For city kids and city neighborhoods


Itís commencement season and tens of thousands of students are graduating from inner-city Catholic elementary schools.

As decades of empirical research have shown, these kids have a better chance of successfully completing high school and college, and are better prepared to life-after-the-classroom, than their peers attending government schools.  These inner-city Catholic schools are "public schools" in the best sense of the term; they're open to the public (not just to Catholics), and they serve a genuine public interest, the empowerment of the youthful poor.

There is ample research to demonstrate inner-city Catholic schools' educational excellence, going back to the pioneering Coleman/Greeley studies in the 1970s.  Now comes an even more comprehensive claim about the positive impact of these schools: for, according to two law professors at the University of Notre Dame, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, inner-city Catholic schools are important factors in urban renewal as builders of "social capital" on inner-urban areas.

The research that led to Brinig and Garnett's important new book, "Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools' Importance in Urban America" (University of Chicago Press), began when one of the authors attended a 2008 meeting in Washington, D.C., at which various interested parties considered the educational impact of closing Catholic inner-city schools, a sad process that had become a national plague.  It wasn't just the loss of educational opportunity that was mourned at that meeting; people would also say, "When the (Catholic) school closes, the neighborhood just isn't the same," or "The whole neighborhood suffers when a (Catholic) school disappears."

Their interest piqued, Brinig and Garnett, fellows of Notre Dame's Institute for Educational Initiatives, decided to test that anecdotal evidence of Catholic schools' neighborhood impact empirically.  The results of their research, they concede at the outset, are both heartening and chastening:

"We concluded that Catholic elementary schools are important generators of social capital in urban neighborhoods ... Catholic school closures precede elevated levels of crime and disorder and suppressed levels of social cohesion.  Conversely ... an open Catholic school in a neighborhood (correlates) with lower levels of serious crime ... Catholic schools matter to urban neighborhoods not only as educational institutions — although, to be sure, they matter a great deal educationally — but also as community institutions."

By "social capital," Brinig and Garnett mean "social networks that make urban neighborhoods function more smoothly — the connections that draw residents together and enable them to suppress evils like crime and disorder."  And that "social capital" cashes out, so to speak, in many ways.  It fosters good citizenship and political participation, but as the Notre Dame authors suggest, it can also be expressed in "collecting a vacationing neighbor's mail, or calling the authorities to report suspicious activity, or picking up a discarded fast-food container from the street."  The social capital that inner-city Catholic schools help build is "spent" in living according to a sense of responsibility for the common good, not just living for immediate gratification.  And that "spending" increases social-capital formation in inner-city neighborhoods.

These inner-city Catholic schools are "public schools" in the best sense of the term; they're open to the public (not just to Catholics), and they serve a genuine public interest, the empowerment of the youthful poor.

Inner-city Catholic schools are in deep financial crisis, with strapped dioceses scrambling to find the dollars to subsidize indisputably effective schools that can no longer support themselves by themselves.  Brinig and Garnett argue that, given their demonstrably positive impact across society, these schools should be given a fighting chance through mechanisms like tuition tax credits or vouchers, with public funds going to the child to enable students to attend an inner-city Catholic school.  But perhaps there is another, parallel, intra-Church mechanism that could be seriously explored.

Several years ago, I suggested to a leading U.S. Catholic bishop that the Campaign for Human Development be transformed into a campaign for inner-city schools, because, as Brinig and Garnett demonstrate, these schools are the Church's best anti-poverty and empowerment program — indeed, they may be America's best anti-poverty program.  My hunch is that the annual CHD collection would at least quadruple if CHD were retrofitted to support inner-city Catholic schools, period.

For the kids and the neighborhoods: why not?




George Weigel. "For city kids and city neighborhoods." The Catholic Difference (May 27, 2014).

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.

George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, Evangelical Catholicism, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2014 George Weigel

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