A Charter School in Chicago’s Wild West Might Have the Answer

By Patrick J. McCloskey, Author, Editor-in-Chief, 360 Review

Once there was an educational elevator that lifted underclass and working-class families into the middle and even upper classes with astounding efficiency. That elevator—faith-based (mostly Catholic) and neighborhood public schools—began breaking down in the 1960s, leaving many minority families on the ground floor. Catholic schools started closing and inner-city public schools began to fail.

Today, on the South Side of Chicago—the nation’s murder capitol—the founders of Catalyst Maria High School and the adjacent Maria Kaupas Center believe they have found the solution to both of these dilemmas. If so, this model could precipitate an entirely new educational movement that would solve fundamental issues in both systems.

Triumph & Then Loss

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Catholic dioceses built schools at a furious pace in response to the poverty and social dysfunction of the nation’s first underclass, Irish immigrants. By the mid-1960s, almost half of Catholic school-aged children—5.2 million in total—attended the nation’s 13,292 Catholic elementary and secondary schools. The other half of Catholic children attended neighborhood public schools with a significant proportion of Catholic-educated teachers and administrators. The once-despised Irish surpassed every group other than Jews in per capita income and education. This was the most profound story of social transformation in human history, which was repeated for successive waves of Catholic immigrants—making Catholicism into the nation’s largest, most powerful denomination.

Then Catholics moved to the suburbs at the same time as the teaching religious orders withdrew from the schools. Since 1965, half the nation’s Catholic schools have been shuttered and over 60 percent of students have been lost. Catholic education’s disintegration has been especially acute in the neighborhoods where African American and Hispanic immigrants moved—and were most needed. Minority families had little ability to pay tuition as Catholic school costs increased relentlessly, pushing up tuition.

Public Education’s Breakdown

Simultaneously, public educators abandoned what they had learned from the teaching religious orders: Students from low-income families need a highly disciplined, faith-infused environment with a strong emphasis on basic academic skills. As a result, urban public schools have languished for decades. Consider the 2015 Nation’s Report Card (by the National Assessment of Educational Progress). In Chicago, 12 percent of black students scored at or above proficiency in 8th-grade math and 14 percent in 8th-grade reading. If only African American students from poor families are included, their scores would mirror outcomes in Detroit where 4 percent of black students scored at or above proficiency in math and 5 percent in reading. Far too many urban minority students leave school, with or without a diploma, functionally illiterate into job markets where education has become increasingly important.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann Yocius, SSC, teaches introductory and intermediate sewing to Catalyst middle and high school students at the Maria Kaupas Center. These middle-schoolers are learning how to operate sewing machine. Sr. Elizabeth Ann taught at Maria High School for 18 years before it was transformed into a charter school.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann Yocius, SSC, teaches introductory and intermediate sewing to Catalyst middle and high school students at the Maria Kaupas Center. These middle-schoolers are learning how to operate sewing machine. Sr. Elizabeth Ann taught at Maria High School for 18 years before it was transformed into a charter school.

School Choice Paradox

In response, public educators implemented a parade of reforms aimed at improving minority student outcomes, which haven’t made a significant difference. This precipitated the school choice movement that promotes various ways of getting students out of failing public schools and into high-performing private and public schools. There are two main ways: vouchers (and tax credits), which pay the tuition at private and mostly Catholic schools (since these constitute most of the non-public schools in inner-city neighborhoods) or charter schools, which are fully public but enable innovation by relaxing teachers’ unions regulations and restrictions.

While vouchers and tax credits help fund Catholic education indirectly, charter schools often supplant them. A study by Abraham Lackman, the Government Scholar in Residence at the Albany Law School, showed that for every charter school that opened from 2000 to 2010 in New York State, a Catholic school closed. The state’s parochial schools lost 34 percent of enrollment, resulting in 200 shutterings.

This pattern repeats nationwide. In North Dakota, however, fewer Catholic schools were built, and the same demographic shifts didn’t occur. Nor are charter schools permitted yet.

Nationally, a political war over school choice looms. Both the new education secretary and President Trump favor school choice strongly. Pushing fiercely in the opposite direction are the teachers’ unions, one of the country’s most powerful political lobbies. The likely outcome will favor charter school expansion, similar to the results of school choice battles since 1990.

Faith-Inspired Charter Schools

Seeing the proverbial writing (no longer in Latin) on the wall, several dioceses experimented with transforming schools, destined to be closed, into charter schools. They hoped to retain essential characteristics of Catholic education in the new secular setting. But the teachers and administrators were soon discouraged by public education’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, excessive documentation and emphasis on test preparation. The inability to pray in the classroom undermined the remaining Catholic ethos and sense of community.

