Politics & Policy

Fight Poverty with Virtuous Schools

Poor kids need schools with a moral backbone.

Lifting scores of children out of poverty and into the middle class has been a vexing problem for America’s policymakers. Poverty remains “sticky” for millions of America’s boys and girls — too many children are born into poor families and end up poor themselves.

Excellent schools for needy children are rightly viewed as a promising way to unglue cycles of poverty. Yet many of the nation’s public schools are adrift, inept, and hapless. Worse yet, we’ve learned that a few school systems outright lie and cheat. In my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, a year-long investigation found outrageous acts of fraud and deceit committed by adults employed by the city’s school district.

Public schools wracked by incompetence, lethargy, and scandal are not what disadvantaged children need.

#ad#So what do poor kids need in a school? High academic expectations are one part of the equation, and the Common Core will play a key role in boosting standards for many children. Outstanding teachers and a quality curriculum are essential too. But there is another vital element, and that is the expectation of upright conduct — in other words, morals.

Public schools have been largely sapped of their moral stature, and the recent scandals are but one visible symptom. Yet there are some schools — many of which are ;private ones — that consciously instill virtue and morals in their students.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute profiled five such private schools across Ohio for a new report entitled Pluck and Tenacity. They educate students on vouchers, public aid that allows them to flee the public-school system. All the schools are religiously affiliated: Three are Catholic, two are Evangelical.

These schools’ faith-based convictions drive school culture. The educators we talked to are clearly not reluctant to teach the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. These are schools that shape both the mind and the heart of the child.

Physically imposing and gregarious, Mike Pecchia, president of Youngstown Christian School, attacks the education of children from poor families with a missionary’s zeal. For his portrait, he proudly stood next to a sign that quotes Luke’s Gospel: “For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

His school, whose 500 or so students are 60 percent minority and over half on vouchers, is situated in one of Ohio’s most downtrodden cities, ravaged by years of economic decay and political corruption. According to the state, the city’s public-school district is in “academic emergency.”

When Ohio enacted a statewide voucher program in 2005, Youngstown Christian jumped at the chance to educate disadvantaged students. The decision was based in part on financial practicalities but grounded in benevolence: “The church feeds the poor, clothes the poor, houses the poor. I say, let’s start educating them,” said Pecchia.

To attend the school in the first place, students’ families must participate in a local church, and the school checks this with the minister. School policy allows corporal punishment, though it’s used sparingly and only with parental consent. Josh Reichard, the academic dean, summed up the school’s code of discipline: “We have one simple rule: Teachers have the right to teach, and students have the right to learn.”

Meanwhile, Youngstown Christian’s educators aren’t afraid to talk about moral standards with their students. When discussing dating with his male students, one high-school teacher told them: “You will be held accountable for whatever you do, what you do with His daughter.” To an unruly student, Pecchia explains “the difference between mercy and grace, but that there are still consequences for their actions.”

Two hundred miles southwest of Youngstown, we met Karyn Hecker, principal of Immaculate Conception, a Catholic school in Dayton. Outwardly, she is Pecchia’s antithesis: no more than five feet tall, austere, and seemingly stern. But Hecker is similar to Pecchia in her penchant for straight talk and her determination to educate children in need. Her school, whose enrollment is now 75 percent low-income and 75 percent voucher students, has changed demographically since the inception of vouchers.

Nonetheless, the school still does “everything we used to,” Hecker says. Students are taught religion every day and attend Mass weekly. Walking the halls, she asked: “Are you hearing any chaos going on?” The answer was obvious, as students were moving quietly between rooms during a class change. The school imposes strict discipline, which has included asking a few children to leave for their own good or for the sake of the student body. Said Hecker, “When the school is no longer a safe place, I do what I have to do.”

Schools like the ones we visited — and many others, especially in the private-school realm — nurture the character of their students. Granted, there is an uncompromising edge, a firmness, an absolutism to how these private schools conduct their business. And these very characteristics, rooted in faith, grate against postmodern sensibilities.

But it’s not adult, academic sensibilities that matter. Poor kids, who often lack strong authority figures in their lives, need schools with a moral backbone. Vouchers allow more poor kids to attend schools that mix tough love, a can-do attitude, and solid academics. That might just be their only ticket to a better life.

— Aaron Churchill is an Ohio research and data analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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