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Sunday, January 24, 2010

North Catholic High School and the Cristo Rey Conversion

I’m sitting with two North Catholic grads in my (Philadelphia) Fishtown kitchen. One’s downing a Pepsi while the other guy is pouring over last week’s Star article entitled, “Alum push on for N. Catholic’s salvation.” Both these guys love North Catholic and they’ve taken to reading the article out loud. I’m sitting with them thinking of my own high school way out in the Chester County boondocks. I don’t have the same kind of loyalty to my old high school that these guys have for North Catholic, so their absorption in the school’s plight fascinates me.
“Woo, what’s this?” the one drinking Pepsi says while folding the Star into the shape of a Chinese menu. “They wanna rename North Cristo Rey. Cristo Rey was founded by the Society of Jesus-- what’s the Society of Jesus?” (Not so long ago, all Catholic school students knew that the Society of Jesus was the Jesuits, but not anymore.) “…And it says here that Cardinal Justin Rigali has given the Alumni Association and business leaders permission to conduct a feasibility study.”
“Wow,” the other guy offers, “they’ll be a work study program where the students will work one day a week in about 40 businesses.”
“Not good,” the Pepsi drinker chimes in, “that means I won’t find a job if they give these jobs to students. That sucks.”
The second guy almost bounces off his chair. “Listen to this—it says the new school would be Catholic, but open to people of all faiths.’”
“Man, I guess that means they’ll be taking the crucifixes off the wall so they won’t be offensive to non Catholic. But North is gonna remain all-male, at least in the beginning, though they’ll look into female enrollment, which really means it’ll go co-ed six months after it reopens. You know, it seems like North isn’t even going to be North anymore. And that’s not right. They should just close the school and keep their dignity. You know, go out with a little bit of dignity…”.
After hearing these guys talk, I looked into the history of Cristo Rey schools, and came across a National Catholic Reporter 2009 article that asked, “What happens when your old Catholic alma mater is no longer the same place it used to be?” The article was about a Catholic high school in the Watts section of south Los Angeles. Controversial Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles approached the Jesuits to take over the school. The Cristo Yet model, according to the NCR, are “schools for the poor where students help meet tuition by taking work/study jobs with major corporations and other sponsors.” But the school’s alumni from the old days are not happy with the Cristo Rey model. Now comfortably middle class, the alumni cannot send their kids to the school because under the Cristo Rey model, only poor and disadvantaged students can apply. With economic guidelines like these, a family would have to remain poor for generations in order to keep sending their kids to the parents’ alma mater.
This is not to say that the Cristo Rey model has not worked elsewhere in the country. Indeed, as brand new schools, rather than a reformulated system built on the foundations of traditional Catholic high schools, the Cristo Rey model might hold some promise for disadvantaged youth. So call them public schools, but why masquerade them as Catholic?
In the past, the spirit of Catholicism has always permeated the Catholic school system, but no longer. Catholic schools-turned-publicly funded charter schools are a case in point.
In the Archdiocese of Washington, where many Catholic schools were converted to publicly funded charter schools, non-Catholics make up more than 71% of the student population. They still mimic as Catholic schools “of a sort,” but why bother? “The charter schools teach value-based education but cannot use religion as its base. The Catholic schools-turned-charter have lost a big piece of themselves,” wrote author Susan Gibbs in US Catholic.
In “Losing Our Religion: The Crises in Catholic Education,” Joan Desmond describes how one charter school in Beeville, Tennessee, had to “take the crucifixes off the walls and put them in our pockets and drawers.”
Now, when a so called Catholic school does that, it’s really time to fold up the tent and call a spade a spade: Call yourself a public school.
As for the two guys in my kitchen, I can tell you that they are not religious fanatics. In fact, they hardly go to Mass outside of Christmas, Easter and funerals, but they know one thing: they want their alma mater, which claims to be Catholic, to remain Catholic.
“Anything less, is not really North,” they said.

Thom Nickels

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