In the early 2000s, several Lasallian Christian Brothers took an innovative approach to this dilemma. They translated their educational philosophy and experience into secular terms and founded the Catalyst Schools network. It’s worth remarking that the Lasallians were the first educators to teach the poor and today educate 800,000 students in 80 countries, where government restrictions on religious instruction are common.

Currently there are two Catalyst schools, both in Chicago’s high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods: Catalyst Circle Rock (K-8) on the West Side, which opened in 2007, and Catalyst Maria (K-12) on the South Side, which opened in 2012.

“The Catalyst school mission is to provide a holistic education expressed through the Lasallian tradition, where the teacher plays a critical role in relationship to students by creating a sacred space where learning can happen, where there’s intentional effort to develop informed character,” said co-founder Br. Michael Fehrenbach, in an interview. “We are creating school culture in the context of the five core Lasallian values: faith, but not doctrine; respect; inclusive community; academic excellence; and a preferential option for the poor.”

The key to implementing this is for teachers and administrators to model these values and integrate them into the curriculum, classroom management and relationships with students.

Every student who participates in MKC programming is invited to add his or her handprint-symbolizing interconnectedness-to the center's hallway walls.

Every student who participates in MKC programming is invited to add his or her handprint-symbolizing interconnectedness-to the center’s hallway walls.

On visits to the Catalyst Maria and to the Circle Rock campuses, I can attest to the ongoing realization of the Lasallian charism. Student behavior in the classrooms and hallways, their demeanor towards teachers and staff, the camaraderie they display to peers all reminded me of the Catholic high school in Harlem, New York, about which I wrote a book (The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem, University of California Press). There are no metal detectors at the entrances, and students move freely without fear of being attacked—in stark contrast to many public high schools.

Test score results at Catalyst Maria don’t seem impressive. The average composite score on the American College Testing (ACT) assessment is 16.8 out of 36, which falls below the national average (21). The ACT measures college readiness in English, math, reading and science. However, all of Catalyst Maria’s juniors take the ACT, versus 60 percent at schools nationwide.

In a recent assessment by Chicago Public Schools, Catalyst Maria’s elementary students demonstrated learning growth in reading and math far above national averages for all students. A school’s true impact is measured in how much student learning improves.

Forty-six percent of Catalyst Maria’s students are African American and 53 percent are Hispanic. More than 95 percent of students come from low-income families. Remarkably, 93 percent of students graduate high school on time and 77 percent enroll in post-secondary institutions.

Maria Kaupas Center

The central challenges for “faith-inspired” public schools involve the severe restrictions imposed by the legal separation of church and state in many state constitutions, including Illinois.

In response, the Lasallians worked with the Sisters of St. Casimir, who founded Maria High School, to establish the Maria Kaupas Center (MKC), named after the religious order’s founder. The center is located in the south wing—that is, literally separated from the charter school. The center operates as an after-school program that is both voluntary and free.

After last period, about 60 students per day from various middle and high school grades, and evenly split between boys and girls, enter the center through a door on the second floor. They are greeted by Amy Eckhouse, the center’s program director, who invites them into the chapel where they form a circle around the altar. Eckhouse then leads the group in prayer, reflection and thoughts for the day. Several students ask the group to pray for a relative or a friend.

In contrast to the busy hallway, the chapel is quiet and calm. The wooden pews and marble altar seem infused with the meditations and soulful whispers of generations of students and nuns from Maria High School, which operated from 1952 to 2013 as an all-girls Catholic academy.

The service has a relaxed but respectful tone and is non-denominational. Eckhouse has no idea which students are Catholic, Protestant, other or entirely unchurched. The prayer gathering lasts about 15 minutes after which the students file out of the chapel and are free to take one of the classes, for example in sewing, drama and writing, or just hang out in the recreation area. Some students do homework while others play pool or miniature basketball with friends.

In interviews with students, several themes were common. Most cited was “peace” as the reason they come to the center. In 2016, there were 4,368 shooting victims and 786 homicides in Chicago. Most of the violence was gang-related and almost all the victims and perpetrators were black or Hispanic. The murder rate is almost 7.5 times that of New York City and concentrated in neighborhoods around Catalyst Maria and West Chicago. So far in 2017, the murder rate is even higher.

