father’s knee: “From an extremely young age, they should be reading to their children and doing basic math.”
Kennedy, who is pursuing a PhD in urban education, recalled how her Irish-born father, a policeman, helped make up for the inadequacies of the Philadelphia public school system. “He dragged us to museums all over Philly and to places like historic Williamsburg,” she said.
Parents, in her view, need to be the well-rounded people they want their children to be.
“Some kids don’t even see their parents read a newspaper,” Kennedy said.
She said that parents should look to schools that emphasize cultural activities.
“We have a mission to make our students life-long learners,” said elementary teacher Curran. His Valhalla district has artists in residence, brings students to listen to orchestras and invites authors to the schools. “We try to expand their world,” he said, adding that the effort is reflected in test scores.
McCarthy said immigrants should not be intimidated either by the “oppressive authority” of private schools or the “massive bureaucracy” of public schools. Speaking up is always a good policy.
“Frankly, the squeakiest wheel gets the most grease,” McCarthy said. “And if there isn’t a PTA in the school, then start one.”
Finally, educators stress that the Irish-born have a considerable advantage over some other immigrant groups.
“They are English speaking,” Kennedy said. They can conduct Internet research, communicate with teaching staff and participate in decision-making and fundraising with much greater ease that those raised in another language.
And, yes, Kennedy said, the Irish are products of a good education system. That’s another plus they can put to good use in the New World.