Saving schools

It's back to school season, although increasingly teachers and students don't cut their ties over the long summer break. There are those, too, who in a sense have never left school. The Echo has reported separately in recent months about three such people who've who retained close attachments to and indeed love for their alma maters in the Catholic system.

Dan Butler spearheads St. Luke's Education Foundation, which supports a South Bronx elementary school that will celebrate its centenary on Oct. 2

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Mary O'Hara, a career teacher in the public system, was one of an army of alumnae of St. Michael Academy that devoted their free time over the years to raising cash as well as recruiting students to the school on West 33rd Street in Manhattan.

J.R. McCarthy (who has written on an unrelated topic in the current issue) established this year with others the Bill Clark Foundation, in honor of a late friend. They finance scholarships to Catholic high schools in the Bronx.

That trio graduated in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s respectively, and yet continue to celebrate the schools and the system that helped mold them (and in McCarthy's case, the system he once worked in). They proclaim the value of a Catholic education, and believe in many individual cases it means the difference in a young person's life, particularly if he or she is from an economically underprivileged background.

Sometimes, alas, the value of that work hasn't been properly recognized and honored. We speak of St. Michael Academy in the past tense as that institution was officially closed a couple of months back, with no advance notice to the interested parties. The hurt caused to O'Hara and her colleagues, women who had gone on to the careers in the professions, was considerable. They still hope that they can one day help reopen the school.

The SMA alumnae said that it was clear in retrospect that the there had been a plan to wind down the successful school because of its desirable real estate location on the gentrifying West Side. Then came news that the space was to be leased to a nearby public school for seven years. Negotiations for such an arrangement would have taken some time, the alumnae say, and that underlines the secrecy and overall lack of consultation involved in the closure process. Given those circumstances, we may assume that Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who has brought a new vigor and charisma to his role as head of the church in New York, was not party to the decision (which officially is a local one anyway). However, the announcement coincided with his outlining his approach on the issue of the "consolidation" of Catholic schools in a speech to the Manhattan Institute, the conservative think tank, which was adapted as a column published simultaneously in the Daily News and New York Post on May 9

"We can't do it from the top down," the archbishop said. "We have got to collaborate with our stakeholders - our parents, our pastors, our principals, our parishioners, our civic leaders, our benefactors and our business leaders."

This is precisely the opposite of what happened in the case of SMA. Indeed, just about every element of the blueprint outlined in the column was the opposite in spirit to the approach taken with the West Side school.

Dolan began his piece with a dose of reality. He stated that the "Catholic schools around the country and New York City are in trouble."

He then demonstrated with statistics just how important the schools remain and the extent of their reach - 150,000 students from the college down to the elementary level are under the system's umbrella in the archdiocese.

And then Dolan boldly rejected the "hospice mentality" of some of his colleagues that says Catholic schools are gradually dying.

However, if the archbishop is to have even a modicum of success with his plan for the schools, he must reject the secretive and authoritarian approaches of the past, and instead adhere closely to the spirit of his May 9 column.