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Catholic schools key to inner cities

  • William Bole, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • August 06 2014
CNS photo/Mike Crupi

New book by Notre Dame professors shows how important parish schools are to their neighborhoods

In September, students will return to the classrooms of nearly 6,600 Catholic elementary and high schools nationwide. These schools remain a distinct presence in the United States — though a smaller one than in the past, especially in urban neighborhoods.

Since 1990, more than 2,000 Catholic schools have been shuttered, mostly in cities and older suburbs. Reasons abound, including demographics (middle-class Catholic families decamping to new suburbs), costs (including salaries for lay teachers who replaced vowed religious), and competition (notably from tuition-free charter schools).

There are, however, bright spots, including a slightly upward trend in Catholic-school enrollments overall.

By all accounts, the loss of an inner-city Catholic school is a blow to its disadvantaged students. But is there more to this story? What happens to the neighborhood — the urban fabric — when the bells stop ringing once and for all?

That question is probed in a groundbreaking new book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community” (University of Chicago Press, $45), by Notre Dame law professors Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, both of whom also work with Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, or ACE. Garnett, ACE’s policy coordinator, spoke with Our Sunday Visitor.

Our Sunday Visitor: What made you look into this connection between urban vitality and Catholic schools?

Nicole Stelle Garnett: It was a confluence of interests and Providence. Margaret Brinig and I are both interested in the concept of social capital — what makes communities work. Financial capital is what makes economies work. With social capital, the question is: What are the social and community inputs that allow for smooth and functioning communities?

Both of us are also adult converts. We’ve sent our kids to Catholic K-8 schools (my kids are still in parish and diocesan schools). Both of us came to Catholic K-8 education with fresh eyes. I think it gave us a unique perspective on Catholic education, an appreciation of how special it was, because we didn’t experience it growing up.

But the primary catalyst was a conference in Washington in 2007. I went there with friends and colleagues from the Alliance for Catholic Education. The topic was the crisis of faith-based schools leaving urban communities and how important these schools are to poor kids. Community activists were there, and as I listened in the hallways, I kept overhearing them say: When the schools close, the neighborhood goes downhill.

Afterward, I started talking with (Brinig) about this intuitively appealing claim — that these schools are not just important educational institutions but important community institutions as well, and that neighborhoods, not just members of the Catholic school community, suffer when the schools close.

There’s much research on the effectiveness of Catholic schools as educational institutions. A key finding is that these schools work so well because they’re effective communities. There’s a great deal of social capital in the school community. Parents, teachers and students trust each other and hold each other to high expectations. So the question was: Do Catholic schools also generate community in urban neighborhoods? And how can we test this hypothesis?

Our book is primarily about Chicago, although we replicate the study in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. We found survey data about how neighbors feel toward one another, how much they trust one another, how much they think the neighbors would intervene if something goes wrong in the neighborhood.

Then we analyzed crime data. (Brinig) mapped every Catholic school that opened and closed in those cities and figured out what police beat they were in. We used this data to measure the effect of Catholic schools on crime.

The bottom line is that the community activists in the hallways were right: Catholic schools appear to be very effective community institutions. They appear to suppress crime and increase social capital. They increase trust and social cohesion. And the neighborhood that loses its Catholic school becomes more dangerous, more disorderly and less socially cohesive, at least in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Just one example: A police beat in Chicago with an open Catholic school — between 1999 and 2004 — had about 30 percent less serious crime than a police beat without a Catholic school. By the same token, at a time when crime was declining everywhere in Chicago, it declined at a much slower rate in police beats that had lost a Catholic school. That’s controlling for demographics such as race, poverty and unemployment. It’s a very significant effect.

Whatever work these schools are doing, they’re doing it well. And when they disappear, the neighborhood suffers. Interestingly, we didn’t see the same effects in Los Angeles.

OSV: Is that because L.A. communities were not as cohesive in the first place?

Garnett: That’s one hypothesis. Los Angeles has some of the lowest levels of social capital in the nation.

Another reason might be that the schools in Philadelphia and Chicago were the heart of Catholic ethnic communities. They arose organically from parishes and neighborhoods. They were the center of the community for many years and decades. That was more rarely the case in Los Angeles. It’s just a newer city. But we do suspect that if we were to replicate this study in New York City and other major urban centers, we’d see the same pattern as in Chicago and Philadelphia.

OSV: So the cohesiveness of the schools spills over into the neighborhood?

Garnett: We don’t know. We do have some hypotheses.

The simplest might be that Catholic schools are good community institutions because they’re schools. If so, we might expect other schools to have similar effects. We did compare the effects of Catholic schools to charter schools. We found that charter schools in Chicago did not appear to have the same positive effect as Catholic schools. There just wasn’t any statistically significant effect one way or another.

We don’t rule out the possibility that other kinds of schools are important to communities, but we think Catholic schools are doing something unique. That may have to do with what we call the secret sauce of Catholic schools — an intentional effort to combine education, faith and community.

As I mentioned, research suggests that Catholic schools are effective communities, and that’s what makes them effective schools. We suspect that the schools may have what economists call “positive externalities.”

The effects of the school community are spilling out into the neighborhood. They’re reaching people who aren’t part of the school community — for example, when students and parents volunteer in the neighborhood because they’ve learned that Christian service is important.

Also, schools that closed were beacons of hope in some pretty depressed communities. They were some of the most effective social institutions in those neighborhoods. The Church was saying to the community, by virtue of educating these children so well: Look, we believe in you, we trust you, we think there’s good that could be done here. That fact alone sends a powerful message. Then the school closes and it sends the opposite message.

OSV: Are Catholic schools fading from the urban landscape?

Garnett: There’s no question that the urban Catholic footprint has dramatically constricted. Just for example, the Archdiocese of Chicago has closed over 140 schools since 1984. In 1965, the archdiocese educated 300,000 students, and by 2013 that was reduced to 84,000. Still, the archdiocese remains the nation’s largest Catholic school system.

For sure, there’s a sense of crisis. We can’t lose sight of that. It’s real. But I do think there are signs of hope. Enrollment is up in some dioceses, including most recently the Archdiocese of Chicago. Twenty states and the District of Columbia now have parental choice programs [school vouchers, for example] that include private and parochial schools. When public funds become available, many parents, especially Latino parents, choose Catholic schools for their kids.

OSV: What could be done?

Garnett: Public policy plays an important role. Look at the parental choice programs. Where those programs are available, Catholic schools are generally increasing in enrollment and they’re not closing.

But there’s much the Church can do to increase the viability and vibrancy of Catholic schools.

For one thing, we could recruit more Latino families. Nearly 70 percent of practicing Catholics under 35 are Latino, but only 3 percent of Latino children attend a Catholic school. Recruiting them to fill empty seats would go a long way to stemming the tide of Catholic school closures. And there’s significant evidence that Latino kids benefit greatly from a Catholic education.

In addition, bishops and Catholic school superintendents, working with pastors and principals, can help form effective leaders for Catholic schools. They can make sure those leaders are placed in Catholic schools where they’re needed and support them once they get there.

The fact is, with a strong principal and supportive pastor, the poorest schools in the poorest neighborhoods can make it. We were able to identify that if the parish has a pastor, as opposed to a pastoral administrator, the school is far more likely to stay open. Leadership matters. It matters a lot. It’s hard to quantify, but if you have a strong pastor and principal, the school can survive — and thrive.


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