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Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools

reviewed by Diane Slaughter-Defoe & Kimberly Hufferd-Ackles - 1998

coverTitle: Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools
Author(s): Jaqueline Irvine, Michael Foster
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807735302, Pages: , Year: 1996
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Shortly after the first author of this review published Visible Now: Blacks in Private Schools, (Slaughter & Johnson, 1988), the Chicago School Reform Act was enacted in the State of Illinois (P.A. 85-1418). In his overview and analysis of the four articles on African Americans and Catholic schools in Part 3 of that edited volume, Thomas Hoffer observed that there are two important lessons to be learned from the research, and at least one unanswered question. Lesson one is that, though the majority of African American children attending Catholic schools are not themselves from Catholic home backgrounds, they usually attend with other children who are Catholic, and benefit from being part of the school community. Lesson two is that Catholic schools, historically serving 90 percent of the Africa-American children attending private schools, do very responsive outreach recruiting and embracing of the youth and their families.

Sharing the concern of other authors about projected massive Catholic school closings in disadvantaged urban areas, Hoffer noted researchers’ agreement that African American children and youth in Catholic schools have higher school achievement, in comparison with their public school peers. The unanswered research question of top priority, according to Hoffer, was why and how Catholic schools consistently produced these results. Arguing that public schools had thus far responded to pressures to reform with increased bureaucratization and standardization and, Further, that many private schools had, alternatively, responded with public relations campaigns, Hoffer encouraged the trend toward restructuring public schools, using some of the apparent virtues of Catholic schools: greater local autonomy and decentralization, improved teacher-student relationships, greater control over classroom subject-matter delivery, and closer parent-school relationships. One outgrowth of this thinking, of course, was Chicago School Reform; yet another is the subject of this review, the interesting and informative book by Irvine and Foster.

Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools provides further exploration of the research-related issues, as well as of the multiple identities and diverse perspectives of African Americans reporting benefits from a Catholic education. The book is organized into two sections. The first contains contributions that analyze the Catholic education of African Americans from an historical and sociological perspective. It describes relevant events and forces of the past two-hundred years that have shaped Catholic schooling for African Americans. The second section is composed of personal memories and reflections from seven individuals, regarding their own Catholic school experiences.

The themes that emerge in the contributions are the important role of parents in their children’s parochial education; the students’ search for racial and cultural identity while embedded in the parochial school environment; and the significance of consistently high expectations for the academic performance of students. Parents found Catholic schools to be the preferable alternative to perceived unsafe, less disciplined public schools and are said to have made extreme sacrifices to send their children to particular Catholic schools because they felt this opportunity was the “last hope for improved educational opportunities for their children” (Polite, p. 69). Shields indicates that family involvement permeates the schooling experience at Holy Angels. Parents are relied on to monitor student studies closely and to take students to church and, perhaps, to school on Saturdays for additional studies. Parents play crucial roles as volunteers and participants in fund-raisers, raffles, and collections at St. Joan of Arc school according to Garibaldi. The bond created between home and school is factored into the success of the school. The book’s personal memoirs indicate that students recognized the sacrifices their parents were making to provide them with a Catholic-school education.

Several chapters indicate that the search for identity was a challenge for African American students. As institutions, the schools expected full participation by students in the rituals embedded in the Catholic church. The degree of cultural mismatch varied between schools and experiences, but was a persistent issue for the contributors. Foster relied on support from outside the school to assist her in navigating the cultural discontinuities she experienced in her school, such as balancing the use of standard English with African American English. Delpit’s experience involved teachers’ correcting Black English with “unmitigated exuberance” (p. 120) and attempting to mainstream the lyrics of songs that sounded “too colored” (p. 122). As a student, Ellis felt “bombarded with pictures of a white Jesus, a white Mary, an abundance of white saints, and, in fact, a white God” (p. 165). Irvine’s cultural consciousness was mediated through the AME church. She asked if this important task should be left to the African American community and families, rather than state-run schools and their functionaries.

Another theme running parallel to discussions of success throughout the book was that the Catholic schools maintain high standards of academic achievement for their students and fully expect and believe that the students will meet them. Irvine considered the curriculum in her school to have been “a superior college prep curriculum that was unavailable to our Black and white public school peers” (p. 90). Her teachers believed that achievement. convincingly demonstrating it to students. anything less than an outstanding education. dents as if they could learn, and excuses for unsatisfactory academic performance were unacceptable,” remembers Garibaldi.

Contributors to this book provide readers with a look into a different educational world, historically highly important to African American youth. The result is a book that revisits and contextualizes a portion of the education community often overlooked: parochial schools. The book, therefore, provides historical understanding-that will help inform those perspective, they need updating, and should not be viewed as timeless. Current case studies are desperately needed to inform future educational policies adequately.

This publication informs the schools reform discourse. Although most of the authors in this book experienced academic success in the Catholic schools they attended, theirs is not a story of innovative pedagogy. Teaching in these schools was quite traditional. Yet there are some powerful examples because many teachers were able to capture the hearts and minds of their students, such as Father Clements at Chicago’s Holy Angels.

In the process of educating, this book also introduces topics that should be further researched. For example, how can schools match their curricula to their student bodies better? How does the racial mix of a school’s faculty affect the achievement of African American students? How can teacher beliefs be influenced to help the students in their care to maximize their potential? The account of the most recent experience in Catholic schools, by Ellis, was the least positive; and leaves open the question of how Catholic education is perceived by African American students entering the twenty-first century.

The ability to create a nurturing and demanding environment for African American students should be examined by educators. as should the ability of the schools to interface with families. James Comer’s School Development Program seeks to empower public schools to create the type of community, extending to the families, that typifies many of these schools. In Chicago today, Barbara Sizemore and colleagues continue to affirm the importance of teacher preparation for instruction in the basics, regardless of the child’s age or grade in school. Given the enduring relationships between African Americans and Catholicschools documented in chapters by York, Franklin, and Polite, in part we, as a nation, may well owe these powerful perspectives on school reform, developed by persons reared in the Chicago metropolitan area, to historical absorption of the influence of the midwestern (and Illinois) Catholic educational tradition within African American community life.


Slaughter, D., & Johnson, D. (Eds.), Visible now: Blacks in private schools. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 4, 1998, p. 788-791
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10292, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:18:57 PM

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