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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    America needs more schools like De La Salle Academy

    Here we are in Times Square. Maniac lights flash across all horizons. Minnie Mouse and Spider-Man are making the rounds. Packed tour buses inch below the scary headlines orbiting the ABC News building.

    And it's only 9:30 on a Monday morning.

    But on West 43rd Street, about a block from the heart of chaos, the school day has started on an island of serenity. The students are city kids, now ages 10 to 13, who excelled in the early grades but might be bored by the pace in the average public school.

    De La Salle Academy was founded 40 years ago by Christian Brother Brian Carty. The De La Salle Brothers are a Roman Catholic order that concentrates on education for lower-income families.

    But this is not a parochial school. There are no uniforms. "We're not part of the diocese," Brother Brian explained. "We're not the typical Catholic school."

    Nor is De La Salle a charter school. It's an independent school in the same category as so-called private schools. But it's not for rich kids. About two-thirds of the students come from families that would be considered low income or low wealth.

    What De La Salle has in common with the fanciest private schools is an enviable student-faculty ratio of 9 to 1. About 98% of the graduates attend college.

    There are no set income requirements for admission, but when they look at the pool of applicants that are admissible, Angel Gonzalez, the head of school, said, "We always give preference to the child who needs the school more."

    The tuition is about $26,000, about a third what many other independent schools charge. However, the actual cost of educating a student is about $35,000. That gap is filled by foundations, the board of trustees and other contributors, including the De La Salle community.

    "We have current and past parents who are unbelievably generous," said director of development Severn Taylor. "They are also among the constituents that talk most fervently about how this school 'changed our lives.'"

    The school is still dealing with the aftershocks of the COVID lockdowns. That's when students missed many of the important developmental milestones for socializing in school.

    Gonzalez recalls one student telling him: "You know, one day I went to sleep and I was in the third grade. The next time I went back to school and woke up, I was in the seventh grade." Gonzalez said that might seem like a short time, "but what you learned between third and seventh grade socially is astronomical."

    What differentiates this school from even good public schools, Gonzalez says, is its "ethos" — defined as "an experience of a caring community, driven by trusting relationships among adults and students." The goal is a personalized exploration of the mind and spirit.

    "I've gotten lots of candidates from charter school networks who want to come teach here," Gonzalez said, "because they believe 'We need this conversation.' That is such a needed conversation, but public schools won't touch it, because there's a sense of the religious or spiritual." Charter schools are publicly funded.

    Street people outside, some mentally ill, some drug addicts, try at times to get through the doors. "It certainly surrounds the school but, thankfully, never gets inside," Gonzalez said. The precinct stands ready to help with the hard cases.

    Reproducing De La Salle Academy would be a tall order. Gonzalez envisions consortiums of schools sharing values and best practices. "Just institutionalizing all into one umbrella would, I think, rob them of their magic and their cultures."

    The educational needs that schools like De La Salle Academy fill are enormous. There has to be a way to grow this model.

    Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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