Where did Catholic students go?

Sometime this morning, more than a few Catholic educators in Baltimore are going to get some very bad news. Once again, it's time for a major urban archdiocese to shut down some schools -- permanently. As you would expect, the Baltimore Sun ran a lengthy news feature several days ago that focused on the impact these closings will have on families and neighborhoods. That's a completely valid angle, of course. Thus, we read:

Over the past decade, Principal Pamela K. Sanders has watched as enrollment at St. Ambrose Catholic School has fallen by more than half. Now she wonders if she'll soon have no school at all.

On Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Baltimore will tell principals, teachers, parents and students about plans to close many of its 64 schools at the end of the academic year and reorganize the system of 22,700 students.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien is taking the steps in the face of rising costs and falling enrollments, problems affecting many of the oldest and largest Catholic school systems in the country.

"We've been praying, the parish has been praying," said Sanders, who has seen the kindergarten to eighth grade at St. Ambrose drop from 330 students when she arrived in 2000 to 160 today. On Wednesday, she said, "at least the uncertainty will be over. So much anxiety comes from the uncertainty."

If you know anything about newspaper writing, then you know what comes next.

Some journalists call it the "nut graph," the "summary statement" or even one or two other nicknames that cannot be used in a family weblog. The basic idea is that the reporter is supposed to let you know the "why" of the story, the reason this event is taking place and why it matters. So here is the "nut graph" for this report:

If the school on Park Heights Avenue, in a neighborhood of boarded-up homes and empty lots, is an extreme case of distress, it still reflects the broader challenges confronting Catholic schools in the traditional urban strongholds of the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The faithful have fled the cities for the suburbs, teaching sisters available to provide instruction at little cost have dwindled in number, and families have been less willing or able to pay rising tuitions.

Clearly, we are dealing with declining statistics in some key areas. My question is simple: Might there be other causes for some of these declining statistics? Is this really a story that is rooted in economics, alone?

I have asked some of these questions before and I will ask them again. How healthy are the parishes linked to these schools? The story focuses on suburban flight and that is clearly an issue. But there are other reasons that there are declining numbers of students in some Catholic schools, just as there are multiple reasons that there are declining numbers of women and men taking vows and serving as sisters, brothers and priests.

The bottom line: Where did the Catholic students go? Why give readers only one answer to that question, when there are others? Here's a trail worth following: Does the Catholic school system in Baltimore have critics, on the left or the right?

Some students have gone to other schools, primarily public schools in the suburbs. But what about Catholics who have chosen to send their children to other private schools, including religious schools? (A personal confession: My family is Orthodox, but our son attends a Protestant school that has attracted a number of very dedicated Catholic families. One Catholic mother once told me that her children have been treated better, as conservative Catholics, in this Protestant school than in the Catholic school they used to attend in Baltimore.)

And then there is this:

As the 1960s saw historic peaks for Mass attendance and priestly vocations in the United States, so also was the era a high-water mark for Catholic education. In the decades since, the flight to the suburbs has emptied classrooms. The ranks of religious orders have thinned, depriving the schools of teachers who worked for next to nothing, meaning that Catholic schools could no longer be free, or nearly so.

As the bonds of church for many families have loosened, a Catholic education has seemed less essential. The National Catholic Education Association estimates that about half of Catholic children attended Catholic elementary schools in the 1960s. Today, the figure is about 15 percent.

So, have there been other trends since the 1960s that have impacted Catholic statistics, broadly defined? What has happened to Catholic birthrates, especially among Anglos and families with old ties to Catholic churches in Europe? What about Catholic birthrates in urban zip codes? What has happened to Mass attendance? To religious vocations?

I know that these stories cannot cover every possible angle on this kind of issue. But, in story after school-closings story, we see the same factors discussed as the "why" factor. At some point, journalists need to ask some new questions, as they seek answers to that question, "Where did the Catholic students go?"

Photo: From a website offering tips on decorating classroom doors in Catholic schools.

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