While Congress and President Bush wrangle over the shape of education reform, one group in Washington has decided to launch a revolution in the education of poor children on its own. The Washington Jesuit Academy won't open its doors until 2004, but when it does, 75 poor middle school students will be given an unparalleled opportunity to escape poverty through a first-rate education. But the process won't be easy. Students will attend school 12 hours a day, taking all their meals at the school, completing homework assignments in supervised study halls, and attending classes on Saturdays, as well as spending summers at Jesuit-supervised summer camps. The key will be commitment from students and parents, and a willingness to work hard.
This project is nothing new for the Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests who have been involved in education since their founding in 1540 by a Spanish nobleman, Ignatius Loyola. But there may be important lessons for others involved in education reform, especially for poor children.
First, the normal school day and school year provide insufficient time to educate most students who come from impoverished homes. A school day that averages only five hours a day for nine months a year cannot possibly provide the time necessary to make up for a lifetime of deprivation. The school schedule was created at a time when most families relied on children to help out on the farm and had little to do with optimum learning. A limited school day just doesn't provide enough hours to cover necessary material. Worse, students often forget much of what they learned during the school year over their long summer vacation, turning the first few weeks of every new school year into review sessions to cover the last year's lessons. These problems affect middle-class students as well, but the effects are more damaging for students who suffer from learning difficulties to begin with.
Second, the influence of the home environment on education performance can't be underestimated. Poor students often come from homes that lack books, paper, pencils, even alarm clocks that can ensure they get to school on time. They head to school on empty stomachs or with a breakfast made up mostly of sugar. And when they return home, their only company is a television set (a problem that has spread far beyond the poor and into middle class, even affluent homes). Even if they're lucky enough to have a parent around, poor parents usually don't have the educational background themselves to provide much help on homework assignments to their children. By providing not just longer hours but a nurturing environment, the Jesuits will be creating a second home for their students that will help make up for what they may be missing at home.
Finally, without a commitment from both parents and students, no amount of resources will help. The education provided by the Jesuit Academy would normally cost about $12,500 per year -- about 50 percent higher than per pupil public school expenditures for the District of Columbia. But students admitted to the Academy will pay only about $10 or $20 per month for their schooling, an amount meant to ensure some commitment from the family, while the rest will come from the Church and some foundation and private support.
The Jesuits have set up similar schools around the country, with very good results. Although this school will have a state-of-the art physical plant, not all Jesuit-run programs do. A program for poor girls has operating out of an apartment building in one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods and recently sent its first graduating class of 10 girls on to local private high schools. A similar program in Manhattan's Lower Eastside, the Nativity Mission Center, has educated more than 400 impoverished youths since 1971, sending many on to colleges.
The Jesuits' program may be a small one compared to public efforts to rescue millions of poor children nationwide. And it's clearly more expensive than public education -- about twice as costly. Nonetheless, Congress -- which will be just blocks away from the Academy's Capitol Hill campus when it opens -- might look to this program for inspiration of its own.