Of Many Things

"My name is Michael Juarez, and I am a junior at St. Raymond’s School for Boys,” said the slender young African American. He was standing on the stage of the vast ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in mid-Manhattan. “I want to take this occasion,” he went on, “to personally thank the Inner-City Scholarship Fund for providing me with an amazing educational opportunity over the past three years.” The many people gathered there that evening, including Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, listened intently. I did too. The occasion was the fund’s annual award dinner—a justly celebratory occasion that underscored the achievements of the Archdiocese of New York’s inner-city scholarship fund.

As Michael pointed out, the fund does indeed provide “an amazing educational opportunity.” And he is just one of 44,000 students who benefit from it. Like him, half are from single-parent households, and nearly two-thirds live in families with incomes at or below the federal poverty level as defined by the National School Lunch Program. Ninety-five percent of the scholarship beneficiaries go on to college.

Now a new facet under the umbrella of the fund has been initiated: the Cardinal’s Scholarship Program, which helped enroll 2,000 new students in elementary schools this past fall. Sitting next to me at dinner was the principal of one of the schools that has already benefited from it, Sr. Patrice Owens. A member of the Sisters of Christian Charity who is principal at Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx, she said that through the new program over three dozen of the students at her school were there who “wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to enroll.” In all, 88 receive various forms of scholarship aid.

But what happens, I asked, for those without scholarship aid whose families cannot keep up with the tuition because of unexpected events, like job loss? “We wouldn’t let a child go, even if it meant a deficit for us at the end of the year,” Sister Patrice said. “We ask the parent to pay what’s possible, and sometimes we can find a sponsor for the rest.” But even then, “we’d take the hit,” she added, referring to uncollected tuition, rather than see a child leave.

Immaculate Conception is in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. A week after the award dinner, I visited Sister Patrice at her school and after a conversation in her office she gave me a tour. Not all those I saw in classrooms were scholarship recipients, but all were profiting from a high-quality educational experience in a caring, faith-based environment. The racial diversity was striking. A little under two-thirds of those I saw are Hispanic, about a third black and the rest a mixture that includes Asians. It was apparent at each stop that this was a productive learning environment. In the computer lab, with its row upon row of computers, the teacher, Mr. Dabe James, held firm but supportive sway over the 30 seventh-grade students seated at their individual computers. As Sister Patrice and I spoke with him, we heard their enthusiastic chatter in the background as they helped one another with their assignment. Only once did the teacher, Mr. James, have to raise his voice and say, “Too loud, too loud!” He was quickly able to obtain not only their attention, but also an affectionate respect—a circumstance evident in the other classrooms we visited as well.

The brick building itself—part of a massive complex that includes the adjoining church and convent—is 80 years old, and walking through its halls one could feel the advantages of those high ceilings and large windows, which give a sense of light and space. Sister Owens observed, moreover, that the complex lends a sense of stability to the neighborhood. Nor is its use confined to school-day activities. “We’re not just about educating children, we serve the community too,” she noted, going on to list the numerous evening and weekend activities that take place. On Friday evenings, for example, space is set aside as a shelter for homeless women through a program involving area parishes that provide shelter on the other nights.

Sister Patrice’s long days include handling emergencies of all kinds, no matter what the hour. I left her in conversation with a Con Edison worker who was repairing a power outage that had kept her up half the night a few days before. I then walked to nearby Cortland Avenue, known as a heavy drug area, before taking the subway back to America House. It was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a sign of hope for the poor of the neighborhood. Returning to America House, I could not help but reflect with a certain wonder at the high quality of education provided in schools like hers to thousands of children from low-income households in general, and by the Inner-City Scholarship Program in particular.

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