Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Other Wave of School Closings: How the Shutting of Catholic Schools in the Inner City Paved the Way for Charters

Many people have praised charter schools as providing a safe alternative for inner city families to public schools, implying they are creating something that never existed before. However, that is not exactly true. During the 1960's, 1970's, and 1980's, when inner city communities were hit by a wave of factory closings, drug epidemics, housing abandonment and middle class flight, families looking for a save haven for their children were able to find one in neighborhood Catholic schools, which offered low tuition, strict discipline, a rigid curriculum, and which welcomed students of all backgrounds provided they would accept the required Catholic religious instruction.

Not all families could afford the tuition, not all children were willing to accommodate to the discipline, not all Protestants, Jews or Muslims were willing to allow their children to be exposed to Catholic religious instruction, but for thousands of families in battered communities, these schools became important neighborhood institutions. producing many graduates who went on to college and had distinguished careers in a wide array of professions.

Then catastrophe hit. Beginning in the late 1980's, Catholic Dioceses throughout the nation, facing budget crises due to factors ranging from sexual abuse lawsuits to declining incomes of inner city residents, began closing inner city parish schools in staggering numbers. In the Bronx, where my oral history projects documented the important role Catholic schools played for upwardly mobile Black families, two revered majority Black parish schools-- St Anthony of Padua and St Augustine's- were shut down, along with at least 10 others serving Black and Latino student populations.

It is into this educational vacuum that charter schools stepped, providing a very similar approach to pedagogy and discipline that the Catholics once did, minus the religious instruction.

I will leave it for others to say whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. But i will say this- there is always a price to closing schools which have served neighborhoods for generations. And I hope someday, the contributions of these Catholic schools to inner city neighborhoods will get the recognition they deserve.