Two big stories about American Catholicism were front page news this weekend: Archbishop Dolan’s appointment to the College of Cardinals and the news that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is about to close or consolidate 48 schools. Those involved in Catholic education likely won’t be surprised to hear of more school closings. Catholic schools have lost over half of their enrollment since their peak in 1965 and each year since 1965 the total number of schools has declined. In the course of my dissertation research on the causes and consequences of Catholic school closings I have read hundreds of local news stories from dioceses across the nation documenting a school’s closure or consolidation. However, the large number of schools involved in this re-organization is noteworthy.
A couple of years ago (at the end of the 2009-2010) school year the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made local and regional news when Cardinal Dougherty high school closed. At one point this was the largest Catholic school in the world with over 6500 students. Another reason these closures are of note is that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is unique for still having a relatively high percentage of the school aged population enrolled in Catholic schools. Nationally this figure is about 5% but data from the 2005 Official Catholic Directory shows that in the Philadelphia area about 10% of the school aged population was in Catholic schools. This map highlights changes in percentage of the school aged population enrolled in Catholic schools. The other dioceses that stand out on the map for still enrolling a significant portion of the school aged population are Lincoln, NB and New Orleans.
There are a number of potential explanations for Catholic school closures: changing demographics, declining vocations and fewer sisters working in schools, changes in the cost structure of running schools, all of which I’ll explore further in future posts.
Those interested in Catholic school restructuring will want to keep up with the work being done by CARA and press releases from the NCEA. The pioneering work of sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley remains relevant today as does Youniss and Convey’s Catholic Schools at the Crossroads. Those looking for a vivid account of how this might matter in one community should read Patrick McCloskey’s ethnography of Harlem’s Rice High School The Street Stops Here. The 2009 book is not about school closings per se but about the challenges and triumphs of staff and students at this all boys school noted for its basketball team and percentage of students going on to college. Unfortunately, in 2011 it was announced that this school would close amid financial problems.