Hope and a prayer — and a choice
In 1994 when I realized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had not written two words about the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s three inner-city “Extra Mile Schools,” I did this feature story for the P-G’s Sunday magazine, the Gazette. Doing the article proved two things to me — that parents of black kids, including single mothers with limited incomes, were savvy shoppers when it came to finding the best school for their kids and they were willing to pay the cost of sending their kids to a private school that was all-Catholic, all the time. Joyce Mendelsohn took the cover photo. Today St. Benedict the Moor in Pittsburgh’s Hill District has a new address but it is one of three grade schools that are subsidized by the Extra Mile Education Foundation. More than 600 kids from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade attend the Extra Mile schools. Like they were in 1994, their students are predominantly African American, non-Catholic and come from single parent homes. -B.S.
Pittsburgh, Hill District, St. Benedict the Moor School, 1994
It’s going to be a lot crazier than usual at St. Benedict the Moor on this frozen Monday morning, and Sister Margery Kundar knows it.
Before the principal can even get out of her red parka, she’s on her office phone trying to get a piano tuner in time for the Saturday class in the school cafeteria.
The older classes’ tribute to Martin Luther King, rescheduled from the week before because of the hellish January weather, starts in an hour. She also needs to find two altar boys for a funeral Mass later this morning. And the hoagies from the fund-raising sale are coming in, too.
But right now, seven buses and vans are arriving. Kids from 5 to 14 are pouring through the front doors into the former church on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. Standing at her usual morning post just inside the door and waving her arms, she looks like a traffic cop, but she’s wearing a flowered sweater, a pearl necklace, earrings and a long gray skirt.
About 160 students come in the buses from the North Side, Wilkinsburg and North Versailles. About 50 come from Oakland and the Hill. She knows every child by name. Sister Margery bends into the flow of winter coats and backpacks to hear a boy’s breathless report of a snowball attack by a fellow first-grader named Deon.
She gets the details and –”Ohh!!” she remembers the poor bus driver. Out the front door she flies, crossing the icy sidewalk in her heels to tell the waiting shuttle driver that the scholars won’t be going to their gifted class at a city school today as usual because of the King program.
Now it’s time to resolve the Snowball Incident. Back inside and down the hall she goes. In the mildly chaotic first-grade classroom she discreetly rounds up four suspects in their dark dress pants and blue shirts. She parades them out the door and into a small side office.
Gently, firmly, and without assigning guilt to anyone in particular, she crouches low and asks a series of leading questions. Soon she elicits the answers she’s looking for from the four angelic faces: It is not only dangerous to throw frozen snowballs at each other, it’s not the right thing to do. Satisfied, she sweeps the tiny foursome back to their classroom with her long arms.
By 8:30, the carpeted halls are quiet as another day’s classes begin. Two-hundred-thirteen children have been swallowed in nine 20-25-kid bites, grades K through 8. Nine teachers are checking roll, taking cafeteria lunch orders and asking a student to start the day with a prayer.
St. Benedict the Moor is a Catholic grade school in all ways, down to the crucifixes in every classroom. Yet it and its two sister schools, Holy Rosary in Homewood and St. Agnes in Oakland, are unlike any of the other 116 elementary schools in the Pittsburgh Diocese.
Their most remarkable feature is their demographics: 99 percent of their nearly 800 students are black and 97 percent are not even Catholic. Although their tuition costs average about $700 a year, they are not filled with wealthy or middle-class black children. According to the Diocese’s figures, about 70 percent of the students in the three schools come from families that are below the government poverty level and 70 percent live in single-parent (predominantly single-mother) households.
Many other Catholic grade schools, like Good Shepherd in Braddock and St. Leo on the North Side, have sizable percentages of black non-Catholic students. Virtually all Catholic grade schools are funded by a combination of tuition (ranging from $650 to $1,200 a year per Catholic student; more for non-Catholics), parish subsidies (51 percent of the total school budget), Diocesan grants and fund raising.
But these three — which the Diocese calls its “inner-city” schools and which, like their neighborhoods — have been virtually all black and all non-Catholic since the early 1970s, are funded in a unique way.
