‘Transformative power’

father podsiadlo

father podsiadloLecture explores how Catholic education can break the cycle of poverty

By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor

      By the time he was in sixth grade, Sebastian Hoyos-Torres knew kids his age who were dealing drugs, carrying weapons and involved with gangs.

   “It was tragic,” he said.

  That year, Hoyos-Torres, who calls Flushing, Queens home, enrolled at Nativity Mission Center (NMC) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

   “I found out about NMC through a family friend and it interested my mother, who had always been interested in a Catholic education,” he said.

   The school is part of New York Nativity, a network of three Jesuit-sponsored middle schools in New York City that serves children from low-income families and works to break the cycle of poverty through education. The schools offer a classic curriculum but with an innovative approach. An extended school day keeps students engaged in academic and extracurricular activities beyond typical school hours. A summer leadership program takes them out of the city to continue building academic and social skills. The graduate support program helps them choose, apply to and succeed in Catholic high schools and colleges. Classes are small and single-gender, and expectations for excellence are high.

   Hoyos-Torres excelled at NMC, going on to St. John’s Prep, a Franciscan high school in Astoria, Queens. Today he’s a sophomore and a criminology major at Le Moyne, one of at least 20 Nativity graduates who have gone to the college.

   “Nativity always pushed me through whatever crises I faced in high school and helped me reach college, because there were a few times I felt like giving up…. Nativity also instilled a drive in me for social justice, which I am studying now,” Hoyos-Torres said.

   The NMC alumnus joined other students, professors and community members for “Catholic education and the poor,” a lecture given by Father Jack Podsiadlo, SJ, president of New York Nativity, at Le Moyne’s Panasci Family Chapel Feb. 28. Father Podsiadlo explored the role of Catholic education in the U.S., presented the Nativity model as a successful approach to invigorating Catholic education and addressing the educational needs of the urban poor, and answered questions about the way forward for Catholic schools.

   Father Podsiadlo gave an overview of Catholic education in America, which began with the establishment of a Franciscan school in St. Augustine, Fla. in 1606 and peaked in 1965, when the U.S. boasted more than 12,000 parochial schools and about half of all Catholic children were enrolled in Catholic elementary schools. Enrollment fell off thereafter, he explained, due to a number of social and economic factors, including the decline in anti-Catholic sentiment, the migration of families to the suburbs and rising costs associated with staffing and operating Catholic schools.

   Despite these challenges, Father Podsiadlo said, Catholic schools continue to deliver quality education for their students, both objectively and when compared to public school counterparts. He highlighted research that shows the Catholic schools’ model to be the most effective in America, due to diverse student bodies, focus on discipline and high performance expectations. Catholic schools narrow the achievement gap and produce higher test scores, graduation rates and rates of college attendance, he said.

   Father Podsiadlo presented NMC and the other New York Nativity Schools — St. Ignatius School (SIS) in Hunts Point in the Bronx and Brooklyn Jesuit Prep (BJP) in Crown Heights, Brooklyn — as great examples of Catholic education delivering results in urban areas. In the 2010-2011 school year, he said, 8th grade students at all three Nativity schools significantly outperformed their public school peers on New York States tests in math and English language arts; notably, 100 percent of students at BJP were proficient in math as compared to 37.4 percent of students in the neighborhood’s public school district. Father Podsiadlo attributed the students’ success to New York Nativity’s innovative approach in the classroom and beyond.

   Father Podsiadlo also discussed the network of schools’ modern approach to funding. Rather than relying on tuition and parish or diocesan subsidies, New York Nativity engages “partners in the mission,” looking to individuals and foundations — and not just Catholic ones — to fund their proven programs of success. Father Podsiadlo encouraged other Catholic schools to consider doing the same.

   “Old models of financing don’t work. Increased tuition eliminates poor and even middle class students,” he said, citing tuitions of $7,000 to $30,000 per year for Catholic schools in the city. “Nativity has been getting money from the Robin Hood Foundation since 1991 because they’re looking for programs of success. That’s what they’re funding.”   

   But Father Podsiadlo also stressed the importance of keeping the “Catholic” in Catholic schools, as that is the core of their success.   

   “Catholic schools are not just about religion class or a cross on the wall. There are certain values that come out of the Catholic context. We believe each person is created in the image and likeness of God, and that affects how we interact with one another, students and teachers. These are core values that we don’t necessarily teach, but we live.”

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