How the Christian Brothers Came to Start Two Charter Schools in Chicago

That’s the subtitle of my new story in Education Next, about an experiment to take a successful religious school education model to the public sector.

Let the walls come tumbling down!

Not so fast.  I have been writing about Catholic schools for a while – see my 2007 Ed Next story Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?, Fordham’s 2008 report, Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools? , and in Flypaper – and had not encountered anything quite like what these education reformers were attempting in the Windy City. These are not Catholic schools — well, not in the traditional sense.

It started almost ten years ago when Arne Duncan, then the head of Chicago Public Schools, asked the famed, 320-year-old Catholic order, which operates thousands of schools in 80 different countries, including dozens in the U.S., to start a charter school.  Duncan had visited the Brothers’ two San Miguel middle schools, which the order operated on the city’s poor Westside, and said, “We can do this.”

How they did it is a fascinating tale of grit and determination, about a committed group of Catholics who gave up their icons, statues, prayers, and catechism, ran a gauntlet of church/state hurdles, partnered with a Baptist congregation in one location and weathered an angry black community in another location – and are now educating hundreds of Chicago’s poorest public school children.

Read the story, listen to the podcast:  here.  Catholics, cover your eyes – but remember the oft-quoted comment by Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C.: “We don’t educate these children because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”  Amen.

–Peter Meyer

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