Bedford Park — Sariba Levin is a 12th grader in the Bronx. Until last year, she attended the Academy of Mount Saint Ursula High School, an all-girls Roman Catholic school on Bedford Park Boulevard in the Bronx. Sariba had been in parochial school since kindergarten, but in 2009, Sariba's mom fell behind in her tuition payments, and Sariba was asked to leave St. Ursula's for public school – without an academic transcript or any official record of her grades and Regents exams.

When she arrived at The Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, a secondary school on East 228th Street in the Bronx, Sariba needed her grades to take advanced classes and to begin to apply to college (her dream is to attend Howard University). But without her transcript, her record had gaps that could not be explained away. There was no way to be certain Sariba had taken the required classes and Regents exams: Their absence meant that she would not graduate on time, or be able to apply for college.

Privately funded schools, whether parochial schools or non-sectarian private schools, are a fact of life in New York City, where one in seven students attends such an institution.

For many poor and immigrant families, a parochial school – most often, Catholic school – seems the most reliable choice for a rigorous education. In Manhattan and the Bronx, 94 percent of Catholic-school students are black or Hispanic, according to the Inner City Scholarship Foundation; two-thirds are from households with incomes below federal poverty guidelines.

Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association in Arlington, Va., attributes church schools' popularity among low-income families to the schools' "high level of academic achievement, moral values, and high graduation rates," noting "outstanding successes recorded by students of low-income families and students from the inner city."

No matter what kind of non-public school families choose, however, the relationship between student and school is governed by a contract. And that contract typically permits a school to withhold student records if financial accounts are in arrears.

"It's like hiring a plumber," Karl Friedman of the New York State Education Department told City Limits. "It's a contract for a service with a provider. Records are collateral to accept the payment."

This limbo is legal

Students in public schools can access their records as outlined in the Family Education Rights Protection Act, or FERPA, because the schools receive public funding, according to Nelson Mar, Senior Staff Attorney and Education Law Specialist at Legal Services NYC–Bronx, which provides free legal counsel to low-income people. But "private schools are not governed by much of state regulations or education law."

Because private schools may hold student records as collateral against future payment, children wind up in a kind of educational limbo.

"It is a little striking, for a school that is founded on principles of faith, that they take such a hard line with tuition," Mar says. Acknowledging that state law and individual contracts make the arrangement legally legitimate, Mar adds: "All of those macro factors don't, at the end of the day, make the child whole."

Kathy Shea, Executive Director of the Parents' League, a Manhattan-based organization affiliated with the city's independent (non-parochial) schools, says that the League hears from parents in need of midyear financial aid, especially when a job loss or financial changes threaten a child's enrollment. But, she told City Limits, she has not heard of schools holding back transcripts, even when a student leaves or is invited to leave.

Even though the state requires high school students to pass Regents exams ahead of graduation, they do not maintain individual student records, relying instead on reporting from the schools. New York City does not track or analyze how many students come into the public schools from parochial or independent private schools.

The absence of government data makes quantifying how many families share Sariba's situation is difficult: Schools are not permitted to release individual student information and the two archdioceses that run schools in the city will not release school-level data.

But staffers at the State Education Department say the problem is ubiquitous. "We get calls every day," Friedman says, "but there's nothing we can do." Sariba wrote a letter to State Education Commissioner David Steiner, asking for help resolving her situation; she never received a reply.

Families struggle. So do schools.

Friedman says each student and each family must strive to resolve the situation on their own. "The only way to overcome it is to get a lawyer and go to court." But families that can't afford tuition payments are unlikely to be able to pay for legal help.

New York's Catholic schools continue to face their own profound financial challenges: Enrollment has dropped by nearly 40,000 students since 2005, and dozens of schools are marked for closure every year. Efforts to consolidate school communities are underway in the face of building closures, according to Dr. Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York. Also underway are fundamental strategic planning initiatives to revamp how schools are managed and how moneys are raised.

Because 44 percent of New York's private-school students attend Catholic schools, their ongoing enrollment changes are simply the most visible. But enrollment has dropped at other parochial networks, including schools run by the Lutheran church, the Episcopalian church and the Seventh-Day Adventists, for example. (Mennonite and Presbyterian schools, which together enroll about 2,000 students, are holding steady, and enrollment has grown at Jewish schools.)

Some of the falloff in parochial school enrollment could be a legacy of the Catholic church's child abuse scandal. It also reflects demographic shifts in where Catholics live in the metropolitan area, and competition from other faiths and other schools, like charter schools. But for many families, the root cause for leaving parochial schools is money. Families find tuition bills of $5,000 to $7,000 simply too steep, especially as parochial schools, fighting to stay alive, pare back the financial aid they can offer.

"Enrollment certainly has declined," McNiff tells City Limits. "By and large, it is a financial challenge. It is a tremendous challenge for those families to be able to pay tuition. In the South Bronx, it is more financially challenging for us to make Catholic education affordable."

Catholic elementary schools are supported, at least in part, by the parishes where they are sited. Catholic high schools, however, are financially independent, separate from individual churches and from the two archdioceses that share New York City – one for the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island (and six upstate counties), the other for Brooklyn and Queens. Without significant institutional support, schools are responsible for their own economic health: They grant financial aid based on individual school criteria and have to make the difficult decisions to ask students to leave if finances are a persistent issue.   

"We are not abandoning our mission here at all," McNiff says. "We are trying to find solutions, so we can keep these families, any families that want to be in the schools. It's become more of a challenge but we're not wavering."

Local decisions, citywide concerns

The school Sariba attended is a typically thin-stretched Catholic high school: About a third of St Ursula's girls receive some form of financial aid, as do 29 percent of students in the Archdiocese of New York, which includes St Ursula's. Tuition at St. Ursula's is $6,600 a year, with $500 in general fees, a $100 registration fee and other expenses related to uniforms and school gear. While far less than the $30,000 tuition many secular private schools charge each year, even a 10-month payment plan works out to close to $700 a month. In Sariba's family, more pressing expenses – rent, groceries, utilities – took priority over school bills.

Representatives from St Ursula's declined to respond to multiple requests for information and clarification on Sariba's case. McNiff, the superintendent for the archdiocese, says: "I believe our schools are very compassionate working with families and the financial arrangements. But I do know that we do have examples where families refuse to pay tuition. Individual high schools make the decision to withhold records," McNiff adds: "They're the best ones to adjudicate the situation. They know the families, they know the children, they're the best ones to make the most prudent decisions."

Sariba's story may still have a happy ending: The family is working to resolve their debts and hopes that St Ursula's will release Sariba's transcript in time for graduation, this June. But her hopes of being able to attend college are "pretty much exhausted" now, according to guidance counselor Jashaun Sadler, as so many application deadlines and test dates have passed. And Sariba's dilemma is far from unique, Sadler told City Limits: "Sariba is only one of too many students whose academic goals are held hostage by institutions entrusted with their educational welfare."

One St. Ursula's staff member, who asked not to be identified because she was speaking without permission, said that other students were in situations comparable to Sariba's, with families unable to pay, and children unable to progress in other high school placements because they didn't have their official records.

Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, the staffer said, based on the child's academic record, behavior in school, attendance, and the family's financial history of timely or skipped payments.

According to the city's Department of Education, decisions by private and parochial schools to withhold education records is off-limits for DOE intervention. Public schools do their best to try to get whatever information they can, says spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenberg, but it's up to the former school to send the records once requested. If the private school declines the public school's request, the matter is left to the family.

"The reality is, it's a contract situation, governed by a tuition contract," says Mar, the legal services worker in the Bronx. "It's obviously unfortunate, because it leaves parents with very few options."