Since 1990, they have received only minimal financial support from the Diocese. They owe their continued existence — and about 60 percent of their annual operating budgets – to the Extra Mile Education Foundation, which raises almost $1 million a year from local business leaders and foundations.
St. Benedict, Holy Rosary and St. Agnes each has its own character, but inside their thick old walls the most important things are the same. Their halls are lined with Afrocentric images of Catholic saints and black heroes and billboarded with messages of self-worth, self-reliance and love of fellow man.
Boys and girls from kindergarten to eighth grade wear uniforms, treat their teachers with respect and are expected to travel hallways in silence. Discipline reigns, but it’s not severe or even conspicuous. Children are expected to succeed. Parents are expected to be involved.
The schools are all run with great love and toughness by nuns like Sister Margery. Of their 37 full-time teachers, all but one is a woman and 17 are black. The fully accredited teachers work long, hard hours for many reasons — for their Church, for the black community or because they love teaching — but not for money.
The Diocese is extremely proud of its inner-city schools, which have no entrance tests and among them expel one or two kids a year. It has data to show that their graduates continue to succeed academically in both public and Catholic high schools. And waiting lists for virtually every class testify as to how parents feel about each school.
St. Benedict, Holy Rosary and St. Agnes teach many lessons about what it takes and doesn’t take to create a successful, affordable, private inner-city grade school. They prove that small, efficient, autonomous schools with laughably small operating budgets can provide good educations to socially and economically disadvantaged children — especially when parents are made an important part of the equation.
To avid school-choice advocates like Democratic state Sen. Mike Dawida of Carrick, the inner-city schools provide living proof that “school choice is probably more important for poor kids than it is for the well-off, even though the well-off are perceived as the beneficiaries.”
Dawida, a Catholic who sends his children to public schools, says the three schools demonstrate that if given a choice, even the poorest parents are willing to make economic sacrifices and other trade-offs to get what they want for their kids: a safe school that takes a no-nonsense approach to discipline, maintains high education standards and emphasizes Christian moral values.
Lastly, St. Benedict and the others show that in Pittsburgh — as in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Atlanta, New York City and other cities where business also is funding parochial schools – many companies, foundations and individuals are eager to financially support non-public schools that work.
Sister Margery can’t stand dirt, and it shows. St. Benedict is well-maintained and spotless, no doubt in large part because she’s been in charge and habitually picking up scraps of paper in the halls since 1979. A church before it was transformed into a school, St. Benedict isn’t rich, but it isn’t wanting for much.
It has a computer lab, VCRs in every classroom and a basketball team. Teachers might wish for more workbooks. But there are after-school enrichment classes in German, science, math and computers. University of Pittsburgh students tutor math and English, and Duquesne University music students give lessons for a minimal fee.
Sister Margery arrived at St. Benedict carrying a folk guitar and a lifetime of naivete about black culture. She’s gotten much hipper about black food and black hairstyles since then, but she won’t be sporting an Afro or learning to like rap music anytime soon.
She knows how important it is for young black children to be given a sense of self-worth and confidence. They have the potential to be and do what they want to do,” she says, “and to make it in the white world. I use that term ‘white world’ because many of our students are moving into Catholic high schools that are predominantly white and doing well.”
In addition to her daily administrative duties and an occasional emergency stint in the classroom, Sister Margery handles all her school’s finances (except for fund raising), from paying her teachers to working out monthly payment plans with parents for tuition.
St. Benedict’s total operating budget for the 1993-94 school year, she says, opening a folder on her desk, is $473,000 — for everything from teachers salaries and benefits to building maintenance, liability insurance and light bulbs. The annual cost of educating each of her students is $2,200 (in the City of Pittsburgh, the instructional cost alone per pupil is nearly $6,000, about the same as the wealthy suburb of Upper St. Clair’s).
Parents at St. Benedict pay $700 for one child, $850 for two or more (to keep families together, the schools encourage parents to enroll all their children). Parents will contribute $107,800 in tuition fees and another $6,500 through things like candy sales this year. About $33,000 comes from the Diocese (which splits $100,000 among the three schools), $19,000 from St. Benedict parish and $13,000 from a national Catholic mission fund. Another $6,000 comes from things like renting the cafeteria hall to Alcoholics Anonymous on Wednesday nights. The remainder — about $283,000 — comes courtesy of the Extra Mile Foundation.
