Lost Classroom, Lost Community


Catholic schools are in the midst of a decades-long struggle for survival that shows no signs of easing or ending.  At their peak enrollment in the 1960s, nearly 13,000 Catholic schools educated almost one-in-eight American students, but even then, the roots of the present crisis were in place.  The 19th century origin of parochial schools as an alternative to a public education system hostile to immigrant Catholics was no longer relevant.  Postwar working-class Catholic families were assimilating, leaving urban ethnic enclaves—and their historic parishes—for suburbia.  The resulting urban demographic shift, first towards poor, mostly Protestant African-Americans and later young, childless professionals, did little to fill parochial school desks. A decline in religious vocations, too, did little to keep schools affordable over time. Salaried lay teachers increasingly replaced members of religious orders dedicated to education. (Some progressives within these orders saw parish schools as a crutch to resist desegregation and abandoned religious education for other charisms.)  Finally, the scandal of clerical sexual abuse sowed rampant distrust of church institutions.

After fifty years of these challenges, roughly half of all Catholic schools have closed, and only one in twenty children attend a Catholic school.  The pace of closings has increased with this enrollment attrition and with competition from the recent rise of charter schools: Nationwide, more than 2,000 Catholic schools have closed since the year 2000.

Though arguments for policy reforms to halt this trend have typically focused on the tradition of solid Catholic education within parish communities, Notre Dame law professors Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett contribute an insightful new analysis in Lost Classroom, Lost Community. They argue that urban parochial schools as essential institutions for neighborhood civic life worthy of broader and more vigorous public support.

Brinig and Garnett’s central thesis is that urban Catholic schools are uniquely suited to build and grow social capital, not just among enrolled families or parishioners, but among all residents of the neighborhoods they serve.  Geographically-rooted parish schools are more likely to reinforce networks of students and their families who live nearby than are public schools, which often draw students from outside their surrounding neighborhoods.  In the language of Jane Jacobs, urban Catholic schools tend to be “eyes on the street,” part of a mix of uses within a community connecting neighbors who might not otherwise form bonds. Unlike public schools, they are intentional communities; they require the motivation of parents enrolling their children and participating in school activities and fundraising.  Their religious character reinforces social norms that promote good habits of civic life beyond classroom walls.  The typical practice of combining elementary and middle school grades under one roof fosters better behavior among adolescent students and gives younger students role models as they grow.

Brinig and Garnett suggest that the loss of this collective social capital from the closure of Catholic schools isolates neighbors and leads to greater perceptions of disorder and danger within communities.  Neighbors’ mounting fears of victimhood coupled with the loss of relationships that might address these concerns invite real disorder and crime. A neighborhood’s quality of life deteriorates.

To test their theory, Brinig and Garnett have conducted an extensive study of data from more than 200 schools and their surrounding neighborhoods in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the country’s largest Catholic school system.  Their research first examines internal reasons for school closings, independent of demographic factors like rising poverty and population decline that would affect the order and stability of neighborhoods in addition to schools.  Brinig and Garnett find that the most significant predictor of a school closing, more than socioeconomic or racial shifts,  is “irregular” parish leadership—the inability of a pastor to lead a parish either because of age, illness, withdrawal from the priesthood, or more tragically, accusations of sexual or substance abuse.  Conversely, parishes with more recently ordained or longer-serving pastors—particularly if they were ordained in the archdiocese—have greater likelihood of schools remaining open despite demographic challenges.  Brinig and Garnett suggest this is because these newer or strongly-rooted pastors may have, respectively, more energy to manage a school and a greater commitment to the success of their parish and archdiocese.

After exploring these internal reasons why some schools in declining neighborhoods close while others remain open, the researchers then turn to closings’ external effects on communities. They analyze parishes with data from their corresponding census tracts and the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a mid-1990s project that surveyed thousands of residents in over 300 neighborhoods on their perceptions of social cohesion, disorder, and crime. The authors’ analysis finds a strong correlation between a closed school and nearby residents’ reports of not only petty crime and “broken windows,” but also of feelings that neighbors are unfriendly, unhelpful, untrustworthy, and lacking shared values.

With this evidence in support of their claim that school closures are linked to greater social disorder and less cohesion, Brinig and Garnett next compare data from Chicago Police Department beats near Catholic schools following their closings.  Though serious crime dropped citywide by an average of 25% between 1999 and 2005, it declined significantly less in those neighborhoods where a school had closed just years earlier.  The crime rate in neighborhoods with an open Catholic school was 33% lower than in neighborhoods where one had recently closed, a finding which the authors argue should give governments and law enforcement a vested interest in public policies to support struggling urban parochial schools.

Before addressing the policy implications of their research, Brinig and Garnett take steps to show that the patterns they have found are common to parochial schools in other dioceses, and that they are specific to Catholic schools, but not to public or charter schools.  They conducted research using similarly available data for schools and neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. While their analysis of Philadelphia Catholic schools mirrors that of Chicago and suggests their basic conclusions are replicable, Los Angeles appears to be an outlier.  Brinig and Garnett suggest that its essentially suburban land use patterns and more transient population result in less social capital to begin with. Its Catholic schools haven’t followed the same historically dense, organic, parish-centered growth patterns of neighborhoods in East Coast and Midwestern cities.  The authors’ comparison of charter schools and crime data—though less firm than their Catholic school analysis—shows they have no significant effect on crime rates one way or another, though some figures suggest an increase in crime in neighborhoods where a charter opened in a shuttered parish school.

Lost Classroom, Lost Community presents these findings in the context of a “communitarian defense” of school choice policies to bolster threatened urban Catholic schools and declining neighborhoods. Though Brinig and Garnett float the possibility of publicly-supported religious charter schools—currently not permitted by prevailing Establishment Clause doctrine—they clearly support voucher programs, which have been upheld by courts as subsidies to parents for education, rather than direct governmental funding of religious schools.

The authors do not, however, address potential concerns that voucher programs could allow elected officials to influence Catholic schools’ doctrinal integrity. Though regulations threatening Catholic schools’ faithfulness to church teaching could be imposed even in the absence of vouchers, restrictions based on ideological grounds could theoretically prevent parents from directing funds to a parochial school. Brinig and Garnett’s empirical focus, though broad, leaves little room for any discussion of how reformed curricula—such as those modeled on classical education—might forge a distinct alternative to the perception that parochial schools are merely pay-to-enter public curricula with religion attached, and create more compelling reasons for families to choose Catholic education.

Lost Classroom, Lost Community’s sobering last chapter asks readers to imagine the implications of cities without Catholic schools; the loss of quality social capital-building education in traditional neighborhoods, leaving families unable to afford alternatives to poor quality public schools struggling in the wake of others seeking refuge away from their declining neighborhoods.  “Our cities may well survive (indeed, they may have to survive) without Catholic schools,” Brinig and Garnett conclude, “but our evidence suggests strongly that they would be better off if they did not have to do so.”

Will Seath

Will Seath is a designer with McCrery Architects (www.mccreryarchitects.com) who specializes in liturgical architecture. He is a "Triple Domer" with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science (2006) and Master’s Degrees in Architecture and Urbanism (2011) from the University of Notre Dame. A native of Pittsburgh, he credits his upbringing in the apartment above his family-owned bar and restaurant - and its later demolition - with his interest in building and preserving traditional neighborhoods. He and his wife, Annalee, live in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where they teach Sunday school to a class of precocious second graders. Will is also a jazz pianist who loves black-and-white movies and good barbeque.