Book: When Catholic schools close communities suffer

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, July 27, 2014

Catholic schools are educational and community institutions whose benefits extend beyond the classroom. When a Catholic school closes in a distressed urban environment, crime goes up and social cohesion goes down.

Those are the findings of Notre Dame scholars Nicole Stelle Garnett and Margaret Brinig in their book “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America.” This book was recently released during an event at the University Club in downtown Chicago.

For principals and teachers working in inner-city schools, these findings are not something new. However, this is the first time that scholars made an empirical analysis of the data to prove what was already known anecdotally.

Stelle Garnett, who is a property attorney and teaches at the University of Notre Dame, said the idea for the book came after she attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., on the importance of faith-based schools. While there she heard activists saying that when a school closes the community suffers. She approached Brinig, the Fritz Duda Family Professor of Law at Notre Dame, to see if they could test the theory.

They studied data in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Chicago was the basis of their study because they were familiar with the city.

“We were looking for places that had a lot of Catholic schools, where the schools were very important and where many of the schools had closed because we were going to try and compare what happened in neighborhoods where they remained opened to neighborhoods where they were closed,” said Brinig during the discussion at the University Club last month.

Early on the two women met with Dominican Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of the archdiocese’s Office for Catholic Schools. During this meeting they learned what often leads to school closings.

“She gave us the absolute key idea, which was that it had something to do with how enthusiastic the pastors of the churches were about the schools,” Brinig said. “That is what got us started trying to figure out what kind of characteristics about pastors we could actually measure to get data about.”

They said they found that if the pastors, or in many cases administrators, had things going on in their personal lives that distracted them and led them to have less of an attachment to the school, the schools suffered and declined. It didn’t have to do with people leaving the neighborhood.

“What Sister Paul helped us to understand was that the church wasn’t just closing schools in bad neighborhoods. Some schools were vibrant and remained open in bad neighborhoods,” said Stelle Garnett. “And what we needed to do was find this variable that distinguished between those neighborhoods where the school stayed open that were equal to those where schools closed.”

Closing Catholic schools in urban environments where poor children benefit the most from these schools has negative consequences, Brining and Stelle Garnett write.

“We believe that education policy makers in both the church and the state should come to terms with these consequences — to pause, to imagine cities without Catholic schools and to ask themselves whether something should be done to reverse the current course, lest we lose them to civil society forever.”

However, the authors explain in the introduction to their book that Catholic schools will not save cities.

“Our claim here is a far more modest one — that urban neighborhoods are better off with their Catholic schools than without them,” they write.

Stelle Garnett said it makes sense that quality of life goes down in distressed neighborhoods when a Catholic school closes.

“It’s not surprising that everything falls apart when these neighborhoods lose their last remaining functional social asset,” she said. “And that’s what happening. And it leads eventually, not surprisingly, to serious crime.”

They also concluded that charter schools, which in many cases take over the physical space of the closed Catholic school, do not produce the same positive benefits to the community as Catholic schools.

The authors said they studied Chicago and Philadelphia because of their similarities.

“As you know, these two cities have both been called ‘cities of parishes,’” Stelle Garnett said. “In both of these cities, until not too long ago, if you were asked where you lived you would say ‘I’m from St. Ann’s.’”

Since Chicago and Philadelphia are similar in history, Brining said, they expected to find the same results in each city and they did. This wasn’t the case with Los Angeles.

“We chose Los Angeles because it was very Catholic. It was a very big city. It is located on a coast. But it has a very different land use pattern. ... and also a very different kind of Catholic and Catholic school tradition,” Brinig said.

That archdiocese was almost deliberately set up not by immigrant groups that were coming in and forming parishes but by bishops who saw where the population was growing and established parishes and schools, they said.

“What we expected was that L.A. was going to be different and in fact it was. We found absolutely no influence of Catholic schools in Los Angeles,” said Brinig.

Historians have shown that parishes and Catholic schools were important neighborhood institutions in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. That has a lasting impact.

“These schools are doing something to hold the neighborhoods together, even as the neighborhoods change,” they write.

“Our results therefore lend support for school-choice devices, such as tuition vouchers or tax credits, which might help stem the tide of Catholic school closures by making them accessible to low-income urban children.”

“Lost Classroom, Lost Community” is $45 and is available through the University of Chicago Press,


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