Inner-city Catholic schools close

Despite a track record of success, inner-city Catholic schools are closing, writes Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.  The list includes Rice High School in Harlem, acclaimed in Patrick McCloskey’s The Street Stops Here for turning young black and Hispanic males into college-bound “Rice men.”

Over the last half-century, the number of Catholic schools has fallen to 7,000 from about 13,000, and their enrollment to barely two million children from more than five million. A disproportionate share of the damage has come in big cities.

So when a landmark topples as Rice did — and as Cardinal Dougherty High School did in Philadelphia last year, and as Daniel Murphy High School did in Los Angeles two years before that — it ought to provoke more than sentimentality or tears. It ought to sound an alarm about a slow-motion crisis in American education.

With a diminishing supply of low-cost teachers with religious vocations, Catholic schools have raised tuition just as charter schools are providing a no-cost alternatives. Pedophilia scandals have drained church coffers.

The Christian Brothers religious order, which founded and operated Rice, filed for bankruptcy in late April, collapsing under the weight of payments to victims of sexual abuse by the order’s members, particularly in the Seattle area.

The Nativity Miguel and Cristo Rey networks are opening small, academically intensive middle and high schools, but the new Catholic schools are much smaller than the big schools that are closing, Freedman writes.

Catholic philanthropists aren’t filling the funding gap.

“Given all the money that’s been raised for charter schools — from the Gates Foundation, from Eli Broad, from hedge fund managers — I find it perplexing that Catholics can’t raise money for their own schools that have a track record of success,” says Michael Gecan, a national organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation. “I don’t think they’ve tried hard enough. They’ve lost focus on their core mission.”

My husband is grateful for the education (and the partial scholarship) he received at Brother Rice High in Chicago. He’s a donor. He also gives to the Cristo Rey schools in Chicago.

About Joanne


  1. I think one reason it might be that most inner city Catholic schools now serve very few Catholics– so, on the one hand, they can’t really bill themselves as “Catholic education”, but on the other hand, secular donors are unwilling to fund them.

    Meanwhile, in the third world, a lot of Catholic schools ARE still staffed by religious orders and give a Catholic education–and they’re serving kids who have no other educational alternatives and who live in ACTUAL poverty, not the comparative poverty of our inner cities….

    If a Catholic donor is trying to give limited funds to where they’ll do the most good, I’m not sure that “bankrupt US high school” is necessarily the way to go….

  2. Well, I’m a teacher in a public school, and I can tell you that the difference between a student coming from a public middle school and a parochial school is HUGE (I’m talking about the inner city). The Catholic school grads have good basic skills; they may not have all the coursework in science (which does tend to lag), but, with good basic math and ELA skills, it’s easier to teach them the content they’re missing.

  3. Even if the curriculum and instruction are similar in public and Catholic schools (and I’ve heard that it is, since the teachers all come from similar ed school backgrounds), the mere fact that Catholic schools can and do enforce appropriate behavior (and expel the unwilling) is a big plus. Far too often, the public schools allow troublemakers to deny opportunities for the rest of the students. If the curriculum and instruction are better, there’s another big plus.

    I don’t know about ES and MS (where I’ve lived, most Catholic schools were k-8) but my experience has been that the Catholic high schools, even expensive one in the leafy suburbs, tend not to emphasize science. I know a kid who was being recruited by a school like that and he discovered that his public school was MUCH better in the sciences. The Catholic prep school had honors level, but the public school had not only college prep and honors but it followed the honors classes with double-period APs.