Opinion | The Closing of This School Is Bad News for America

The area on the far western side of Manhattan now known as West Chelsea was once a working-class neighborhood of industrial docklands. Today it is better known for its art galleries and luxury apartments, but its past can still be glimpsed, sometimes literally.

On the High Line, the elevated park that has come to define the neighborhood, there is a place just north of West 21st Street where the walkway adjoins an old brick building with stained-glass windows. If you listen carefully, at the right times, you can hear the voices of children coming from a courtyard below. They belong to students at Guardian Angel School, a small private school founded in 1911 that serves students from pre-K through eighth grade. Its motto is “educational excellence in the heart of Chelsea.”

The school is a link not just to Chelsea’s history but also to the nation’s, for Guardian Angel occupies a vanishing niche in today’s America: the genuine middle — neither outlandishly rich nor economically desperate. It is a school that primarily serves middle-class and poorer families looking for a better alternative to public schools. Research has shown that, especially for Black and Hispanic students, these schools can do a better job than some public schools when it comes to graduation rates, college attendance and future earnings.

In an age of persistent and often painful inequality, the need for institutions like Guardian Angel has never been greater. That is why the recent decision to close the school at the end of the current school year is so untimely and tragic — and why it holds such an urgent lesson for donors and philanthropists looking for the most effective ways to help American society.

In New York City, private schools have grown shockingly expensive. At a for-profit school not far from Guardian Angel called Avenues New York, the tuition is more than $65,000 a year. Guardian Angel, overseen by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, charges about $5,750 a year, with discounts for larger families and scholarships for poor students. It has a principal and 11 full-time teachers who are invariably described as “committed.” My daughter, an alumna, can attest to that.

Guardian Angel does not have all the trappings associated with fancy private schools. There is no Mandarin immersion program, no media lab, no swimming pool. What it does offer, according to Priscilla Serrano, a graduate of the class of 1993, whose son is enrolled in first grade, is an educational environment that is safe and small, academically demanding and, above all, “really looking out for the students.”

Ms. Serrano’s parents, immigrants from Ecuador, raised their family in Chelsea’s housing projects and sought a smaller and more structured learning environment than the local public school provided. A graduate of New York University who now works as a marketing executive, Ms. Serrano credits Guardian Angel for providing the educational foundation that led her and her siblings to college and good jobs.

Plenty of New York public schools serve their students well, but some do not. There needs to be an option for motivated parents who want a better education for their children but who can’t afford astronomical tuitions or master the arcane testing systems that determine who can go to New York’s elite public schools. An educational system meant to build a nation of economic equals must do more than pick a few geniuses out of poverty and call it a day.

The closing of Guardian Angel is a local story, but like many New York stories it’s an extreme version of a national predicament. America has always valorized education as the great economic equalizer: Schools are the tools we use to build and sustain a thriving middle class. And we have, to our credit, built some of the greatest educational institutions on earth. But we’ve come to neglect the less prestigious institutions that offer affordable and accessible avenues to economic security. That’s why saving and improving schools like Guardian Angel should be a top priority.

The news of Guardian Angel’s closing, announced in February by the Archdiocese of New York, came as a surprise to parents. In a letter, Michael Deegan, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, gave two reasons for the decision. First, that the Covid pandemic and changing demographics had diminished enrollment. Second, that the school was now facing a projected annual deficit of about $550,000. “The factors leading to the closure of Guardian Angel,” he concluded, “are beyond anyone’s control.”

Might Guardian Angel still be saved? Over the past few months, parents and alumni like Ms. Serrano sought to meet with archdiocese officials to propose a fund-raising campaign. In his letter, Mr. Deegan did not respond to requests to meet with them, noting instead that “we simply cannot fund-raise out of this situation.” But why not? The projected deficit of $550,000 — about $3,000 per student — is not a small number, but in the broader context it is a pittance, especially given the economic value of good teachers and a good education over a student’s lifetime. (I reached out to Mr. Deegan for more detail but his office referred me back to the letter he sent to parents.)

I don’t want to suggest that there are easy answers for Guardian Angel — or for other affordable private religious schools. The Archdiocese of New York, like Catholic institutions across the country, is struggling financially; Guardian Angel is one of 12 schools it is closing this year. But the High Line, which the school abuts, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund its innovative landscaping and its cultural programs. A little farther north, in Hell’s Kitchen, the Irish Arts Center, which celebrates one of the immigrant populations that originally attended Guardian Angel, recently raised $60 million. My employer, Columbia University, raised more than $5 billion during its last capital campaign.

Fund-raising is not a zero-sum game and donors are not wrong to support well-funded institutions like Columbia, but schools like Guardian Angel need the money more. American’s elite educational establishments are already strong. We need to provide support where we are weak: the institutions that give working- and middle-class people a step up to a more economically secure existence. Some of those institutions are public schools, some private, some religious, some not. What matters is the economic role they play.

There’s an affecting documentary from 2015 called “Class Divide” that explores hyper-gentrification in Chelsea. It features a Guardian Angel student named Rosa De Santiago, who was eight at the time. She is the kind of kid who embodies New York at its best — energetic and ambitious, eager to make it in life. She aspired to make it to Columbia University, but she knew she faced obstacles. “I hate money,” she says in the movie. “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate money.” She adds, “Money was made by the Devil, I think, because God didn’t say, ‘Oh, you have to pay for this.’”

Tim Wu (@superwuster) is a law professor at Columbia and the author, most recently, of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”

Source photograph by Mark Perlstein/Getty Images.

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