McCloskey embarks on a qualitative exploration of a New York City parochial high school.
“The most urgent problem in American education today,” the author writes, “is the high dropout rate and low achievement of inner-city minority students.” As the Catholic school model has shown a measure of success in educational achievement and graduation rates, often with fewer resources than public institutions, McCloskey undertook a nonideological inquiry to see what makes one inner-city, underfunded Catholic school successful. This entailed a yearlong immersion into Rice High School, an all-boys parochial academy in Harlem with a student body comprised of 85 percent African-Americans and 15 percent Hispanics. The author sat in on daily classes, attended events and teachers’ meetings, conducted interviews and visited students on their home turf. Rice is no cakewalk for students or teachers: All kids, regardless of issues, are taught in the same way, with a demanding curriculum, and there are expectations, discipline and extensive parent-teacher interaction. No effort is made to convert students to Catholicism, but morality and social justice are tangible dimensions of daily life. McCloskey situates Rice within the evolution of U.S. public and parochial education, noting its imperfections, but also the fact that it graduates many more students than public schools with similarly difficult demographics. The author makes a solid case for public funding of inner-city parochial schools that is both hard to challenge—certainly as long as the pedagogical and administrative model meets resistance in the public-education sphere—and likely to cause church-state feuds. Still, he notes, “[t]he only certainty here is that people who fight against public funding for inner-city Catholics schools would never condemn their children to the public schools they so readily consign those children.”
The unadorned narrative is convincing in its portrayal of Rice’s mission to put an education, not a creed, into young men’s heads.