Lessons from an Inner-City Parish High School

About this article

All schools can learn three major lessons from Saint Paul High School in the mission district of San Francisco. The first lesson is that secondary Catholic education should never abandon the poor. A preferential option for the poor should be applied to Catholic schools as much as any other organization within the church. The article provides a list of questions to help schools determine their commitment to the poor. The second lesson is that schools should always be moving in an ecclesial direction, true to their Catholic identity. The author, John Collins, explores some interesting practices under this lesson. The third lesson centers on the school as a true community that is committed to educating the whole person and is in genuine partnership with parents. This piece is excellent for school-wide discussion and reflection.

Saint Paul High School in San Francisco, where I teach, is an inner-city parochial school. It is a school that, for all its shortcomings, has much to teach other Catholic secondary schools, precisely in view of the two attributes cited--namely, its "inner-city" location and its "parochial" (parish-based) nature. These attributes contain lessons that apply to other Catholic secondary schools whether or not the schools themselves share the two traits.

First Lesson: A Commitment to the Poor

Here's the first lesson: Catholic secondary-school education ought never to abandon the poor.

In the case of my school, we were once at the educational service of immigrant and first-generation Irish, Italian, and German students. This was because these national groups settled in our inner-city parish. Over a few generations--mostly thanks to the education that enabled them--they moved on to a more materially comfortable lifestyle in the suburbs. But our school did not move. We now serve immigrant and first-generation students from Mexico, Central America, Asia, and the Philippines. They comprise approximately 75 percent of our student body. Most of them do not reside in the parish, but we serve them nonetheless, because our educational heritage and our expertise aptly suit us to meet their needs and desires. Thus we have been and continue to be a Catholic secondary school at the educational service of--primarily--the poor.

Questioning the Commitment

Moving on from my own school's experiences, the lesson that is here for other Catholic secondary schools is this: We can assume that the Gospel-derived mandate to manifest a preferential option for the poor is as much directed to Catholic schools as it is to any individual or organization within the church. Given that, Catholic secondary schools need to ask themselves what their commitment is to materially and/or educationally disadvantaged students.

  • Do poor young people have real access to our schools?
  • Do they despair of gaining entrance into the schools for reasons of money?
  • Are there any "poor quotas" at work in our recruitment and admissions policies?
  • Do we send out our buses to the poor neighborhoods?
  • Do our schools welcome "at-risk" students, or are those students considered (de facto if not policy-wise) too much academic bother?
  • Do we so cherish a college-preparatory repute that "test-poor" students are unacceptable to us on that basis alone?
  • Do our remedial programs sufficiently respect the dignity of the students who are enrolled in them?
  • And how do we speak of the persons in these remedial programs--are they students with remedial needs, or are they remedial students? (If they are to us the latter, then we have failed them.)

These questions could go on. The point is, not to exclude the poor--whether for a material or an academic reason--but instead to welcome them into our Catholic secondary schools with a special affection for them.

The Diocesan Role

Of course, not every Catholic secondary school sustains a mission to educate--primarily--the poor. At the same time, no diocese with at least one Catholic secondary school is without obligations to such students. Thus it becomes the responsibility of the diocesan school office to secure educational possibilities for poor students by smoothing the way for the schools that are willing to educate them. Such schools deserve a greater share of the personal and material resources that a diocesan school office has at its disposal.

The Poor or the Catholic Poor?

From what I have written, it seems that a reservation can be raised concerning an educational preference for the poor within our Catholic secondary schools, taking the form of this question: Ought we to prefer the poor as poor, or are we obligated to them because they are Catholic poor? This question takes on weight if we stop to consider that increasing numbers of the poor who live within our cities and who seek a Catholic school education are not Catholic.

There are no easy answers to such a question. But in the case of my own school, our obligations are, in the first place, to the Catholic poor. At the same time, it should be understood that the majority of the poor who seek the education that my school offers are themselves Catholic. However, I believe that even if the number of non-Catholic parents desiring a Catholic school education for their children is larger than the number of Catholic parents, the school and/or diocese should accommodate them, committing its resources to their education. Such accommodation can be based on the principle of the preferential option for the poor if not on a few other things--namely, the supremely desirable alternative to inner-city public school education that we Catholic schools represent. For that reason alone, we ought somehow to accommodate whatever clientele asks for our influence, Catholic or non-Catholic.

To summarize, then, not only should Catholic secondary-school education never abandon the Catholic poor, but it ought never abandon the non-Catholic poor either.

Second Lesson: An Ecclesial Dynamism

Here's the second lesson that Saint Paul High School has to offer: Catholic secondary-school education ought always and everywhere to be moving in an ecclesial direction.

In the case of my school, we are a parochial high school. As such, we belong to a Catholic parish. As was mentioned earlier, we welcome students from beyond our parish boundaries no less than we welcome the daughters of parishioners (we are a girls' school). What we gain from being a parochial high school is immeasurable with regard to the Catholic faith. We have access to the services of priests and a beautiful church building almost immediately upon request. The Easter Vigil at our church annually witnesses the baptism, first Communion, or porfession of faith of one or more of our students. Our alumnae can marry within the context of a Mass in our church--and many of them have done so. These advantages point to an ecclesial dynamism built into the education that we confer. It is a Catholic faith dynamism. We are not better than any other secondary school because we possess it. We are simply fortunate to the extent that we possess it.

