Catholic Ethos, Public Education: How the Christian Brothers Came to Start Two Charter Schools in Chicago

Article excerpt

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.

--Proverbs 22:6

It wasn't exactly a marriage made in heaven.

In fact, the idea that one of the Catholic Church's most respected religious orders might run a public school sounded odd, maybe even, as Francis Cardinal George, head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, conjectured, illegal.

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But a decade ago several trends in American education, and in the Catholic Church, made a Catholic-operated public school seem increasingly possible: 1) the traditional, parish-based Catholic school system, especially in the inner cities, was crumbling; 2) equally troubled urban public-school systems were failing to educate most of their students; and 3) a burgeoning charter school movement, born in the early 1990s, was beginning to turn heads among educators in both the private and public sectors.

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The various currents merged in the Windy City in 2006 and 2007 when the Christian Brothers helped open two charter schools in impoverished neighborhoods on Chicago's west side, embarking on a unique experiment in public education. Could Catholics run a school without mentioning Jesus, Mary, or Joseph? Without prayer, Mass, the rosary, the sacraments? Without God? And could the high wall between church and state be kept intact?

Back to Their Roots

The Christian Brothers--known in France, where the Catholic order was founded in 1680, as Freres des ecoles chretiennes or Brothers of the Christian Schools--have had some experience in education. The order's founder, Jean-Baptist de La Salle, is the church's patron saint of teachers and today the order serves nearly 1 million students in more than 80 countries, including some 20,000, mostly middle-class, students in 90 Catholic middle and high schools and education centers in the United States.

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But what caught the eye of Arne Duncan, while he directed Chicago Public Schools (CPS), was the success the brothers were having with an initiative the order had launched in the early 1990s. They had opened San Miguel schools, named after a Christian Brother saint from Ecuador, in American pockets of poverty, including an Indian reservation in Montana, the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and inner-city Camden, New Jersey. (In 2006 San Miguel merged with the Jesuits' Nativity Schools; today the NativityMiguel Network operates over 70 schools for the poor in 26 states and the District of Columbia.)

The first Chicago San Miguel school opened in 1995, behind the infamous (now gone) stockyards. The goal was simple enough: bring to poor children, tuition-free, what the brothers were delivering to middle- and upper-class students in their other American schools, including small class sizes and a college-prep academic program.

It worked. Within a few years of opening, San Miguel Back of the Yards School's low-income students were outperforming their Chicago Public Schools counterparts. The school's success prompted Lands' End company founder Gary Comer to donate $1.2 million to open a second school, now known as the Gary Comer Campus, in the blighted Austin neighborhood.

The schools employ a year-round academic calendar, have a 9:1 student-to-teacher ratio, and a core academic curriculum. They put heavy emphasis on reading--80 minutes a day, an average of 165 books read per year--and individualized instruction.

"Our model is not rocket science," says Mike Anderer-McClelland, a former brother who is now president of the San Miguel organization in Chicago. "It is a lot of reading, writing, and arithmetic."

The schools also have a Family and Graduate Support Program that not only tracks students through high school but helps them and their parents with tutoring and counseling, long after they leave left San Miguel at the end of 8th grade. …