Why Are the Catholic Schools Closing?

The Catholic school population in New York City is dropping precipitously, but why?

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The New York Times reports that the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes both Brooklyn and Queens, is closing at least 14 elementary schools due to lack of enrollment, in addition to the 32 it’s already closed since 2005. The Diocese says enrollment has dropped and they need to consolidate.

But why is this? Catholic schools are a tremendous institution in New York City. They have a much-touted record of producing high academic achievement without high spending or exorbitant tuition. They have served as a stepping stone from the working class to the middle class for generations of immigrations, first from Ireland and Italy and more recently from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

If I had to guess at a reason, it would be the changing demographic profile of the city’s immigrants: European Catholic immigrants were initially replaced by Latino and Caribbean immigrants, but the current wave of immigrants to Brooklyn and Queens are not Catholic. They come predominantly from Asia, Russia and the Middle East. My secondary guess would be that the proliferation of charter and magnet public schools has given other choices to the sort of families who sent their kids to outer-borough Catholic schools — people with a strong commitment to their children’s education, but not a ton of money.

Indeed, the Times has a pair of stories on both trends I mention: new immigration patterns and more charter schools. One is about a Hebrew-language charter school that was just approved to open. It is expected to cater to Russian and Israeli immigrants in Brooklyn. Another reports that in Minneapolis, East African immigrants cluster in certain charter schools.

Still, neither of these explanations is completely satisfying. New York has an extraordinary number of students in private or parochial schools — more than half of all high-school students in the city attend school outside the public system. If the kids are not going to Catholic school they must be going somewhere. I’d like to know more about why this trend is happening and what it means for New York City and education.

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Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.

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Tags: new york cityimmigrationpublic schools

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