It’s pretty simple. Without the Extra Mile Education Foundation, there are no inner-city Catholic schools. As the foundation’s executive director, Nancy Flaherty Beck raises money to keep the schools operating.
Until 1989, Beck says, the Diocese heavily subsidized the three schools. But as the Diocese began to cut its overhead by consolidating its underpopulated schools and shrinking parishes, Bishop Donald Wuerl asked local business leaders to help him find a way to raise money privately to keep the inner-city schools alive.
Wuerl had visited the schools many times and had seen the “joy and excitement and expectation” on the students’ faces. He wanted to keep them going, even though most of the students were non-Catholic, as a “way of manifesting Christ’s love” and because the schools were so important to the futures of the children who were going there.
“Many of them don’t have a lot,” Wuerl said recently. “They come from needy and modest backgrounds. They’re disadvantaged in a real sense, and these schools are the one bright spot in their lives. The Diocese shares their hope that this life is going to get better for them.”
The business leaders Beck talked to were interested in supporting the inner-city schools, she says. But they wanted to know if the schools were any good. So the Institute for Practice & Research in Education at Pitt was hired to do an independent study of the schools’ graduates over the previous 10 years.
Two-thirds of the schools’ graduates went on to public high schools and one-third to Catholic high schools. Beck says the study found that no graduate of the three inner-city schools ever had to repeat ninth grade and that 92 percent graduated from high school. (The graduation rate in Pittsburgh, where 32 percent of students live at or below the poverty level, was 81.8 percent last year. In a community such as Plum, where 6 percent are under the poverty level, the graduation rate was 94 percent.)
“The corporations thought it was a good program, and they wanted to support it,” Beck says. The Howard Heinz Endowment started the ball rolling by offering $1 million to set up an endowment if Extra Mile could raise $1 million on its own, which it then did, thanks to donations from the Allegheny, McCune and Tippins foundations and other sources.
Today, Extra Mile has an endowment of $3.5 million. Its 13-person board of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish business leaders includes retired Westinghouse Electric Chief Executive Officer John Marous, U.S. Steel Group President Tom Usher and Giant Eagle CEO ‘ David Shapira.
They all have visited the schools and have gotten their friends to donate and give money themselves, says Beck, who is as proud of them as she is of the schools and the children in them. (City of Pittsburgh public schools also seek and receive money and other forms of support from foundations and businesses, such as Westinghouse Electric’s partnership with Westinghouse High School, in which company scientists become mentors for students.)
Beck says the foundation has raised about $940,000 in each of the past three years. Roughly 43 percent comes from its board members and other corporations, 43 percent from family foundations and the rest from individuals. The money is split among the three schools, depending on salaries, student populations and maintenance costs.
Every parent must pay tuition, but there is a small amount of economic aid available for hardship cases, she says. For the past five years, an anonymous benefactor has helped graduates of the inner-city schools pay portions of their tuition at Catholic high schools like Central, which costs non-Catholics $4,000 a year.
This year (1994), Beck says, 72 high school students are being helped by a donor she would describe only as a “Catholic person who believes that all kids can succeed if given an education.” Another 22 high schoolers get tuition assistance through a grant from the Allegheny Foundation. And through the Extra Mile Foundation, a second anonymous person is helping six students with their college tuition.
The Extra Mile Foundation is committed to supporting the schools through 1995 and it is working on setting up a $10 million endowment program that will keep the inner-city schools operating in perpetuity.
Holy Rosary, which gets most of its students from the Homewood-Brushton neighborhood, is one of the biggest institutions in Homewood and largest of the three inner-city schools, with 350 students. It also is the only one with a real gym. Following the Diocese’s consolidation in 1992, Holy Rosary parish was folded into a larger parish called St. Charles Lwanga, after the African saint.
Like Sister Margery, Sister Valerie Zottola also had a bad case of black culture shock when she became Holy Rosary’s principal in 1980. Her first move was to establish a long-term goal for herself “to enable and empower the people in that culture to take over this school.
