Ghosts in the Catholic schools story

It's official. Catholicism has little or nothing to do with the giant, heartrending story here inside the other Beltway -- the closing of 13 of 64 schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. As you would expect, the Baltimore Sun once again played this as a giant story when Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien made the long-rumored news official, which is perfectly understandable. It is a huge story for all kinds of people here in Charm City, not just Catholics. As the coverage has made plain, many of these dying Catholic schools contain few, if any, Catholics. They have, however, been serving as an alternative to the city's public schools, especially for families of color seeking an alternative approach to education -- one that includes some emphasis on faith and stricter forms of discipline. That's a theme woven into these Sun stories.

As I emphasized the other day (click here for a flashback) the newspaper is playing this story as a mix of blend of economics and the mysterious decline of crucial aspects of Catholic life in post-1960s America.

Here's the crucial passage in the update. Is there an echo in here?

The challenges confronting the archdiocese mirror those faced by Catholic education in urban areas from the Midwest to the Northeast. In the decades since the peak enrollments of the 1960s, the thinning of the ranks of low-paid teaching nuns and brothers has forced schools to hire more expensive professional staff, ending the era of free or nearly free Catholic education. While tuitions were rising, Catholics were fleeing the cities for the suburbs, leaving behind lower-income families who could ill afford the expense.

In Baltimore, about a third of archdiocesan classrooms are empty. Elementary and middle schools have lost 20 percent of their enrollment since the 2001-2002 school year. Since then, the archdiocese -- which includes Baltimore, surrounding counties and Western Maryland -- has closed 16 of its schools.

Once again, let me stress that the flight to the suburbs is a major factor in this story, as is the decline of many old neighborhoods with deep roots into "old country" European lands. However, once again, the coverage avoids any input from Catholics -- on the doctrinal left or right -- who have other reasons to criticize Baltimore schools.

Here is the basic question: Where did the Catholic students and the teaching sisters, brothers and priests go? If declining numbers are crucial in this story, what are the other factors at work in this drama?

GetReligion readers have raised other important questions: Have the truly committed traditional Catholics, to a large degree, switched to homeschooling? Why have they done so? Are there some Catholics schools -- in or near the city -- that have been thriving while others decline? What, for example, is going on at this once declining school?

While reading this package, especially the parts emphasizing the athletics legacy at Cardinal Gibbons High School, another question came to mind: What would happen if you did a chart showing how many vocations -- priests, brothers and sisters -- have been produced by each of the city's Catholic schools (those closing and those remaining open) during, oh, the past two decades? Would any patterns emerge? I know Catholic schools used to watch these statistics closely. Is this still true?

Toward the end of the main story, the Sun includes some interesting details that hint at some of the other cultural trends that have shaped this event. In the comments thread on my earlier post, the subject of Latino Catholics came up. Read the following carefully, focusing on the archdiocese's recovery plan for its school system:

The plan calls for expanding tuition assistance across the archdiocese. The aid is now chiefly made available in the city.

The plan emphasizes a renewed commitment to the Catholic character of instruction, while recommending that the system expand its program offerings. Proposals include opening a new dual-language elementary school, doubling to four the number of schools offering programs for students with learning disabilities, and establishing a concentration in science, technology, engineering and math at four elementary schools. One elementary school would adopt a Montessori education approach for students ages 3-6.

School administration could also be reformed under a recommendation to give the superintendent, with advice from that school's individual governing board, greater authority to hire and fire principals, who in many schools now answer to the local pastor.

Lots to think about, with little of it linked to Catholics and their faith. I guess that is the big, big, big ghost in this sad story about Catholic schools in the city that I call home.

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