Whenever the topic of Catholic elementary school education comes up, we can expect to be treated to a familiar litany of challenges. There may have been more than 10,000 Catholic schools in America in 1965, but today there are fewer than half that number. Tuition costs are so prohibitively high for families at the lower end of the economic spectrum that they can only have their children attend Catholic school by scholarship. In the inner cities, where most Catholic school children are either African-American or Hispanic and living at or below the poverty line, the sustainability of Catholic schools is even more precarious. Moreover, since the future of the Church in America relies on Hispanics remaining Catholic, this problem of sustainability poses a threat to the sustainability of the Church herself.
What to do?
A new model, with the goal of bringing both excellent academics and strong Catholic formation to underserved children, is being implemented by the Catholic non-profit Seton Education Partners. Seton works with dioceses to bring after-school faith formation to “Catholic-friendly” but secular charter schools. At Brilla College Preparatory Charter School, in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, Seton is educating more than 600 schoolchildren, 73 percent Latino and 25 percent African-American, in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts. Seton’s after-school faith-formation program is called El Camino, Spanish for “the Way.”
I was recently introduced to the school by the executive director of the Brilla School Network, Luanne Zurlo. A woman whose deep faith is matched only by her entrepreneurial zest, Luanne shared with me how it was the El Camino after-school program that first attracted her to Seton.
“As a victim of anodyne 70s CCD, most of what I know about the Catholic faith I learned as a seeking adult,” Luanne admits. “Yet it is the young who are most receptive, even to the most challenging and mysterious truths of our faith. This was on full display at El Camino, where I witnessed curious and joyful children discussing Jesus and the Church under the careful tutelage of their young El Camino instructors.”
At the Brilla school, I met with Stephanie Saroki de García, co-founder and managing director of Seton Education Partners. She has worked for many years on various educational and philanthropic initiatives, and served on the strategic planning committee for the Archdiocese of New York’s school system. When it comes to the cogency of the Seton/El Camino model, no one is more eloquent than its co-founder:
In 2011, Cardinal Dolan and Catholic schools superintendent Tim McNiff made the heart-breaking decision to close nearly 60 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York. The bulk of these were K-8 schools serving predominantly low-income, minority children—schools providing a safe haven and a whole-child education that nurtured the head, heart, and spirit. But, like so many other inner-city Catholic schools across the country, these schools were experiencing declining enrollment and financial instability. In response to these closings, and at Cardinal Dolan’s request, Seton Education Partners set out to pioneer a new secular charter school model that, when paired with a vibrant, though strictly optional, after-school faith-formation program, would achieve the goals of Catholic education for the poor—and do so in a way that is financially sustainable.
In meeting with Michael Carbone, the bright young man responsible for Brilla’s curriculum, I hear the voice of the faithful young who have come to the beleaguered Church almost as a kind of rescuing cavalry.
“El Camino is taught mainly by faith volunteers from across the country, our Seton Teaching Fellows,” he explains. “Marry these faith warriors with our local neighborhood parishes and you get results for the Church—over 100 baptisms and more than 30 First Communions in our first five years.”
Michael is also passionate about how El Camino brings together teachers, students, and families.
“Our belief is that parents are the first educators, and we do everything we can to ensure a strong family partnership,” he tells me. “Our Catholic identity not only values the family unit, it celebrates it. We want our students, in our schools and in our El Camino program, to celebrate family—often a difficult task in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
To make good on their solicitude for the families they serve, every year Seton staff visit the homes of each of their students before classes begin.
In July 2017, Seton assumed management of the Brilla Schools Network, which includes the Mott Haven elementary school, serving grades K-4; a middle school, serving grades 5-8; and a second elementary school, Brilla Veritas. The academic outcomes that Seton has enabled Brilla to post are compelling: 51 percent of Brilla’s students are scoring “proficient” on the English Language Arts proficiency test, while 62 percent are scoring “proficient” on the math test. Other schools in the district, by contrast, score only 25 percent on the ELA test and only 26 percent on the math test, and New York State’s numbers are not much better: only 42 percent score “proficient” on the ELA test and only 46 percent on the math test. When it comes to math, Brilla is ranked the fourth highest-performing school out of all New York State elementary schools serving a comparable demographic.