She saw “the need to develop strong African-American children. We take that very, very seriously here,” she says, “particularly because of the effects of racism on this culture. The children continue to come in with low self-esteem and a very negative attitude, which I attribute to the effects of racism.”
Her strategy includes threading the black-American experience throughout the curriculum, from social studies to reading and math. The contributions of black people, which Sister Valerie says are given short shrift in textbooks, are highlighted, she says, without deviating from the Diocese’s curriculum or shortchanging the important legacy of European culture.
Part of her emphasis on African-based culture includes a Rites of Passage program for every sixth-grade boy. It is based on traditional principles used in African societies to prepare young men for manhood — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The program matches each boy, more than half of whom have no male role model at home, with a black man for more than two school-years’ worth of guidance in education, family, church and society and ends with a public Rites of Passage ceremony for the boys in eighth grade.
“I think it’s one of the most successful programs I’ve seen in 25 years of education,” Sister Valerie says. “You can see young men who come in here down, not too motivated, and I tell you, within a month or two of this program there’s a 180-degree turn their attitudes, their grades, their participation in class, their involvement in extracurricular activities, you go down the line. It’s been tremendous.”
Sister Valerie says she also has consciously adapted her curriculum to include her students’ families. A strong proponent of school choice, she believes her school should serve its market the people of the surrounding community or die.
And she has something to say to those who think that poor, single, inner-city mothers can’t make the right choice when it comes to education. If they’re referring to black people, she says, “that attitude is pure racism.” When she registers parents, they ask the right questions. They need all the support any young single parent might need, she says, “but they know what they want from Holy Rosary.”
The Rev. David Taylor, the pastor at St. Charles Lwanga, says there is no attempt to convert any children to Catholicism or put down anyone else’s religion. Parents know how much Catholicism they are getting into, he says, and there are no exceptions — even for the few Muslim parents.
“We take a hard line. We take it for granted that if the parents send their child here that they are buying into the whole program.”
Since 1966, the principal of St. Agnes Elementary, at the foot of Robinson Street near Fifth Avenue, has been Sister Elizabeth Ann Herbert. A no-nonsense veteran of the Catholic grade-school wars, one minute she’s digging into her slacks to lend 20 cents to a boy for his lunch; the next she’s spotting the beginnings of trouble between two boys in a crowded cafeteria 50 feet away and making a beeline to snuff it out. Sure, there are fights, she says, but “Kids are kids.”
Corporal punishment is not permitted by the Diocese, but Sister Elizabeth Ann wouldn’t need it anyway. One morning early last September, all she had to do was start pointing to the cafeteria floor and classfuls of kids began clearing their trays and lining up. The kids knew the drill. She rang a hand bell and the din of almost 200 children dropped to near silence as they filed off to their homerooms, leaving behind a row of tidy cafeteria tables.
Sister Elizabeth Ann’s next mission is to deliver a new student named LeVegas to his homeroom. She leads him by the hand to the classroom of brand new teacher Kim Phillips, who teaches special reading skills to 10 of the school’s first-graders.
LeVegas, who had been on a waiting list to get into St. Agnes, is greeted like a long-lost son by Phillips. She introduces him to the other children and immediately makes him part of a frenzied hour that begins with all of them standing with their hands folded and saying the “Our Father” and continues through a non-stop series of reading exercises, word drills, math drills, phonics lessons and quickie arts projects.
The orangy-beige classroom has all the standard modern schoolroom features — a VCR, a computer, a TV and several kids with colds. The six girls and four boys are free to talk and move around to sharpen pencils and get tissues.
All are attentive, eager to please their enthusiastic teacher, who reads to them, God-blesses them when they sneeze, relentlessly corrects their “it don’ts” to “it doesn’ts” and emits a steady stream of positive reinforcement for their good work.
Fifth-grade homeroom teacher Don Weisz, 24, is in his third year at St. Agnes. The only male teacher in the three inner-city schools, he teaches reading, English, social studies, science and computers. He sees no great advantage to being a male teacher but says he tries to meet the needs of students who come to him with personal problems. “I’m the only man in some of their lives,” he says in the teachers’ lounge as he prepares a social studies test for his fifth-graders.
