It's no secret that hundreds of Catholic schools have closed down over the past few decades, with the number of U.S. institutions currently at about 6,600 — a substantial decline from the 13,000 registered Catholic schools that were on the books in the 1960s.
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But with 1,856 schools shuttering between 2004 and 2014, alone, according to data compiled by the National Catholic Education Association, two professors believe it's essential to analyze and understand the cumulative societal impact.
And that's the subject of "Lost Classroom, Lost Community," a new book by Nicole Stelle Garnett and Margaret F. Brinig, professors at Notre Dame Law School.
The academics argue that when a Catholic school closes down, education isn't the only area that oft-times suffers. While charter schools often emerge to fill the gaps left by shuttered Catholic schools, Garnett and Brinig believe that these institutions aren't as effective at positively impacting the community at large.
"More than just educational institutions, Catholic schools promote the development of social capital — the social networks and mutual trust that form the foundation of safe and cohesive communities," reads an official description of the book. "[Garnett and Brinig] demonstrate that the loss of Catholic schools triggers disorder, crime, and an overall decline in community cohesiveness, and suggest that new charter schools fail to fill the gaps left behind."
In an interview with Religion News Service, Garnett said that she teaches property law and has written extensively on what makes neighborhoods "work."
So, when she heard from community organizers that school closures have a profound impact on neighborhoods, Garnett began sociologically exploring the issue.
While she noted that the book does not deal with public schools and their impact on a community, Barnett said that she and Brinig did explore charter schools and came to some intriguing results when comparing them to Catholic institutions.
"What we did do was test the effects of an open charter school versus an open Catholic school, and we found they didn’t work quite the same way," she told Religion News Service. "An open Catholic school was strongly correlated — controlling for demographics — with much lower crime. An open charter school wasn’t."
Garnett said that Catholic schools are "really great community institutions" and that parents, teachers and students have a high rate of trust, which can actually trickle into the community at large.
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"The Catholic Church, by investing in a poor South Side African-American neighborhood in Chicago, is making the statement that we believe in you, and we know success is possible here," she said. "Maybe when they leave, it sends the opposite message."
Catholic schools are important to cities, the professor said, because that attract families. And families play a key role in urban life.
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