NEWARK’S ST. BENEDICT’S: Acts as aggressive charters imperil Catholic schools

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Changes at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark

Newark’s St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, for nearly 150 years an all-boys’ secondary school, is about to become what its headmaster calls a “pioneering” hybrid, expanding to include both elementary schooling and co-education–with girls admitted to its middle school division for the first time in its history.

 The upper division of the prep school–a 9th through 12th grade high school that has attracted national attention for success in educating inner-city young men–will remain all-boys. Its Middle Division–7th and 8th grades–will enroll both boys and girls. Previously, the middle school–which dates back to the 1970s–had enrolled only boys.

“We will be developing separate leadership and extracurricular activities for girls in the middle division,” explained Rev. Edwin Leahy, OSB, a St. Benedict’s alumnus who has been the school’s headmaster since 1973. “We are now shaping how that will happen.”

Rev. Edwin Leahy, OSB

 St. Benedict’s also will now operate a co-educational K-6 elementary school.

 In some ways, the changes are more form than substance. For years, St. Mary School, an archdiocesan elementary school–and one of the largest Nigerian-American parishes in the nation–operated out of facilities owned by the Benedictine Abbey, the monastery that owns and operates St. Benedict’s Prep. Two years ago, the abbey assumed control of  St. Mary School from the archdiocese.

 The new model formalizes that relationship and gives the combined elementary and secondary schools a new name–or, a new old name, really: St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. Girls in the 7th and 8th grades already attend St. Mary’s School with boys but,. now, boys and girls in those grades will be attending the middle division of St. Benedict’s Preparatory School.

 Father Edwin said he hopes the school will expand its relationships with two all-girls high schools–nearby St. Vincent Academy, where many St. Mary School graduates have attended after graduation, and Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth. Benedictine also has accepted St. Mary’s graduates and, like St. Benedict’s, is run by the Benedictine order of Roman Catholic religious.

The announcement of the “new model” also reflects a new reality for Catholic elementary education–the disappearance of parochial schools in the face of aggressively expanding charter schools. Although publicly funded, charter schools are privately operated and often use selective admissions procedures and are free to expel students.

In Newark, nearly half of all school children will be attending the privatized charter schools–thanks primarily to an aggressive political campaign spearheaded by Gov. Chris Christie and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker (now a US senator) . A score or more of traditional public schools have closed because of the politically-driven expansion of charter schools, but the impact on Catholic schools has been far worse.

 “There as a time when practically every block had a parochial school,” says Father Edwin. “Now there are only three left in the entire city.”

 The new model at St. Benedict’s, says Father Edwin, provides the newly-renamed school “a meaningful way of marketing itself in the face of competition from the charter schools.”

Historically, St. Benedict’s Preparatory School–while maintaining tuition and selective admissions and academic standards–has provided substantial financial aid and has used its standards to ensure students who can succeed at the school, will. A number of charter schools–including the largest chains operating in Newark–shed many students  after admission but before graduation.

 New Jersey recently enacted a law that would make it easy for religious schools to become charter schools–as long as the newly publicly-funded charter school does not teach religion. St. Benedict’s has rejected that model. While many of its students are not Roman Catholic, the church’s teaching pervades the curriculum and culture of the school. St. Benedict’s Preparatory School does not take public money and aggressively raises funds from its alumni and other benefactors.

 (Full disclosure: I am, as is Father Edwin, a member of the St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, Class of 1963).

The formal press release from the school announcing the changes at St. Benedict’s Preparatory follows:

Newark, N.J. (March 13, 2017) – St. Benedict‘s Preparatory School, one of the nation’s most successful all-male urban schools, today announced a new academic program to provide a comprehensive K-12 curriculum.  The move comes two years after taking responsibility for St. Mary School, the oldest existing Catholic elementary school in New Jersey.
After careful planning, and in response to calls to further serve the residents of New Jersey’s largest city, St. Benedict‘s Prep will now operate a co-educational Lower Division (Grades K-6), a Middle Division comprising a single-sex curriculum for both boys and girls (Grades 7-8) and an all-boys Upper Division (Grades 9 through post-grad).  The new model, which also provides opportunities for post-graduate studies for young men, takes effect July 1.
St. Mary, a co-educational school for children in kindergarten through eighth grade founded in 1842, is located on the grounds of the Benedictine Abbey of Newark, the same monastic home of St. Benedict‘s Prep.  St. Mary had long been the responsibility of the Archdiocese of Newark before the Abbey was asked by the Archbishop of Newark to assume responsibility for its operations in 2015.  Since 1968, St. Mary has been a mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pa., who will remain an integral part of St. Benedict‘s Prep.
“This is an exciting time for St. Benedict‘s,” said the school’s Headmaster, Rev. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B., a member of the school’s Class of 1963. “We were pioneers in 1973 when St. Benedict‘s was re-opened to serve the needs of Newark and its surrounding community.  Today, we are pioneers again.  To bring two sets of dedicated and caring teachers and administrators, including laypersons, Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Benedictine Monks of Newark Abbey, under one St. Benedict‘s umbrella is a real plus for Newark.  Most importantly, it is a big win for the kids.”
With this new model, St. Benedict‘s Preparatory School now boasts an enrollment of nearly 800 students.
About St. Benedict‘s Prep
St. Benedict‘s Preparatory School was founded by the Benedictine Monks in 1868 and is one of the oldest and most successful urban schools in the country. Over its history, the Catholic school has educated a rich variety of successive immigrant groups and the local community in and around Greater Newark. It now serves students primarily of African-American and Latino heritage, in grades K through post-graduate. Ninety-eight percent of its graduates go on to college with 87 percent obtaining a degree or on track to graduate. “The Resurrection of St. Benedict‘s,” a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes was aired in 2016 (www.sbp.org/60Minutes).

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