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  • Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America by Margaret Brinig, Nicole Stelle Garnett
  • Timothy Walch
Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America. By Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 224pp. $45.00.

Lost Classroom, Lost Community is the latest contribution to an ongoing effort by social scientists to evaluate the impact of parochial schools in the United States. In crisp, well-written chapters, the authors reinforce what Catholic educators have been saying for generations: Catholic schools make a difference.

As far back as the 1930s, Catholic educators called for systematic efforts to evaluate scientifically the substantial impact of these privately funded, value-based institutions on the quality of American life. For all their intensive efforts to establish and sustain their parish schools, Catholic educators knew very little about the impact of the very institutions that they had established.

If parochial educators were to improve upon the work already accomplished, more scientific and sociological research into the nature of Catholic education was necessary. It was a message that the Catholic educational establishment took to heart beginning in the late 1950s with the work of the Reverend Joseph Fichter and sociologist Gerhard Lenski and continued through the substantial work of the Reverend Andrew M. Greeley and his colleagues in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, it has been the work of Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland that reinforced the value of Catholic schools.

Now, thanks to the hard work of two professors of law from the University of Notre Dame, we have a solid assessment of the specific value of parish schools to the quality of life in the poorest of urban parishes in this country. More specifically, Brinig and Garnett use data from Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to underscore the indisputable fact that there is a correlation between the closure of Catholic schools and the decline in community cohesiveness in the urban neighborhoods served by those schools. As the title says so clearly: lost classroom, lost community. [End Page 75]

The authors break their study into nine chapters. The first two chapters show the arc of Catholic education through the twentieth century. The next three chapters provide the core of their argument about the impact of parish schools on crime rates and the quality of life using data from the city of Chicago. The sixth chapter extends the study to Philadelphia and Los Angeles. The last three chapters turn to the evaluation of the causes for the positive impact of these schools on their neighborhoods, the case for school choice, and imagining what cities will be like without Catholic schools.

“Brinig and Garnett bring a unique perspective to the Catholic school effect literature,” notes Anthony Bryk, who is currently the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: “that these are not only effective educational institutions but also important community institutions. These findings bolster arguments about the important societal benefits that Catholic schools provide in educating disadvantaged children and strengthening the communities in which they live.”

Indeed, Brinig and Garnett have contributed substantially to the public appreciation of parish schools not only as alternatives to public schooling, but also to the quality of life in the neighborhoods they serve. The salient question still remains: if Catholic schools are so vital to the future of our urban neighborhoods, why can’t we as a church and a nation work to sustain them?

Timothy Walch
U.S. Catholic Historian


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