By Bryan Carter
Earlier this year, a Philadelphia Archdiocese blue-ribbon commission made recommendations for strengthening the region's Catholic schools. They included major consolidations, some closings, and the conversion of more than a dozen former parish schools in underserved areas into "mission schools." While much of the plan was implemented swiftly, the slated mission schools have not yet fully adopted their new model - for good reasons.
For many students, parents, and educators, mission schools are an unfamiliar idea. They aren't sure how a mission school operates or how it differs from other kinds of schools.
But while the model may seem new to the region, it has been a way of life for almost 20 years at Gesu School in North Philadelphia, where I serve as president.
Gesu School became independent when the archdiocese undertook a similar consolidation in the early 1990s. At the request of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order and the Jesuits worked to keep Gesu's doors open, and to do so independent of parish financial support. An active board of trustees was created, it began establishing funding streams and building endowments, and Philadelphia's first mission school was born. Almost two decades later, Gesu has become a national model for inner-city mission schools.
In our immediate and surrounding neighborhoods, half the population lives below the poverty line. In our home zip code, only 55 percent of residents have a high school diploma, and only 7 percent have a college degree. Gesu's only criterion for admission is residence within one of six designated zip codes, and many of our children are two years behind academically when they arrive.
From there, we relentlessly focus on academic success, spiritual growth, and character formation from prekindergarten through eighth grade. We accommodate all levels of academic ability, offering everything from remedial to advanced instruction. We fiercely protect music and art programs, and we have a top-tier science lab, gymnasium, and rooftop playground. We keep a close watch on emotional and social well-being with a robust counseling program. We take a whole-child approach.
Our results over the past 20 years show that it's working. In a city where only 61 percent of high school students graduate within four years, 90 percent of Gesu's alumni do. And more than 65 percent go on to pursue postsecondary education.
The biggest challenge facing mission schools is, not surprisingly, finances. We know this problem well and have worked with our talented board to learn the ins and outs of fund-raising. We have earned a top rating from Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator, for seven consecutive years.
As a trailblazer in the mission school model, we hope to serve as stewards for the new mission schools, which stand to benefit many young, promising Philadelphians. We welcome interested members of the community to attend our annual Symposium on Inner-City Education today. We know that sharing best practices will ensure that neighborhood educational gems can continue to make an impact on Philadelphia's children.