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Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools' Importance in Urban America

reviewed by Karen A. Johnson - October 03, 2014

coverTitle: Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools' Importance in Urban America
Author(s): Margaret F. Brinig & Nicole Stelle Garnett
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022612200X, Pages: 224, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Urban Catholic schools in the U.S. have existed since the nineteenth century, and have played a significant role in successfully educating low-income white ethnic immigrants and working-class students of color. The original purpose of Catholic schools was to offer working-class urban white ethnic Catholics “a religion-infused education,” particularly in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York (p. 2).

By the second half of the twentieth century, a huge influx of Blacks began migrating to northern states from the Jim Crow South, in an effort to seek out a better quality of life and more humane treatment. In Chicago, they moved into white ethnic Catholic neighborhoods—and white ethnic Catholics resisted Blacks moving into their neighborhoods, parishes, and schools “more strenuously than other white urban residents” (p. 22). As a result, restrictive covenants and housing codes were implemented as a way to enforce racial segregation. Blacks who managed to move into White neighborhoods were subjected to arson and physical violence.

During the 1920s - 1960s, the racial demographic shifts in urban settings had “profound implications for the Catholic Church in the United States, and for urban Catholic schools in particular” (p. 23). When Black students enrolled in previously all-white Catholic schools, many whites fled to suburban areas in efforts to escape racial integration. White flight resulted in a decline in membership in the Catholic parishes and schools. As Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett note in their book Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, “most white Catholics eventually suburbanized” and “race [played] … a significant factor” in their decision (p. 22). Hence, white flight and suburbanization became one of the early causes of Catholic school closures in urban areas.

Over the decades, many of the urban Catholic schools became predominantly Black (mostly non-Catholic) and Latino (immigrants and non-immigrants); research has revealed that historically working-class urban students of color have greatly benefitted “from Catholic education in terms of educational outcomes” (p. 3). Unfortunately, since the 1990s, many urban Catholic schools have closed their doors due to declining enrollments, budgetary issues, rising cost of tuition, and competition from charter schools—the latter of which has experienced rapid proliferation in cities.

Brinig and Garnett indicate that “the ascendance of charter schools is closely linked with Catholic school closure trends” (p. 33).  “Charter schools, which are free,” they note, “compete with Catholic schools, which are not, and there is little dispute that the declining enrollments in Catholic schools are at least partially attributable to charter schools’ success” (p. 33) in the sense that the charter schools are “providing educational alternatives to traditional public schools” (p. 34).

Lost Classroom, Lost Community provides a context for better understanding the consequences and implications of urban Catholic school closures. The authors argue that they are not interested in examining the impact of Catholic schools on the educational achievement of urban students, but instead are interested in Catholic schools as community institutions in urban areas that have experienced economic blight, and race and class segregation. They argue that Catholic schools, as community institutions, foster the advancement of social capital. In other words, these schools give rise to cohesive social networks and mutual trust that school members and neighborhood community members form amongst each other. The social cohesion that is generated by Catholic schools, in turn “enable neighbors to organize and address the kinds of social problems that lead to serious crime” (p. 76) or other community disorder.

Hence, Brinig and Garnett maintain that Catholic schools are significant “stabilizing forces in urban neighborhoods” (p. 71). They posit that their disappearance from urban settings has led to the reduction of “neighborhood social cohesion” and in turn to an increase in “neighborhood disorder” (p. 71).

To investigate their hypothesis, Brinig and Garnett examined survey data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods as well as crime data reports procured from police beat levels, in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles—three cities that were the sites of their research investigation. Their findings reveal that Catholic schools in Chicago “bolster neighborhood social cohesion and suppress neighborhood disorder and crime” (p. 3). And the rapid disappearance of these schools in urban settings has contributed to “negative effects on urban neighborhoods’ health” (p. 3).

Brinig and Garnett also sought to investigate whether or not charter schools “are filling the educational void left by Catholic school closures” (p. 3-4). Their research reveals that charter schools do not create social cohesive networks as community institutions and as a result they fall flat when it comes to filling the gaps and disparities left behind by Catholic schools.

Brinig and Garnett, both professors of law at the University of Notre Dame, present their study in nine chapters. Their quantitative method is appropriate for this study and it provides for an original and groundbreaking analysis. In this sense, their research expands our understanding and challenges our thinking on the importance of Catholic schools as social cohesive community institutions and their impact on urban milieus.

Still, this research project could have been a more enriching study if the researchers had also included a qualitative component to their investigation—such as narrative inquiry or ethnographic research. Personal stories and experiences from urban Catholic students, parents, teachers, and community members are the missing piece in this study. If these narratives had been included it would have allowed for a clearer understanding on how social cohesive networks work in reducing community disorder and other criminal activities.

Also, while the authors are astute in their observation that charter schools are not filling the gaps left behind by Catholic schools, they are somewhat naïve in assuming that charter schools may be able to provide the needed social cohesive networks needed at a later time. In fact, the politics of neoliberal education in the form of market-driven charter schools in places like Chicago and Philadelphia are shaping the existing race, class, and educational inequities that have consistently plagued these urban schools. In this sense, these schools are thwarting efforts toward real and meaningful change for urban students and communities of color. As free-market entities, charter schools will perhaps never filled the void left behind by Catholic schools.

Overall, Brinig and Garnett have conducted an original and compelling study that is a must read for scholars in the disciplines of urban education, Catholic education, educational policies, urban policies, and sociology.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 03, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17703, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:41:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Karen Johnson
    University of Utah
    E-mail Author
    KAREN A. JOHNSON is an Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah. She also has a joint appointment in the Ethnic Studies Program, where she is the Coordinator of African American Studies. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests are African American intellectual history, black education, urban education, and women and gender studies. Currently, she is working on on two major projects, which include an examination of the pedagogical and social perspectives of Septima Poinsette Clark, and African American women's participation in the Civil War. Johnson, along with Abul Pitre and Kenneth L. Johnson, is the co-editor of African American Women Educators: A Critical Examination of their Pedagogies, Educational Ideas, and Activism from the Nineteenth to the Mid-Twentieth Century (2014). She is also the author of Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs (2000).
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