It doesn’t take a clinician to see that many students at Catalyst Maria are traumatized. MKC offers hope and healing as “a place where you can hang out with friends,” said an African American male junior in a group interview. “You can’t really do that around here because of the gangs and violence.” A black female classmate said, “Miss Eckhouse tells us that violence is not the way and God has a plan for us all. She says everything will be O.K.” A Hispanic senior added, “She makes you know you’re loved.”

Most students live in single-parent households where poverty and destructive influences present challenges. MKC operates as a haven and healing oasis, the value of which cannot be overstated.

Spiritual But Not Religious?

No religion classes are offered at the center, and there’s the rub. “The center is not overtly religious, it’s about love,” explained Eckhouse. “I can bring spirituality and relationship with God without catechesis.” Eckhouse and other full- and part-time staff members exude much-needed tenderness, caring and nurturing.

But is that enough? Eckhouse was educated in Catholic schools and taught high school theology for 27 years. When she approached local parishes, the pastors clearly didn’t want her to do any sacramental preparation at the center. “They want these kids to grow up in their parishes,” she explained.

About 70 percent of Hispanics are Catholic, so there are significant numbers at the school. Considering how difficult it is to engage youngsters and teens in religion, it seems shortsighted to prioritize ownership over evangelization.

The majority of the school’s students, Catholic or non-Catholic, know little about the faith of the Lasallian founders. Eckhouse has offered to teach World Religions to high-schoolers, but to no avail. Religion can be taught as an academic subject in public schools and is necessary to understanding history, art, culture, science and politics.

It is also crucial to provide staff with comprehensive, ongoing Lasallian (in secular translation) formation. This is underway but must be more than one among many competing priorities. Teaching 1,100 at-risk students involves daily crises and taxing workloads that can obscure the school’s living faith foundation.

Catalyst Maria high school students enjoy cooking classes and a family feast with MKC Program Director Amy Eckhouse and cooking instructor Mary Prete, a retired business executive.

Catalyst Maria high school students enjoy cooking classes and a family feast with MKC Program Director Amy Eckhouse and cooking instructor Mary Prete, a retired business executive.

Fizzle or Fire?

Catalyst charter schools might be just another flash on education reform’s tumultuous landscape. Yet bishops, pastors and religious orders in several dioceses are interested in this direction to salvage beleaguered schools. Instead of struggling to finance operational deficits, diocese and religious orders would secure income streams from renting buildings to the charter school. As well, the buildings receive long-overdue renovations. It’s no coincidence that collectively Catholic schools are the largest user of duct tape in the U.S.

But once these fiscal pressures are resolved, will the Church support MKC and other similar programs? The question is not whether the Catalyst Maria model is better than traditional Catholic schools from the Church’s perspective, but what to do as these schools disappear.

Catalyst Maria might present a practical alternative. At this point, it is an experiment. To succeed, MKC needs consistent and much increased funding to become a robust service for more than a quarter of middle- and high-school students. Fortunately, space to expand is available.

Certainly, supporting MKC and similar centers elsewhere is far more doable for dioceses and religious orders than financing entire schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Also, public funds could be dedicated to MKC since most of its activities, including conflict resolution for in-school disputes, fit within the parameters of a secular after-school program. Most activities, therefore, warrant public support.

How to incorporate the faith dimension, as more than a Catholic veneer, into public education is a question that will be resolved differently in different states and school districts. Where the line will ultimately be drawn between church and state depends on state law, which varies, and how politicians and public educators interpret these laws. Chicago Public Schools deserves praise for collaborating enthusiastically with Catalyst officials.

Ultimately the success of the Catalyst Maria model—and other similar models that could be developed by different Catholic groups and different denominations—depends on how vigorously people of faith fight to include the religious ethos in public education and the public square.

Could the Catalyst Maria and MKC model catalyze an educational movement? There are Catholic Newman Centers at non-Catholic universities across the U.S., including Arizona State University where the University of Mary—in an unprecedented collaboration with a public university—has a campus offering degrees in theology and Catholic studies. The original aim of MKC’s founders was to create a Newman-like center to anchor Catalyst Maria in Catholic spirituality.

If the prime aim of public schooling is the education—rather than control—of children, then incorporating the lessons of Catholic education, especially in elevating disadvantaged students and entire communities, should be pursued.

Intrinsic to these lessons is the religious tradition that gives them life, which makes faith-based centers such as MKC vital to the long-term success of American education. At MKC, students “learn about themselves and their relationships with God and others,” said Sr. Margaret Zalot, SSC, an MKC board member and former principal at Maria.

Given the large number of former Catholic school buildings nationwide, replicating Catalyst Maria and MKC at scale is entirely possible.