Feb 262013

jewel bush

As a graduate of Xavier University Preparatory School, I long dreamed that if I ever had a daughter she would attend “The Prep” like I did. This will likely never happen.

Last week, the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament, a Pennsylvania-based religious order, announced that my alma mater would close at the end of the school year. “The figures do not reflect that the future of the Prep will be financially sustainable,” stated a letter I received in the mail on Monday, February 25.

St. Katherine Drexel had the radical and revolutionary idea of educating Native American and black children back in 1915 when she founded Xavier Prep. For the past 98 years, Prep has upheld this legacy by serving as a co-ed school for many years and today as an all-girl high school. Almost a century later, high-quality education for children of color is still a radical, revolutionary concept.

Black students are more likely to attend high-poverty schools than their white peers and one-third of them drop out before graduation. Subsequently, they attend college at lower rates than any other racial group, according to the recently released “Building a Grad Nation” report, co-authored by Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar of dropout rates at Johns Hopkins University, and John Bridgeland, chief executive of Civic Enterprises, a public policy group in Washington, D.C.

At Prep, more than 95% of our graduates enrolled in post-secondary education and a third of each graduating class were awarded academic scholarships.

Black Catholic schools were an option for middle class families who want to provide religious grounding or secure high-quality schooling for their children, but they have all taken an enrollment hit from the “recession.” In fact, historically Black institutions were never really lucrative business ventures in the first place; a labor of love always. They were established by deep-seated beliefs that those on the margins of society — the disenfranchised — deserved an education despite their socioeconomic lot in life. Or race. The closing of these institutions can be linked to the loss of wealth in the Black community, the decline of good, middle class jobs; and the ever-changing post-Katrina New Orleans landscape.

Fueled by passion and panic, alumni and Prep supporters are now faced with the daunting task of crisis fundraising. By some estimates, it’s going to cost nearly $10 million to purchase the Magazine Street school that includes several properties on Dufossat Street. The timetable laid out is 30 days — a Hail Mary indeed.

Blessed Sacrament, why such short notice? Don’t students, alumni and the community deserve a real shot at saving a New Orleans legacy?

The Prep school grounds — prime Uptown New Orleans real estate — seem to be more valuable to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament than serving St. Katherine Drexel’s mission. My school’s legacy seems to be relegated to nothing more than a real estate acquisition. This is a slap in the face to every practicing Catholic, every person who attended Catholic School and to the entire black community.

But we should not be driven away. We must look to our historically black institutions as the first choice for the educational needs of our children and invest in meaningful ways. Alumni, get involved, not just during dire times, but all the time. Send your money and spend your time walking the hallways of our schools.

* * *

I long ago left the Catholic Church in soul and spirit, but when I became a mother it was only proper that I have my son christened Catholic – my mother and grandmother told me as much. I hadn’t been to services in nearly a decade — since I left my mother’s house — but I had befriended a Louisiana priest while reporting in Haiti and he agreed to christen my son. Our friendship continued for years through semi-frequent lunches at his favorite pizza buffet, openly discussing why I didn’t go to church and my outrage and disgust around the Catholic news of the day – the priest sex abuse scandal — sometimes in loud tones with flailing arms. He persisted in his hopes that I would eventually return to the faith and bring up my son in the church.

Ten years later, I haven’t returned to the church but I guess I upheld some type of loose promise I made to Father Todd by enrolling my son in Catholic School for pre-K, and he is still there today in the fourth grade. My decision wasn’t based solely on academics. For me, Catholic Schools are nurturing environments where students are instilled pride in ways impossible to quantify.

For me, it’s not about supporting Catholicism or the Catholic faith per se. There were many non-Catholic girls who attended Prep. It’s about preserving culture — black culture. Historically black institutions like Prep, St. Mary’s Academy and St. Augustine educate the underserved black girls and boys of New Orleans. Activism, civic engagement and cultural pride are as much a part of the curriculum as geometry and English.

The Prep experience helped mold me into the ambitious, independent woman I am today. We were encouraged to debate each other in classroom discussions and challenge our teachers’ ideas. Prep is where I learned about true sisterhood, competition, self-respect and extended community.

As many as 100,000 baptized Catholics in the U.S. drift away from Church each year, according to catholicscomehome.org. Blessed Sacrament sisters, you are making it harder for lapsed Catholics like me to come home.

jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper.  In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers.  She is currently communications coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 21LA. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis.

  3 Responses to “jewel bush: A Hail Mary for my alma mater”

  1. beautifully put

  2. Well said. I feel like too many decisions on churches and schools are now based on the real estate value of the properties.

  3. Did I miss the part where Ms. Jewel described her interest and support for the school before the announcement? How about the part where she described her current efforts on behalf of the school?

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