Drifting from the Catholic Dimension?

This ecclesial or faith dynamism ought to inform all of Catholic secondary-school education. Yet, to judge from certain recent practices in some Catholic high schools, the ecclesial dynamism is wanting. Consider these practices:

  • a curricular decision to reduce the religion or theology requirement from four to three years (Can there be any reason sufficient to justify this?)
  • the elimination altogether of faith references in the titles of certain religion course offerings--for example, a "Peace and Justice" class--so that these courses meet the secular requirements that colleges set for admission (Whatever happened to "to teach as Jesus did"?)
  • a preference for the designation "a private secondary school in the Catholic tradition" rather than "a Catholic secondary school" (Where's the fortitude in such a preference?)

These practices show that some of our schools are drifting away from their Catholic moorings. In doing so, they are ceasing to be the grandest accomplishment of the church in this country--for that is certainly what our Catholic schools have been! In drifting from their moorings, schools unwittingly jeopardize the grandest form of primary- and secondary-school education that our country has ever known--for no other kinds of schools in America have ever been as academically successful as ours!

Leading Students to Jesus

Perhaps the claims made in the preceding paragraph are exaggerated ones. In that case, it may be more reasonable simply to state that what "Catholic" does for education is complete it. Catholicism completes education by placing before it the person of Jesus. He, through whom and for whom the church lives, stands as a reminder to the educational world that the pursuit of knowledge in any discipline is satisfying only to the extent that it leads one to live for others, just as he did. Properly understood, education is about human formation. And human formation is complete only when it arrives at (an imitation of) Jesus. Hence, it is injurious to education itself to shut out Christ or the church to which his life was committed. Moreover, it is especially ironic (to say the least!) for a Catholic secondary school to create conditions that inhibit the person and message of Jesus from reaching students.

Signs of Authenticity

What, then, are the signs that a Catholic secondary school is moving in an authentic direction (i.e., toward Christ and his church)? Some of these signs are as follows:

  1. In their content, all religion or theology courses manifest an orientation toward Christ and his church.
  2. Such courses are more than academic exercises; they lead students to the Catholic sacraments and to service experiences.
  3. Through its campus ministry department, the school invites the diocesan clergy whose parishioners are students in the school to celebrate liturgical and paraliturgical services on campus.
  4. The school's retreat budget at least matches its athletic budget.
  5. A significant service commitment is a graduation requirement.

In truth, these signs do not represent new dimensions in Catholic secondary-school education. They are really as old as the U.S. Catholic bishops' document To Teach as Jesus Did (1972). That document called the Catholic schools to account explicitly in the areas of doctrine, service, and community. It is to the third of these--community--that this article now turns in order to suggest another lesson for our Catholic secondary schools.

Third Lesson: A True Community

Here's the third lesson: Catholic secondary schools ought to be true communities, not merely academic institutions.

In the case of my school, our small size (approximately 225 students) is an ideal condition for the realization of a community of persons within our building. Of course, size itself is not the measure of community. But small size helps because it makes it comparatively easy to get to know "the person behind the student." In fact, our administration makes it a point to know each student personally. Moreover, our classes are--with a few exceptions--small enough to allow for lots of individualized attention for students.

A Person-Based Education

Our Catholic secondary schools must face up to the challenge to be educational communities. We must be places where persons as such are our boast. We cannot be simply academic institutions, no matter how credible we are academically. After all, when a Catholic secondary school is content to interact with students according to a primarily academic ethos, that school has betrayed its deeper calling--namely, its Gospel-derived mandate to impart a person-based education. The school neglects its duty to help its students Susie and Johnny to complete the major task of adolescence--namely, to fashion a personal identity.

At the risk of belaboring the point, show me the school (the parent too!) who is intent upon helping Susie and Johnny grow to be whole persons by being persons-for-others (not merely persons-for- Harvard), and I'll show you an authentically Catholic school. When our philosophy and our pedagogy lead to the practice of person-based education for Christ's sake, then we are at our best.

A Genuine Partnership with Parents

Implied in this person-based criterion for Catholic school education is the matter of the school's relationship with the parents of its students. Is this relationship of such a kind as to constitute a genuine partnership?--for that is what is urged by church documents on education.

It seems that this partnership is necessary now more than ever. Given the influences within society that lead to family dysfunction and given the institutional tendencies at work in our schools, it may be that this partnership is more of a rhetorical reality than an actual achievement. If that is the case, the consequences would be most damaging not for the school or the parent but for the student.

Thus, those of us in Catholic secondary schools need to strive to enter into an intimate working relationship with the parents of our students. To do so is to secure the school's vocation to be a place where persons are formed--formed in the image of Jesus.

John Collins teaches religion and does part-time administration at Saint Paul High School in San Francisco. He has taught in Catholic high schools for thirteen years.


Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published February 1, 1993.