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Catholic Schools and Immigrant Students: A New Generation

by Vivian Louie & Jennifer Holdaway - 2009

Background/Context: This article considers the role of Catholic schools, an institution born of the adaptation of previous immigrant waves, in the education of new immigrants and their native-born counterparts. The new immigrants enter a landscape in which education plays a much bigger role than it did for their predecessors and yet faces many challenges. Public schools, particularly in urban centers, struggle with financial difficulties and new standards of accountability. Although scholars and the media have praised Catholic schools for performing better than public schools in promoting academic achievement among urban low-income minority students, the Catholic system also faces fiscal difficulties, declining enrollments, and school closings.

Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study: We examine the use of Catholic school by families of different ethnic backgrounds and how attendance relates both to religious affiliation and to socioeconomic class. We also analyze whether attending or graduating from Catholic high school has a positive effect on educational attainment and on the incidence of arrest and incarceration for men, and early childbearing for women. Finally, we seek to understand why immigrant families choose Catholic schools and how their children experience them.

Research Design: We draw on data collected for the Immigrant Second Generation in Metropolitan New York Study (ISGMNY). The study includes survey data on 3,415 young adults aged 18–32 who were interviewed between 1998 and 2001. Respondents include second-generation immigrants and native-born individuals. The study also includes qualitative data from in-depth interviews. For this article, we use interviews conducted with 74 respondents from immigrant and native-born groups who attended Catholic high schools, and those who referenced Catholic schools in their educational history even if they did not attend.

Conclusions/Recommendations: For immigrant families who have arrived recently, religion seems to be more or less irrelevant to the decision to send their children to Catholic school. Instead, like many native Blacks and Latinos, these families choose Catholic schools to avoid what they see as a seriously deficient public school system. To some extent, this represents a rational choice, but for many immigrant families, it also reflects a lack of knowledge about the public education system. Although many low-income families would like to send their children to Catholic school, cost is an insurmountable barrier for many. With the exception of native-born Whites, socioeconomic factors are very important in shaping who can go to Catholic school and whether students can stay until graduation. In many cases, families were forced to withdraw their children by high school, when costs rise sharply. Nonetheless, overall, the data show a benefit in terms of educational attainment for nearly all groups, and also a positive impact in terms of avoiding of certain problems, such as early pregnancy for girls and trouble with police for boys.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 3, 2009, p. 783-816
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15344, Date Accessed: 9/20/2021 5:13:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Vivian Louie
    Russell Sage Foundation
    E-mail Author
    VIVIAN LOUIE is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a sociologist who studies education and identities in the diverse migratory flows occurring with globalization. In one line of inquiry, she studies immigrant families who have settled in the United States, investigating how the incorporation of immigrant parents influences their children’s high school-to-college transition and identity formation. In addition to her first book, Compelled to Excel: Immigration, Education, and Opportunity among Chinese Americans (Stanford University Press), her recent publications include “Who Makes the Transition to College? Why We Should Care, What We Know, and What We Need to Do,” in Teachers College Record (2007), “Second Generation Pessimism and Optimism: How Chinese and Dominicans Understand Education and Mobility Through Ethnic and Transnational Orientations,” in International Migration Review (2006), and “Immigrant Student Populations and the Pipeline to College: Current Considerations and Future Lines of Inquiry,” in Review of Research in Education (2005).
  • Jennifer Holdaway
    Social Science Research Council
    JENNIFER HOLDAWAY is a program director at the Social Science Research Council. As part of her work with the Migration Program, since 2003, she has led the Working Group on Education and Migration, whose work has considered the relationship between immigrant families and American schools and compared the education of children of immigrants in the United States and Europe. This work is presented in these two special issues of Teachers College Record (2009). Holdaway is coordinator and co–principal investigator for the Children of Immigrants in Schools, an international collaborative research project that examines the impact of cross-national differences in educational institutions, policies, and practices on the integration of children of immigrants in the United States and Europe. Since 2005, Holdaway has also been director of Transitions to College: From Theory to Practice. This program has considered what we know from the various social science disciplines about the factors that shape access to and success in higher education in the United States. With Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, and Mary Waters, she is coauthor of the forthcoming book, Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age.
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