Catholic student sponsorships worth an LI try

A file photo of a classroom. A file photo of a classroom. Photo Credit: iStock

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Ellis Henican Newsday columnist Ellis Henican

Henican is a columnist for Newsday. He also is a political analyst at the Fox News Channel and ...

Catholic schools with rows of desks sitting empty. Kids with all the desire, but not the tuition money to attend.

Isn't there some way to bridge this gap?

As another school year ends, education officials at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre are wrestling with the usual, challenging math -- and I don't mean algebra II or geometry.

Their schools, a phenomenal ladder up for generations of elementary and high school students, live these days in a state of perpetual squeeze. Fewer outside subsidies. Less cheap labor from the nuns. Toss in the usual challenges of educating modern children, and it's a wonder Long Island's parochial schools are still as strong as they are.

But one New York City-based charity has established a powerfully direct program that's been helping to fill empty classrooms and to educate lower-income boys and girls in the boroughs. Called SSP, for Students Sponsored Partners, it's really worth a trial run here.

The program's been around since the mid-1980s, started by Wall Streeter Peter Flanigan. The concept is as potent as it is simple. A donor agrees to sponsor a student through four years of Catholic high school, kicking in $4,100 of the annual $5,000 tuition (tax deductible) and promises to stay engaged as a one-on-one mentor.

"We ask the families to cover the other $900," says Jim Healy, a former Credit Suisse exec who is now the group's chairman. "We want everyone to have skin in the game."

There is hardly any bureaucracy, relatively little administrative cost and a high premium on personal involvement.

"These young people need to know that someone is invested in their success, and I don't just mean financially," Healy says. "A lot of these students have not had great role models in their lives."

SSP focuses on middle-of-the-pack students, reasoning that the highly gifted already have opportunities and the ones at the bottom may not have the foundation to survive in parochial school.

"The results have been phenomenal," Healy says. "We're seeing a high-school graduation of 85 to 90 percent, up from 35 to 40 percent in their old schools."

Why couldn't this work on Long Island? We have some people with money, some families without and some great Catholic schools that could use some more tuition-paying students.

"The only limiting factor," Healy said, "is finding sponsors. There is no shortage of schools and no shortage of kids."

PAROCHIAL PRIMER

1. Morning assembly

2. May crowning

3. First Friday

4. Yes, Sister.

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