This academic success is mirrored in their ranking on the national level. According to the Northwest Association Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA), only 50 percent of students nationwide are expected to meet their individual growth targets. Brilla can boast that 68 percent of their students made one or more years of progress in reading and math. Indeed, scholars in Seton’s schools are achieving academic growth results in mathematics and reading that match or beat the nation’s most acclaimed urban charter schools.
To what does Brilla attribute their success?
At the heart of their model is the El Camino after-school program, which not only ensures the measurably effective faith formation of the students enrolled in their virtues-based charter schools, but animates and strengthens all of the academics of their schools as well. More faithful students, in other words, make for more academically proficient students. (The Regina Caeli schools in Pennsylvania and New York have also demonstrated this in their robustly faith-centered curriculum.) By combining the best of the rich Catholic tradition with rigorous academics, Seton is showing how the Catholic elementary school can be revitalized.
In the El Camino program, students discover “the Way” with volunteer teachers well-formed in the Faith who are, therefore, ideal mentors. And since the program integrates parents fully, it also ensures that “the Way” becomes a daily force in the life of the families it serves.
As the individual responsible for the curriculum of Brilla, which draws on the Great Books tradition as well as St. Thomas Aquinas, Michael Carbone nicely sums up why the model works:
The best examples of students owning their faith is, more often than not, when they experience failure or challenge—and cite or quote the saints and their struggles in comparison. It is powerful to hear a second-grade student name St. Elizabeth Seton as someone who was able to overcome monumental challenges to help others when we host our annual Thanksgiving Food Drive—inspiring adults in the community to donate food items. And it is motivating to see a fifth-grade student correct a peer around the sub-virtue of humility, pointing out that, in life, it is better to be humble than ostentatious, as Christ was in his life. It is these authentic, unplanned transactions that show that what we’re doing is having an immeasurable impact.
In placing faith-formation at the heart of their academics, the Seton model hearkens back to a great American initiative. After all, it was the Sunday school that provided America with the first stirrings of its public school system. When Thomas Jefferson tried to persuade the State of Virginia to adopt a program giving children three years of primary school education, the state legislature might have rejected the plan, but this did not stop our forefathers from educating their children. “The churches of the American republic stepped into the breach left by the states,” Daniel Walker Howe writes in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (2007) in the prestigious Oxford History of the United States series. “One of their educational initiatives, the Sunday school, provided one day a week of instruction in basic literacy for 20,000 American children by 1827. Only after public primary education became more widespread did Sunday schools concentrate exclusively on religious instruction.” In designing their Catholic school model around “Catholic-friendly” charter schools and the El Camino after-school program, Seton is creatively drawing on this truly enlightened approach.
More than 270 kindergarten through fifth-grade students are currently enrolled in El Camino; four days a week, for between 60 and 90 minutes, they have catechism class as well as homework help, physical exercise, a nutritious snack, opportunities for shared and personal prayer, and the reading of Scripture. El Camino uses the Faith and Life religious education series published by Ignatius Press (which also publishes CWR). The object of the El Camino curriculum is to help children to know, love, and serve Christ, to grow in virtue, and to achieve academic success, without losing sight of the joy of learning so essential to good elementary school education.
Seton also encourages their children and families to have a close, faithful, supportive relationship with their local Catholic church. In the case of Brilla, this is the church of St. Rita of Cascia. When I visited St. Rita in April for El Camino’s annual baptism ceremony—where no fewer than 29 schoolchildren were baptized by the pastor, Father Pablo Gonzalez—I could see the fruits of the program in all of their faithful festivity. In this regard, the entire thrust of the Seton approach to education, as it is embodied in the El Camino program, reminded me of those palmary words of Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990): “Proclamation is the permanent priority of mission. The Church cannot elude Christ’s explicit mandate, nor deprive men and women of the ‘Good News’ about their being loved and saved by God.”
At my last visit to the El Camino program, I joined a class of fifth-grade boys, whose young volunteer teacher was instructing them in the Nicene Creed, and when I heard the boys reciting the Creed in voices full of faith and confidence, I thought to myself that here exactly was the missionary proclamation that the great pope had in mind. Indeed, this is what most distinguishes the good work that Seton and El Camino accomplish; they enable us to speak of Catholic education not merely in terms of challenges, but of opportunities. The Seton model is a wellspring of opportunities not only for the children in the inner city, but for the struggling communities from which they hale—indeed, for the Church as a whole.