I had the honor recently to visit the new Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. Fittingly, I visited on Martin Luther King Day. I found the experience to be quite moving. Joining with a diverse crowd from across the world, it was humbling to look upon the words and accomplishments of this great man, and to remember the great injustices that he peacefully and effectively battled.
Although Dr. King’s message was meant for all people, it is important to remember that Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. As such, his speeches are filled with references Christ and the teachings of the Bible. In his messages of liberation and peace, Dr. King draws directly upon the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalms, and the letters of St. Paul. Most profoundly, Dr. King frequently espoused the example of Christ of unconditional love and a peaceful resistance to an unjust world. At its core, Dr. King’s message is a wonderful reflection of the teachings of the Son of God.
As I recall the life of Dr. King, I am reminded that Catholic schools have also played a part in promoting the cause of racial equality and understanding. Catholic schools have a proud history of success in working with people of all races and economic backgrounds. Catholic schools were among the first “integrated” institutions in the country; long before the Civil Rights era, many Catholic schools opened their doors to children of various racial backgrounds. Likewise, in ages where non-white children were forced to attend separate, inferior public schools, the Church endeavored to establish alternates to serve these populations. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, schools such as Madonna High School were founded to serve struggling minority populations.
Today, Catholic schools have demonstrated an unparalleled rate of success at serving the urban poor. Nationally, over 40% of Catholic schools are in urban areas. Minority students make up 28.9% of the populations of Catholic schools. Numerous studies, such as the 2008 study by W.H. Jeynes, show that religious schools in urban areas out-perform their public school counterparts in academic achievement. This impact is particularly pronounced upon minority populations. Our rates of school retention and 12-grade graduation far outpace national averages among African-Americans and Latino populations.
I began my career as a middle and high school teacher in an urban, predominantly African-American school in Memphis, Tennessee. In working with this population, I witnessed firsthand how Catholic schools can effectively break the cycle of poverty and place students on a trajectory for college and a successful career. Through the presence of urban Catholic schools, we are working with a population in desperate need of schools that are safe, stable, and academically successful. Most importantly, our schools provide an emphasis on the teachings of Christ, which closely mirror the inspiring words of Dr. King. During my time as an inner city Catholic school teacher and principal, I was awed at how many children were awakened to the call of Christ, and freely chose to join the Church (often alongside their parents and siblings).
As we envision the future of our schools in the Archdiocese, it is critical that we imagine a future in which the urban poor are still served in our schools. We must unlock the dilemma of affordability be ensuring that families are able to pay a reasonable tuition, and yet schools are still able to sustain high quality programs and talented staff. In the Archdiocese, we have benefited enormously by such programs as CISE and Seeds of Growth. Yet the need is great; in spite of our great success at serving urban populations of all races, many families are still unable to join us due to limited space and tuition costs.
Our Catholic schools work hand-in-hand with the movement for racial equality. For, in the words of Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Our schools continue to be the light and love for our cities, and for children of all colors and backgrounds.