A Beacon of Hope

It's a gorgeous 74-degree afternoon here in sunny Philadelphia. I'm on a fact-finding trip with 15 of my compadres in the nationwide school-choice movement.

This morning we visited the Gesu School, an inner-city Catholic school in a depressed area of north Philadelphia. The school serves more than 400 students, all black, in grades pre-K through 8. A full 72 percent of the students live in single-parent households. School president Chris Beck told us many of the students' families are "amazingly dysfunctional."

Entering the school, the first thing I noticed was a painting of a black Messiah hanging on the cross. The school day opened with announcements over the intercom. "Good morning, Gesu friends," a little boy (he sounded about like a first-grader) announced. "Today is Tuesday, May 22, 2007. May is the month of Mary, our mother in heaven."

A sign outside Room 15, a third-floor classroom, reads: "Peace be in my school ... Peace be in my neighborhood." It's not perfunctory. Chris told us that "one block away they're selling drugs on the corner."

In gym class, which is held on the school rooftop overlooking downtown Philadelphia, little girls were jumping rope, just like my daughters jump rope on a leafy suburban cul-de-sac in Edmond. The difference is that for these Gesu students, this is the only time they can play. At home they can't go outside and play. It's too dangerous. One sixth-grader told her teacher she hears gunshots every night. Another student confided to a teacher, "I'm scared to walk from school to my house."

And yet, amid all this dysfunction, in a world of poverty and violence and drug abuse and broken homes, the Gesu school -- marked by love and discipline and values and academic rigor -- succeeds. More than 95 percent of Gesu graduates go on to earn their high-school diplomas, most from competitive high schools.

Gesu's cost per student is $5,400 -- about half the cost of Philly's public schools -- but the school only charges $2,000 per student. Even so, many parents wouldn't be able to afford Gesu without the help of Pennsylvania's school-choice tax credit.

I really don't have a lot of sympathy for our lavishly funded, under-performing public schools. They are without excuse. It's time for our politicians to enact more school-choice measures, giving all parents -- not just the rich -- the ability to choose the safest and best schools for their children.

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