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Patrick McCloskey

DAVID ADAMS speaks with Canadian journalist and author Patrick J McCloskey about the year he spent at Rice High School in Harlem, New York, and his views on faith-based education…

Linwood Sessoms, a student at a New York public school, looked destined for a life of trouble. With a disrupted homelife – his father was constantly in and out of jail – he had started “acting out” in class, so much so that it was suggested he be enrolled in “special education”.

But his mother refused and Linwood decided to make some changes. Having come to the realisation by year seven or eight that he wasn’t going to make it through public school – although his grades were high, his scores in standardised testing were very low – he heard of a scholarship program to attend a Catholic school in Harlem, Rice High, and decided to apply.

Patrick McCloskey

A YEAR AT RICE HIGH: Author Patrick McCloskey surrounded by some of the students he met at Rice High School in Harlem.


“(Principal Gober) really took on the father role – he was very strict in terms of the little things like attendance and behaviour because he wanted to get past that to focus on making up years of being behind academically. But crucial to that was not only consequences but counselling.”

– Patrick McCloskey

He got the position but the transition was difficult – he found it hard to abide by all the rules he now faced. Because of the principal’s insistent counselling and positive reinforcement, however, Linwood was able to successfully graduate from highschool and then university. He now works at a bank as well as helping other young people through similar circumstances.

His story is just one of the many inspiring tales of those that attended Rice High School, according to journalist and author Patrick J McCloskey, who cites it as illustrative of the impact faith-based education can have in helping to transform a young person’s life.

Mr McCloskey, who lives in Ottawa, Canada, spent a year observing the school’s principal – Orlando Gober, a former Black Panther – along with staff and students at the all boys Christian Brothers’ school. Following his experience, he has written what has been described as a “warts-and-all portrait” of the year in a book called The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem.

Recently in Australia where he addressed Christian Brothers’ school principals and visited Catholic schools, he spoke to Sight about the year he spent at the Harlem school and what is was that pushed him to write the book.

“It become obvious to me that a book like this was needed,” says Mr McCloskey, who has previously written for publications including The New York TimesNew York Daily News and The Financial Times. “The general sort of context is that since the 1960s, the public education in urban areas of disadvantaged kids (in the US) has really been in melt-down mode – miserable results, low graduation rates and costs have quadrupled…”

“At the same time, faith-based schools – and, in the poor areas, it’s mostly Catholic schools – have kept chugging along and, for two or three times less money, do a tremendous job of…keeping them in school, getting them through (and) getting them to graduate to college or university or to the workforce.”

Mr McCloskey, who himself attended Catholic schools in Canada as a child, says that while data showed Catholic schools outperformed “in the most important areas”, he wanted to take a look at a more grass-roots perspective. 

“Immersion books are so few and far between because they take so much time,” he says. “And the big issue in US education is the low achievement and high drop-out rate of disadvantaged minority kids despite the billions or actually trillions that have been spent over the last few decades. To this day, New York City spends over $US21,000 per student per year (and) other big cities have similar sorts of expenditures and results are not very good.”

Mr McCloskey says the approach of Principal Orlando Gober was key to the success of the school.

“He really took on the father role – he was very strict in terms of the little things like attendance and behaviour because he wanted to get past that to focus on making up years of being behind academically. But crucial to that was not only consequences but counselling.”

Mr McCloskey says that while, when Mr Gober had started working in the field of education some 30 years ago he had thought of racism has the main obstacle to the boys achieving success at school, his thinking had changed.

“Today, clearly it’s not racism at all, but family structure, the breakdown of the family and mostly what he called the ‘father-wound’. Ninety per cent of young men in these areas are living in single parents households with the mother or grandmother. The fathers are totally absent or might be in jail and are in an out of their lives and it creates enormous problems in their lives. Family problems are by far the biggest barrier.”

He agrees that the school was brave in allowing him the access he had.

“When you get full access, it means you’re really in people’s lives and seeing what goes on on a day-to-day basis. Of course, people forget you’re there because they don’t see you there one day and a story come out a week later, and as a result it’s a very honest portrait of the school…”

Mr McCloskey says that while the book shows that the school community isn’t perfect – “people make mistakes” – he believes the book makes a stronger argument for faith-based schools.

“Because in spite of human failings, it doubles the graduation rate of public schools and turns out, I think – and this is an all-boys school, young men who are far better able to lead productive and moral lives.”

He says the success of the Catholic schools in the States is a combination of “discipline and order” in contrast the chaos often found on the streets and at home.

“They need discipline and structure so that’s there – those are sort of preconditions to learning…” he says. “And then, building on top of that (there’s a) lot of counselling, a lot of positivity, a lot of vision that, yes, you’re going to succeed, you’re going to go to college, but then enabling, arming people to do it.”

Mr McCloskey says he choose the title, The Street Stops Here, to illustrate the point that whatever is happening at home or on the streets, stops at the front door of the school.

“The school can’t control all of that. But what the school can do is the instant the students step inside, provide this amazing counter-culture that counteracts and blocks out the negative in main stream culture and does a lot of character formation and academic focus to get to the exams.”

At Rice High School this involves Principal Gober entering the classes – beginning with the ninth graders in the first week of school – and articulating a message of self-empowerment as well as detailing what it takes to be a good student.

“Because often, coming out of the public system, they really don’t know how to be students. They don’t know how to sit down properly; they don’t know how to open a book, they don’t know how to do homework; they don’t have many of these skills that some would assume they would have by ninth grade…”

Mr McCloskey believes the faith aspect of the school helps to create a moral universe for the students.

“So young people make the transition from the street ethos of ‘Whatever I get away with’ to ‘What should I be doing?; What would Mr So-And-So do?’ So you see that transformation.”

Having visited several schools which in Australia, Mr McCloskey says Catholic schools here, although partially government-funded, have been able to maintain their independence, unlike in places like Ontario in Canada where, he notes, full government funding has led to a loss of identity. This is thanks partly to the fight for Catholic education which took place in Australia back in the Sixties.

“Regardless of whether you’re Catholic or not, I think having a strong, faith-based sector helps everyone,” he says. “In the US, they didn’t have the wisdom to fight when things starting going bad economically for the schools in the Sixties and, as a result, they get no government funding and they’ve lost over half their schools since the 1960s and 50 per cent of their students which is a tragedy.”

In illustration of the important role faith-based schools play in the West, Mr McCloskey mentions an avowed atheist who has given more than $US30 million to support Catholic education in New York.

“It’s his view that although he himself doesn’t believe in God, Catholic education – faith based education…are absolutely essential to the future of democracy in the US,” he says.

“Someone told me that he said ‘If the US loses its Catholic schools, it will become a Third World nation’ and I think that’s true because of the character formation, morality, values. (This man) just sees it as essential – which I think is absolutely true – to Western civilisation. What do human rights depend on, what does democracy depend on, but the divine origin of man, the intrinsic worth of every individual. Otherwise there’s no point to it.”


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