The Corner

Religion

Casualties of COVID and Our Sickly Culture: 20+ New York Catholic Schools Won’t Open in September

Entrance to St. Rose of Lima School in Upper Manhattan days before it closed last July. (Kathryn Jean Lopez)

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has announced today what many of us had a sick feeling was coming: Catholic school closings. Twenty of them. Some in some areas that could really use the leaven that Catholic education is. The Archdiocese of Brooklyn, too, has six schools that are closing.

There’s a book, Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, that was published a few years back that talks about just how transformational a Catholic school can be in a neighborhood. This is just a little from an interview I did with the authors in 2015:

Margaret F. Brinig: When a Catholic school closes, entire neighborhoods suffer. That is, we found that the negative effects of school closures are experienced not just by the members of a school community. What we can demonstrate statistically is that after a Catholic school closes, the “social capital” — the web of connections and trust between people — in the neighborhood declines. People are less likely to feel that their neighbors will help them shovel if it snows, keep an eye on children playing outside, unite for a community project, and so forth.

When they are less likely to feel trust and bonding to one another, eventually other bad things start to happen, too — there are more signs of disorder, like cigarette butts or broken bottles on the sidewalk or in the streets, more groups loitering on street corners, more prostitution, and so forth. Ultimately there’s more crime. Although we study a time when crime was declining across the U.S., we found that crime declines more slowly in neighborhoods, in Chicago and in Philadelphia, that lost Catholic schools. Between 1995 and 2005 in Chicago, serious crime declined 25 percent citywide but only 17 percent in police beats that lost Catholic schools.

We also demonstrate that all this deterioration is independent of the changes in the wealth or the racial or ethnic composition of the neighborhood. We found, in fact, that all urban Catholic schools are struggling financially but that the factor determining whether they close is whether they have strong and supportive leadership from the pastor. The leadership in the parish is more predictive of school closures than demographics.

But like the churches that have been closing, if people aren’t supporting them — or even going to them — how can they survive? And, yes, we know all the other reasons. Evil does strangle the good oftentimes.

Almost exactly a year ago last week, I walked through a Catholic school, Saint Rose of Lima in Washington Heights for the last time, as it was closing. SRL was a big part of my life, and where I spent many a summer when my late father was principal there. I was skilled at collating faculty handbooks and the like as a child. It was heartbreaking to see that place close, to say the least. I felt like more of my heart was dying along with it.

Children need the best educations they can get. And by best, I mean not only knowledge, of course, of facts, but the need to be immersed in virtue. They have to have reasons for gratitude. They need to get all of that which so many seem to be missing today because of ideology and confusion and the kind of grief that makes us angry, among other things.

Get involved in a school if you can. Be part of the future of Catholic education. Some of the future of Catholic education may just be the Brilla Charter School model — a private organization that runs virtue-based education in former Catholic schools in the South Bronx (with a Catholic religious instruction option after school). Luanne Zurlo talked to me about it earlier in the pandemic here. (We talked, too, about another topic, her recent book, Single for a Greater Purpose, which you may have an interest in, too.)

It’s a heartache, no question about it, to see Catholic schools die. Let’s support good ones, get them resources — be resources — and get creative. The kids are not going to be alright if we don’t rise to the challenge. Surely we can all see that in the world today without convincing.

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