Weisz’s class is part of a Pitt reading project called “Question the Author,” one of several innovative reading and math programs at the inner-city schools. It’s designed to get students to interact with each other and figure out things that the author only hints at in the textbook. The test — which Weisz says includes 10 easy questions and asks for definitions of “paleontologist” and “archaeologist” — is drawn from class discussions about the first people to arrive in North America from Asia.
Later, Weisz administers the test to his 22 students. As they finish, they turn the test in and begin reading quietly at their desks. Some look at textbooks or workbooks. A girl reads a supermarket tabloid. A boy in the corner has his head down on his desk. A girl sucks her thumb like a baby. Used to being observed, they are oblivious to the stranger in their midst.
“Easy, wasn’t it?” Weisz says when everyone is done. He starts a discussion. Why did the first Native Americans come to America? Eight hands go up. Weisz lets the kids argue among themselves about whether the first Americans knew how to grow crops before they came. Most of the arguing is carried by the same four of five eager arm-wavers. When things get too rowdy, Weisz firmly reminds them not to speak out when the teacher or someone else is talking. “You have to be good listeners.”
Later he asks everyone to look up what it says about the farming techniques of the first Americans in their textbook from last year. As the class reads quietly, Weisz gives a girl permission to go to the bathroom. Another tells him her ear hurts real bad, and she wants to go to the office to have it looked at. Weisz gets her to tough it out.
The boy in the corner with his head down on his opened book is nearly asleep. As Weisz passes by him, he raps his desktop and slips him a quick “sit-up-straight” look. The boy struggles to lift his head onto his hand and stares off into space.
No matter how much his parents, Weisz, Nancy Beck, the Bishop or the inventor of “Question the Author” wish otherwise, the over-tired boy is deaf to the call of ancient abstractions. He is proof that no matter how much extra attention, love and concern is directed their way, on any given sunny fall day, X-percentage of a classroom of 22 fifth-graders will be immune to learning.
Three times a year, St. Benedict and the other two schools have mandatory parent-teacher conferences. Parents must come in to pick up their children’s report cards. If a parent doesn’t show, the child can’t come to class the next Monday.
Fourth-grade teacher Donna Roberts is a big fan of the policy. “Parents, the student and the teacher are all there at the same time. Some parents squawk at first, but it works. We tell parents what is expected of them and their kids.”
On a parent-teacher conference day in early December, Corrie Johnson of Garfield is sitting in the hall outside Roberts’ classroom. A nurse’s assistant and a non-Catholic, she and her husband pay a total of $850 a year in tuition for Jermaine, a fourth-grader, and Kayla, a second-grader.
She heard about St. Benedict from a friend. At first she had a problem with the heavy dose of Catholicism but, she says, “I had to weigh out what’s more important. I said, ‘Is it really hurting them?’ It s not. The kids will make their own decision about what type of religion they’ll be.”
Johnson, who went to Peabody High School, says her kids will go to St. Benedict through eighth grade. “What I like most is, my son is very bright, but he needs to be pushed and given extra work, and they do that. They keep him busy. I like that. They seem to really care about him, and to have a chance in this world, he needs an education. That’s my first priority. My husband agrees.”
Carmen Harris of the North Side is the mother of first-grader Brandon Harris. A single mother, she works as a loan processor at Integra Bank. She’s a Baptist, but says she was attracted to a Catholic school because “I wanted him to have a religion-based background, so he could be strong, with his self-esteem and moral values, the things he’d need to make decisions that come up in life.”
It’s an economic sacrifice for her to send Brandon to St. Benedict, but so far it’s been worth it, she says, even with all the homework. “Sometimes he’s had an hour’s worth of homework, and for a first-grader I thought it was a lot. But he’s showing improvement. He’s learning. He reads. I’m very pleased.
“He likes it. He enjoys the teachers. They’re like one big family. They look out for the kids. They do extra things for them. His birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and they gave him a card. Those things they don’t do in the public schools.”
