From .................. NEWSWEEK

JANUARY 20, 1997

page 68


A lesson learned at St. Luke:

what is needed is not monetary gifts but social intercourse


BEFORE THE BIG DECEMBER DANCE AT ST. LUKE HIGH school in Jersey City, N.J., Sister Peter, a woman of abundant faith but few illusions, advised newcomers to the staff, "Their dancing might get a little explicit, but there is nothing we can do about it until it resembles foreplay. Then stop it." The 10th graders in Mark Gerson's five American history classes knew what would happen if they did things he wanted to stop. They would "get a Frank." They would be given after-school detention, during which they would have to listen to recordings by Gerson's hero from nearby Hobeken, Frank Sinatra.

Gerson, then 22 and fresh from Williams College, had grown up 20 miles from Jersey City, in, effectively, another country affluent Short Hills. He had wanted to spend the 1994-95 academic year teaching in an inner-city public school before going on to Yale Law School. However, he could not get so much as an interview from the sclerotic public system. (Jersey City has the nation's highest percentage of public school teachers who send their children to private or parochial schools.) So Gerson, who is Jewish, applied to Catholic schools.

There are more non-Catholics than clergy teaching in Catholic schools nationwide, and St. Luke hired him for $15,600. Now comes his memoir of that year, "In the Classroom: Dispatches From an Inner-City School That Works," a high-spirited and moving antidote to the plague of education fads. What works is not Ebonics, or history taught as self-esteem therapy for "victims." What works is discipline, mutual respect, moral seriousness, high standards and no condescension dressed up as compassion.

Jamal: "I ain't care about no SATs, Mr. Gerson. They are culturally biased."

Gerson: "Yes, Jamal, they are biased, biased against people who don't study."

Jersey City, hard by Ellis Island, is the nation's most ethnically diverse city. St. Luke's 430 students came from 42 countries. More than half their families were on welfare. Gerson decided that what his students needed most was standard English. 'We be going' was unacceptable. So were double negatives and slang phrases such as "Word is bon" and "Word up" (both meaning "That's the truth!"). But he could not connect with his students without coming to terms with their experience of America. What, he asked, do you find interesting in your life? A girl answered, "Who is having sex with who, who shot who, crimes."

When a student asked classmates, "How many of you have tipped the forty?" most raised their hands. Gerson was puzzled. The student explained, "It happens when someone you know real well is killed. You go to the spot where they was killed with a 40 ounce beer. You spill some of it on the spot and you drink some. You spill some and you drink some. You ain't ever did that?" Short Hills teens do not "tip the forty." Gerson found that St. Luke students were shaped by "intimate contact with premature, violent death ..... a normal thread in the fabric of inner-city life." However, his students could be mordantly funny about the social chasm between Short Hills and Jersey City, as when a student said: "Glee club sings too loud, and the Short Hills police are all over them. But if I got a problem here, I gonna cap the bastard. Or else he gonna cap me."

Most St. Luke students are not Catholic, and religious orthodoxy at St. Luke is restricted to posters such as GOD RULES: ALWAYS HAS, ALWAYS WILL! END OF DISCUSSION! ! and required attendance at periodic masses. But Gerson noted a kind of piety by osmosis: "Every one of the best classes I taught all year came after a mass." The parents who scraped together tuition to get their children into St. Luke were motivated by the moral consensus of the school's staff. As a result, the parents backed the staff when the children were disciplined.

A durable myth of American education, nurtured by the public education lobby, is that financing is the best predictor of a school's performance: increase monetary inputs and you will increase cognitive outputs. Jersey City spends about $10,000 per public school pupil, with miserable results, as measured by such indices as truancy, graduation rates and post-secondary education attainment. St Luke spends about a third as much, with much better results. The year Gerson was there it mobilized the entire school community for a fund-raising party that netted the gratifying, even astonishing sum of $13,420, enough for a down payment and a few subsequent payments on a van. Because there was a community to mobilize.

Gerson's epiphany was that the word "community" denotes something about St. Luke that is entirely different than "when people have a 'right' to be a member of a 'community' by virtue of residing in a particular location or sending a check to the proper authority." A federal bureaucrat, defending her department's $14 billion budget, says, "By having a Department of Education you're saying the kids are number one, and there's someone in Washington who's their friend, who's pulling for them." Gerson responds that the kids at St. Luke have never heard of that department and hardly need a stranger in Washington declaring herself their "friend" and them "number one." He adds: "A great tragedy of the modern welfare state has been in inculcating the belief that one can discharge his social responsibility by sending a big check to the tax man every April 15 ...... It is much simpler to send money than to spend time ..... What is needed is not monetary gifts but social intercourse."

The concrete of bureaucratized compassion that the welfare state has poured over society is cracking, and through the cracks are coming, like crocuses after winter, small sprouts of successes, like Gerson's and St. Luke's. Ella Fitzgerald, one of the "big four" (with Sinatra, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington) Gerson recommended to his rap-addicted students, once sang, "I've seen the charm of Jersey City, but first let me remark, I've seen it from the Empire State solarium." Gerson's report from the ground is both charming and heartening.