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Overcoming Obstacles 

Catholic schools offer low-income students a chance to succeed.

On the outside, Bishop Perry Middle School looks run-down, even dismal: a pale three-story building squatting on a lawn of sun-scored grass surrounded by 10-foot-high barbed-wire fences. Once you enter the school off Esplanade Avenue behind the French Quarter, perceptions quickly change to one of orderliness and optimism about the future as visitors are greeted by students in crisply ironed slacks, vests and white shirts with clip-on ties who politely shake hands and proudly welcome them to their school.

Bishop Perry is among five non-tuition Catholic schools in Orleans Parish that serve students from disadvantaged families at the lowest economic levels by providing scholarships to cover education costs. It is understaffed: part of its faculty and all of its janitors and maintenance crew are volunteers. In addition, volunteers from Loyola and Tulane universities tutor students before and after classes. Despite all that, the 7-year-old school provides a comfortable setting where students learn to respect themselves and others, strive to excel in their academics, social skills and spiritual lives, and "Refuse to be Average" as signs posted in each classroom encourage. The school's program builds students' confidence that they can succeed.

"I plan on going to Florida State; I'm trying to get a football scholarship," says Jamyl Dennis, a Bishop Perry alumnus now a junior attending Holy Cross High School on scholarship. "Most of the questions [current Bishop Perry students] ask when I go back are about Holy Cross. They're thinking about where they want to go in the future."

The environment at Bishop Perry and the other non-tuition Catholic schools -- House of the Holy Family, Henriette Delille, St. Benedict-Amor and the new Good Shepherd School -- is one of professionalism, pride and respect as well as one that nurtures students' leadership skills and a commitment to their future. Bishop Perry has provided scholarships to students whose families earn as little as $10,000 a year and as much as $23,000. About half of its students are from public housing projects and others are from neighborhoods in the inner city and low-income residential areas. The school has a goal of providing direction to children who otherwise may not have finished high school, let alone considered going to college.

"We're offering them an avenue to get out of that area, go to a good high school and go to a good college," says Bishop Perry Principal John Fitzmorris. "Last year we graduated our first high school kids. Everyone graduated high school and is in college right now."

Although that first graduating class includes only a handful of students, it's a sign of things to come and exhibits a working model that is supported by a strong network of students, parents and teachers.

"For me, with my sons, it has made my young guys realize that school is important," says Joy Dennis, one of the more involved parents, clocking in excess of 300 community hours per year. "They are more likely to go to college, seeing that without education they can't make it."

She isn't alone. All parents of Bishop Perry students are required to dedicate 75 hours of service a year to the upkeep of the school and development of their child. That means attending PTA meetings, helping at fundraisers such as bake sales and car washes, and cleaning up the school on Saturday mornings. Parents also sign a "Contract for Success" along with their child and the student's teacher. It also is posted on the front door of the school, making those who enter immediately aware of the contract's values and the school's commitment to success.

It's the details that make Bishop Perry work. The so-called "nativity school" method of education, for instance, provides a "formula for success from birth," incorporating all the facets of life that children need to be productive citizens, principal Fitzmorris says. Students also are divided into "houses," groups with members from different grades and classes, for clubs and activities, which they are required to participate in after class until 5 p.m. There also is an alumni network, which tracks former Bishop Perry students in high school, checking their progress and keeping them connected to the group of students behind them.

"They love it," Joy Dennis says of her children. "You have to drag them away from school kicking and screaming." Her son, eighth-grader Joshua, says it's not just playing in the recreation room instead of being a latch-key kid after school: "It's good because we get do our homework and stuff."

Other Catholic and private schools around the city charge tuitions of several thousand dollars a year to support educational goals and infrastructure maintenance, but Bishop Perry depends on other means. The Children's Scholarship Fund, a $100 million endowment by John Waldman and Ted Frontman to non-public schools, is the basis for students' enrollment. About 1,300 half-tuitions are further subsidized by direct contributions from church parishioners. Dr. Rene Coman, superintendent of Catholic schools in New Orleans, estimates that fundraising accounts for up to $25 million per year in tuition funds alone.

"The state Legislature is saving $500 million a year on private school students," says Coman, adding that archdiocesan schools are nearly at capacity. Enrollment in private schools has grown steadily over the last five years, causing some to fear that economics could become a factor in the selection of recipients from the growing pool of scholarship applicants. "Are economics a variable? For prestigious high schools the answer is 'yes'," says Coman, who emphasizes scholarships for the five schools are strictly reserved for students from needy families. Parents and students hope the program, now realizing the fruition of its positive benefits, will endure.

"I don't think they would make it in public school," Joy Dennis says of her sons and other scholarship students at Bishop Perry. She prays the program will be available for her grandchildren.

"We don't need to convince the community of the accomplishments of the Catholic schools," says Coman. Average ACT scores for students in the New Orleans Archdiocese have been above the state and national averages for the last three years and are rising. Reading, math, language, spelling and basic battery scores are above national norms, he says, plus 99 percent of parochial students graduate from high schools and 95 percent go to college.

Although Coman stresses that the mission of the Catholic schools is the reason for the high test scores and the marked differences from the public schools, he also notes that scholarships aren't awarded on the basis of faith.

"The majority of our students are Catholic but that's been only very recently," says Bishop Perry principal Fitzmorris. "Many are Baptist, non-denominational, and there's one Buddhist."

Part of the success can be attributed to a lower student-teacher ratio, which translates into more individual attention for students. Classes at Bishop Perry have an average of 15 students, and there are only 58 in the whole school.

"Seventeen students in one class was the difference for me," says alumnus Jamyl Dennis. "In public school, I had thirty-something in my class. It helps me a lot, and they help you learn more about the people around you." Even when they move on to a larger school with more students, Bishop Perry students adapt well and excel, says Brother Martin High School Campus Minister Judy Stewart.

"Tyrone Walker is a student minister, senior and well accepted by the others," she says. "As a sophomore, he was president of his class and he is very involved." She also mentions that former Bishop Perry student Ashland Tate was president of her junior class at Brother Martin, and that Luis Shelby, who graduated last year, is on his way to St. Michael's College in Vermont.

As students develop themselves for future academic pursuits, Bishop Perry's alumni network preserves relationships with former students to ensure the program's future.

"They [alumni] always come back," says Joshua Dennis. "Tyrone (Walker) helps out. My brother comes back. For fundraisers, alumni always come back. They even cut the grass. Most of the time, they tell us what high schools look for and what to expect." Their return visits also illustrate to current students that the "disadvantaged" label that helped them get into the school applies only to their economic status, not to their potential.

click to enlarge Bishop Perry Principal John Fitzmorris spearheads an unique approach to Catholic education. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Bishop Perry Principal John Fitzmorris spearheads an unique approach to Catholic education.
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