Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip, Day 6: Battle of Gettysburg for Inner-City School Reform

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Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

John Dilulio, left, and Wilson Goode speak inside Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School in southwest Philadelphia, during Joe Klein's annual road trip June 6, 2012.

Philadelphia, Pa

John DiIulio is one of my heroes. He is a major league academic, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, co-author with the late James Q. Wilson of American Government, an essential college text. And like the brilliant Wilson, he has been a major source of creative thinking on urban policy for the past 20 years, in the most compassionate and thoughtful way. He is a life-long, pro-life Democrat–a loyal son of South Philly, the sort of working-class white ethnic guy that Democrats are losing in droves. He is a humble man of faith, sometimes ridiculously humble, given his talents. Both he and his wife Rosalie spend more than a little of their time teaching and working in the Catholic church’s inner-city parochial schools, which are populated almost entirely by non-catholic African American kids; he was also behind major efforts to set up mentoring programs for the children of prisoners and after-school reading programs, run out of the local black churches. He was George W. Bush‘s first director of Faith-Based and Social Policy, and left that job in the most honorable way possible: noisily, outraged by Karl Rove‘s efforts to turn the office into a political operation, rather than concentrating on the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush so eloquently described.

So there ain’t any way I drive through Philly without stopping in to visit Brother John (which is how he signs his emails).

Today, DiIulio had a new story to tell me–and he did it by introducing me to one of his heroes, former mayor and Reverend Dr. Wilson Goode, who has spent the twenty years since he left office working in the community. He is, among many other things, the director of Amachi, a national mentoring program for children of prisoners that has matched caring adults with more than 300,000 needy kids over the last 10 years.

DiIulio’s story is this: his beloved inner-city Catholic schools are closing. Even the wildly successful ones, like the Gesu School in North Philly–(caveat lector: along with Tim Russert and William Bennett, I appeared on a panel at a Gesu fundraising event in 1997)–are having trouble making their annual budgets. Sadly for DiIulio, who is passionate about the benefits of religious education for disadvantaged youth, the best case scenario for these schools is that they close down and are reopened as charter schools. In the best of circumstances, the charter schools are loosely, or not so loosely, affiliated with local black churches. “But it’s not enough to have a charter school, even a really good charter school,” DiIulio told me. “You need to have a context. You need to have mentoring programs, especially for kids who’ve been abandoned by their parents. You need to have all the social programs that these churches provide, and the moral anchor of the church itself, to prevent these neighborhoods from imploding.”

When I first met DiIulio in 1997, he was trying to do a disciplined, academic study of the positive impact of strong black churches on inner city communities–the so-called “halo” effect. No one had ever studied it before. “I wanted to be very careful because this was something new and I was very enthusiastic. I didn’t want to overstate the case,” he told me today. “Turned out I was so cautious that I was wrong. My model only allowed the churches credit for up to five social programs. Many of the churches were running more than that. And we understated the effect of these institutions on crime prevention. We now have calculated that they’re worth, on average, the crime prevention equivalent to 2 and 1/2 mobile police units, just by being there, a moral presence that the bad guys don’t want to go near. It turns out that the halo effect is four times greater than we reported.”

Enter Wilson Goode. He’s been a member of, and sometime preacher at, the First Baptist Church of Paschall for 58 years. Paschall is an historic black neighborhood in southwest Philly, going back to the Civil War. And it was a total mess six years ago, when First Baptist bought the local Catholic church for $4 million. (DiIulio knew and feared St. Clemens as a boy; he ¬†grew up nearby and attended the rival St. Barnabas church and school). Goode will not take any credit for what has happened since 2006, but it is fair to assume that he had a lot to deal with it–in 2007, an independent charter school, the Southwest Philadelphia Leadership Academy, was opened in the old St. Clemens parochial school, and it now has 420 students. The old St. Clemens nunnery became a home for abused and abandoned boys, aged 13-18. The old public housing project–one of the most dangerous and drug-infested in the city (for fans of The Wire, it looked like the low-rise projects in the opening credits of that great show)–was torn down and replaced with attractive townhouses and a new community center.

“It’s a miracle,” said DiIulio, tooting Goode’s horn as the former mayor showed us around. Though not a total miracle: “You see down there?” Rev. Goode said, pointing down the street to an alley. “We’ve got drugs being sold there and prostitutes use that area to take their customers.” And Goode was concerned about the sustainability of his congregation’s success. Black churches were headed down the same path as their Roman Catholic predecessors: “Our congregations are hollowed out. The men are gone. A lot of them are in prison. The young people aren’t joining. The congregations tend to be 80% older women. About 70% of them are without men.”

And the federal funding that sustained programs like Amachi–$150 million from the George W. Bush Administration–is drying up: Republicans didn’t like spending that money in the first place; Democrats aren’t too keen on sustaining a “Bush” program. Goode has replaced much of the money, with grants from private sources and the Obama Department of Justice, but he has political influence and experience that few inner city ministries can replicate.

There has been a major effort in Philadelphia to reform the public schools, improve the parochial schools, make sure that the charter schools have effective leadership and develop citywide mentoring and after-school reading programs, many of them faith-based–the comprehensive care that these children, 70% born out of wedlock, need for the schools to be successful. “This is it,” DiIulio said. “This city is doing absolutely everything it can, but it’s an uphill climb and a very small window of opportunity–maybe two 0r three years to make it work. If it doesn’t work, these neighborhoods implode. What you’re looking at here is the Battle of Gettysburg for inner city school reform.”

DiIulio is intent on winning that battle. As his friend, I’m afraid that if he doesn’t win, he’ll work himself to death trying–and that would be an incalculable loss not only to the children of Philadelphia, but to the soul of our nation.