As Catholic Schools Close in Major Cities,
the Need Only Grows
By Samuel G. Freedman
New York Times
June 3, 2011
Amid the grandeur and permanence of St. Patrick’s Cathedral,
they marched down the aisle in pairs, the graduating seniors of
Rice High School in Harlem. They were the 70th commencement class
in the school’s history, the latest to bear the venerable
epithet of being “Rice men.”
All those trappings of longevity, the bronze doors and marble pulpit
and stained glass, were illusory. The graduation ceremony on May
27 was the last ever for Rice, which is being closed, and the event
was most significant as a symbol of the continuing contraction of
Roman Catholic education in the urban settings where it has been
Rice High School's final commencement,
at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Virtually every graduating senior
is bound for college. Richard Perry/The New York Times
Over the last half-century, the number of Catholic schools has
fallen to 7,000 from about 13,000, and their enrollment to barely
two million children from more than five million. A disproportionate
share of the damage has come in big cities.
So when a landmark topples as Rice did — and as Cardinal
Dougherty High School did in Philadelphia last year, and as Daniel
Murphy High School did in Los Angeles two years before that —
it ought to provoke more than sentimentality or tears. It ought
to sound an alarm about a slow-motion crisis in American education.
To grasp what is being lost, one needed only to look through the
roster in the graduation program for Rice. With a student body that
is 98 percent black or Hispanic, with 80 percent of its students
requiring financial aid, virtually every graduating senior was bound
for college: Penn, Cincinnati, Holy Cross, Fairfield, Iona. Four
of the Rice men had received scholarships in excess of $150,000.
(Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction to a 2009 book about
Rice, “The Street Stops Here,” by Patrick McCloskey.)
“It’s unbelievable that you have a school that graduates
100 percent of the kids and sends them to college and shuts the
door,” said Skip Branch, a basketball coach at the school.
His own son, Floyd, graduated from Rice in 2002 and went on to Middlebury
College with a full academic scholarship.
Even as he congratulated the latest crop, Mr. Branch passed out
fliers on the cathedral steps urging Rice families to call the Archdiocese
of New York to protest. Nearby, shortly before the ceremony began,
two dozen seniors broke into a spontaneous chant: “Save Rice!
Well within earshot was Steven Strong, a bus driver and the father
of three Rice students. His eldest, Steve, is a senior at Penn State.
The middle one, Dominick, would be graduating on this evening. And
the youngest, Damian — well, as a sophomore at Rice he was
now an educational orphan.
Mr. Strong said, “For a school to be there for so many years
and close at such a crucial time ...” He never finished the
There are reasons, of course, for closing Rice and schools like
it, and those reasons fall into a familiar pattern: declining enrollment;
less money from parish or diocesan coffers; far fewer clergy members
to serve as an unpaid administrative and teaching force; annual
tuition that, typically in the mid-four figures, is too expensive
for many working-poor and working-class families yet far short of
actual per-student costs.
In the case of Rice, another even grimmer factor played a role
in the closing. The Christian Brothers religious order, which founded
and operated Rice, filed for bankruptcy in late April, collapsing
under the weight of payments to victims of sexual abuse by the order’s
members, particularly in the Seattle area.
With the exception of the molesting scandal in the Catholic Church,
though, most of the obstacles for Catholic schools have been amply
visible for decades. The dioceses, religious orders or parishes
that run schools have had no reason to be blindsided.
“Rice is the victim of a business model that is no longer
sustainable,” said Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations
and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a philanthropic group
that is involved in education. “It’s a case study for
so many similarly situated schools. It shows how necessary it is
for these schools to have a broader base of resources, of partners
to carry the load.”
However belatedly, parts of Catholic clergy and laity have tried
to develop new models. The Nativity Miguel and Cristo Rey networks
have opened dozens of small, academically intensive middle and high
schools. The Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago provides Catholic schools
there with scholarship money, in-kind services like construction,
and ties to arts organizations, among other benefits. Arizona gives
a tax credit to individuals who donate money for tuition assistance
through state-certified groups, including one funneling such aid
to Catholic-school families.
None of these efforts, promising and idealistic as they may be,
have come close to halting, much less reversing, the pattern of
retrenchment. While 34 new Catholic schools opened in the 2010-11
academic year, 172 closed or were consolidated, and nearly 2,000
had a waiting list for admission, according to data from the National
Catholic Educational Association. The 24 Cristo Rey high schools
together have 6,500 pupils — only a couple of hundred more
than Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty High alone had at its
height in the 1960s.
To put it in personal terms, when Michael Gecan was growing up
on the West Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, the area had
10 parish schools enrolling about 10,000 students in total. These
days, when he returns there as a national organizer for the Industrial
Areas Foundation, he finds seven or eight much smaller schools with
a collective student population of about 1,000.
“Given all the money that’s been raised for charter
schools — from the Gates Foundation, from Eli Broad, from
hedge fund managers — I find it perplexing that Catholics
can’t raise money for their own schools that have a track
record of success,” Mr. Gecan said. “I don’t think
they’ve tried hard enough. They’ve lost focus on their
His opinion was widely shared on Rice’s day of celebration
and mourning. “The window of opportunity is so small,”
said Tawanda Walker-Hall, whose son, James, was graduating. “And
the need is so great.”