Delese Pollard of the North Side checked out several other schools before sending her sixth-grader Shawnese to St. Benedict. An employee of La Roche College, she and her husband Ernest wanted a school with strong discipline and high education standards. “We’re very pleased with what we see,” she says.
Everyone knows nobody gets rich teaching in Catholic schools, and the three inner-city schools are no exception. The salaries of the 37 full-time teachers range from $20,000 to $24,000 a year (the average City of Pittsburgh teacher makes $53,000). The medical benefits are good, but a state-certified teacher just out of college starts at $13,700.
Ron Bowes, the Diocese’s director of education planning and development, says money can’t buy seventh-grade teachers like St. Benedict’s beloved Yuolanda Smith, a former Army intelligence captain who majored in Russian and German at Howard University. “Money isn’t why they are teaching,” says Bowes, who taught public high school at Brashear for 20 years. ‘They are there because they want to be, not because they have to be.”
Another example is Cathreen Stafford of Mt. Lebanon, at 25 the youngest teacher at St. Benedict. A graduate of Fordham University in New York City, she did her student teaching at a high school in Harlem. “It was tough,” she says, “but I learned a lot.”
She never tried to get a public school job. She always wanted to teach in a Catholic school, particularly in an inner-city black school, and she virtually begged Sister Margery to hire her three years ago.
The homeroom teacher for the eighth-graders, Stafford also teaches social studies, math and some reading to grades 5 through 8. She’s up at 5:45 each morning, at school by 7 and is in front of classes from 8:20 to 2:50, with one 40-minute lunch break. She often stays after school to run the Forensics Club she started, and she takes classes at Duquesne University two evenings a week.
Sister Margery says Stafford’s workday is typical of her hard-working staffers such as Donna Roberts, who teaches St. Benedict’s fourth-graders. Roberts, who grew up on the Hill, says she treats her students like they are her children. She’s as likely to kiss Anthony Barron on his bald little head and tell him his headache is cured as she is to shout a sharp “All right, let’s settle!” to knock down her classroom’s escalating noise level.
When Roberts sees a boy whom she knows has family problems crying as the class lines up to go watch a video, she captures him from behind in a motherly hug. When everyone else has gone, she takes his glasses off, wipes his eyes and asks what’s the matter. “Sometimes I feel like screaming,” says the bright but frequent class-disrupting boy as Roberts comforts him.
Like her fellow teachers, Roberts, 43, knows every kid in St. Benedict by name. “The kids know if they’re in trouble they can talk to any teacher.” The six-year veteran of St. Benedict says she also has almost a personal relationship with parents.
She often calls them at home, and she says it’s important that they support the school’s strict discipline. “Fighting is an automatic one-day suspension, and a parent has to bring you back into school. Defiance can be a suspendable offense. Parents like it, and they back you up.”
What’s happening at St. Benedict is “really for real,” Roberts says, while her class is outside at recess. “Coming to work is a joy, not a chore.”
At 9:10 the lights in St. Benedict’s cafeteria go down. The Rev. Carmen D’Amico, the pastor of St. Benedict the Moor church, says a prayer to the assembled students. The Martin Luther King program a production of the upper grades begins with a re-enactment of the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to sit on the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955.
A large drawing of King hangs at the back of the stage, as one student reads a portion of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s life is traced through the marches at Selma until his assassination in 1968, then Part I ends with the audience softly singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Part II of the program includes a rhythmic reading of Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” by the fifth- and sixth-graders, followed by a rousing synchronized dance routine to a tape of Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”
When it ends, Sister Margery runs to the front, grabs a microphone, tells everyone to applaud again, introduces the teachers responsible for the show, rattles off a series of announcements and presents a going-away flower arrangement to Greta Stokes, a former religious education director at the school and parish who is leaving to become head of the Diocese’s Black Catholic Ministries.
“Now let’s get back to school to do some learning,” Sister Margery concludes enthusiastically. As the students leave, a teary-eyed Stokes struggles to say, ‘This is what it’s all about — this program.”
Sister Margery comes up and wraps her arm around Stokes’ shoulders and, looking around as the children stream past her, waves a pair of eyeglasses she found high above her head, searching for their owner.