How to Reform Education in Ohio: A Symposium

Charles Byrne

December 1, 1997

St. Adalbert School, in the heart of inner city Cleveland, is a very unusual school. The school was founded by The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians and, while the order no longer runs the school, this school survives as a lasting testament to their work. Lydia Harris is the amazing woman who, for the last 12 years, has worked as principal of St. Adalbert and, for the 26 years prior to that, worked as a teacher there.

Lydia is a black woman, born and raised in New Orleans where she later graduated from Loyola University. She is determined in and devoted to her work. While she tried to retire last summer, she came back to the school when her replacement did not work out.

What makes St. Adalbert so unusual? For one thing, this school of 400 K-8th grade students operates on a budget of $565,000 as compared to the $3,000,000 budget of a comparably sized public funded school. But the most impressive numbers coming out of St. Adalbert’s are the zeros: ZERO drugs, ZERO pregnancies, ZERO gangs, ZERO violence, ZERO guards, and ZERO metal detectors. There is also ZERO toleration for truancy.

Lydia Harris believes in solid core curriculum, minimal bureaucracy, and a disciplined and structured environment for the children. For example, the full-time Kindergarten (in place since 1922) instructs students in a comprehensive phonics program and they are reading by year’s end. (This as our President hopes against hope to have all children reading by the third grade!) Further, all parents or guardians are given a personal “walk- thru” from Lydia of the guidelines in the school handbook. They know, in advance, what is expected of them and their children. Uniforms are in place, of course. It almost goes without saying that most parents DO attend the monthly PTU meetings. Lydia runs a tight ship, and it works!

Detractors of alternative schools allege that schools like St. Adalbert can produce such impressive results because, as a private school, they are already starting out with the “cream of the crop.” This charge rings hollow at St. Adalbert. Lydia Harris takes in the crack babies, kids with D’s and F’s at other schools, students with known behavioral problems, and other students the public-funded school system has failed. She accomplishes all of that with a near ZERO percent (.04%) expulsion rate!

But there is more. 72% of the students come from families below the poverty line, but 92% go on to post-secondary education. The rest are employed.

This incredible accomplishment is not reached without much struggle. Tuition at St. Adalbert is $975 per year, but the actual costs per student are more than double the tuition. The Diocese and private individuals subsidize the school, but there are also hidden costs. For example, the 70 students who participate in the city’s voucher program often require even more subsidies. Vouchers will cover 90% of the costs for tuition up to $2250, but parents still have to pay 10%. Many of these parents cannot afford even that amount. Since schools cannot charge more than the cost of tuition to the voucher program, St. Adalbert gets an average of $875 from the kids on vouchers. Still, against all these odds, Lydia Harris has managed to produce these remarkable results.

Lydia Harris has done what every successful military man or organization does: she has built a community. She has done this by insisting on the highest standards and never wavering. It’s called LEADERSHIP, and Lydia Harris has it in abundance. At St. Adalbert, faculty, students, parents and alumni gather in support of a common goal: EXCELLENCE and DEVOTION. This Catholic school where the motto is “Christ is the Center,” has an enrollment that is 80% non-Catholic. Still, ALL students participate in liturgy services and ALL students study religion.

Clearly, St. Adalbert is a place where the community has devoted significant energies to see it succeed and those energies have been rewarded. If this school, in the midst of every obstacle, can overcome all and produce these results, how can we—in good conscience—expect or produce less in ours?

Charles Byrne is a member of the State Board of Education.