There’s a renaissance of sorts going on in the Diocese of Memphis’ Catholic schools.
The Jubilee School program started out as an effort to revive the failed Catholic schools of inner-city Memphis. Almost 10 years later, it’s proven itself to be a windfall for the diocese and the students attending the schools. Beginning with less than 100 students when the schools first reopened in 1999, the eight Jubilee schools now have more than 1,400 students. From 2005 to 2006, the schools have also shown consistent improvement in standardized testing in all six grades participating. Perhaps most significantly, the majority of students attending Jubilee schools are non-Catholic and come from the poorer sections of the city. According to administrators and parents, the Jubilee schools are changing minds and hearts of entire communities.
Jubilee time for schools
In 1998, the Jubilee schools began when Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib called on Mary McDonald, a 40-year veteran of Catholic education, to serve as superintendent of his schools.
The diocese only had 15 Catholic schools at that time, McDonald told Our Sunday Visitor, with 15 already closed and another five a year away from closing.
“I knew we were in desperate straits, and we couldn’t stay that way,” McDonald said.
As if things weren’t bad enough, McDonald recalled that the diocese was broke financially and Bishop Steib seemed intent on doing the impossible. In a decision which many considered counterintuitive, he decided to enlarge the diocese’s commitment to Catholic education to include all of Memphis’ children — Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
“Bishop Steib told me he thought we should have our schools in places where we were not,” she said. “Catholic education was important, but it was more important to the bishop that we address the needs of the children here in Memphis in poverty.”
As it turns out, Bishop Steib’s broadened mandate on Catholic education attracted Memphis’ business leaders and philanthropists. Less than a year after the mandate, McDonald said, in May 1999, a group of anonymous donors gave “in excess of $15 million” in seed money to help reopen diocesan schools.
Two months later, she said, the diocese announced it was reopening St. Augustine School in south Memphis. Since then, seven other Jubilee schools have reopened, the last in fall 2006. Two “urban initiative schools” were saved through the same funding sources.
McDonald said enrollment has increased at a steady rate with one teacher for every 12 students in the Jubilee program.
Top of the class
As the principal of St. John’s in Memphis — one of the first Jubilee schools to open — Teddi Niedzwiedz has seen the difference that this initiative has made in her students’ lives. St. John’s serves as an important gateway, she said, for graduating students to attend diocesan Catholic middle and high schools.
“Actually, the children can take their scholarship money to any of the Catholic middle schools after they graduate from a Jubilee school,” she said.
If St. John’s is any indication, the schools are also having a transformative effect on the neighborhoods in which they thrive. St. John’s is located in what was once considered a crime-ridden neighborhood, Niedzwiedz said. Shootings, drug activity and prostitution were a regular fixture of the neighborhood scene. But these days things are different.
“I want to believe we had something to do with the improvement in the neighborhood,” she said. “As we were working so hard to clean up our area, across the street a strip mall had a whole do over. ... It just seems that they’ve built a new mall down the road and they tore down an old dilapidated bowling alley where gangs used to hang out, and it just seems that the street does seem to be perking up.”
Phil Amido is the principal of St. Joseph’s, another Jubilee school in the diocese.
Like other schools in the program, St. Joseph’s has been working against the cultural grain, Amido said, estimating that between 80 percent and 90 percent of his students — the majority of whom are African-American — were being raised in a single-parent household.
According to Amido, though, the neighborhood recognized a good thing when they saw it, and the response to the school’s opening was almost immediate. Since the average yearly income of the families who were sending students to St. Joseph’s was $13,000-$14,000, Amido said the school served as a source of hope for the students and their families.
“We were finding that we have families where we had to teach the parents how to be parents,” he explained. “We had to teach them how to do financial management. To some degree we’ve almost become a social agency, as well. We are always trying to find programs that will help not just the children but the families in general.”
While the school manages to provide students an alternative to their violent environment, Amido said it takes a little time to coax them from the roughness that they bring with them.
“They come in rough and gruff with an attitude,” he said. “We soften the new students up, and they’re able to become what they want to be, and they become nice kids. A lot of that is accomplished through prayer, and we’re constantly praying and praising and making sure the kids are nice. We don’t just educate them; we try to form their character.”
In an effort to reach her students and show them the diversity of opportunities available to them in life, Niedzwiedz said St. John’s teachers have gone out of their way to feature a variety of African-American role models which they hope the students will embrace and emulate.
A sixth grader at St. John’s, Brianna Terrell, has already made it clear to her parents that she wants to follow in the footsteps of just such a role model — Benjamin Carson, award-winning children’s neurosurgeon, renowned for his work with separating Siamese twins. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School, Carson rose from an impoverished inner-city Detroit upbringing to become a world-famous doctor. In 2008, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work.
Brianna’s mother insists that her daughter’s goal is realistic thanks to St. John’s providing her the first building blocks to realize her potential. Terrell reported that her daughter reads on a seventh-grade level and has eighth-grade math, English and social studies skills.
The Terrells have been sending their daughter to St. John’s since it reopened, her mother said, and although they thought of sending her to other schools around town — including the public grade school across the street from their house — the personal approach to education at St. John’s kept them coming back each fall.
“It’s a great one-on-one the school has with students and parents if you want to have a meeting or anything,” Terrell explained. “That goes for the principal or anyone else who’s interacting with your kid for eight hours. So that was one of the things we were really pleased with.”
Although the Terrells are Apostolic Pentecostal Protestants, they see the school’s strong Catholic identity as an additional benefit.
“I have a problem when you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer in public school anymore,” she explained, adding that she’s comfortable with her daughter attending Wednesday Mass at school — and she often accompanies her. “We talked (about the Catholic identity of the school) with the priests and the principal. Everyone respects us, and we respect the Catholic religion. That has never really been a problem.”
Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.
In honor of Catholic Schools Week, a look at the past, present and future of Catholic education in the United States.