Book Review

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Book Reviews
By Simeon Stumme

Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America

       by Brinig, M. & Garnett, N. S. (2014) Chicago, IL: University of Chcago Press.

I first came across this book, Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, by Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, as my colleague, Dara Soljaga, and I started a grant-funded project with Lutheran schools in the city of Chicago. The project centered on providing professional development for Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade teachers on language and literacy development. The book helped me understand the urgency of the work we were engaged in at the time.

The thesis of the book is clear and straightforward. Parochial schools in large urban centers have a deep and lasting impact on the community where they are present. This impact is greater than the sum of its parts: parochial schools tend to have higher graduation rates, better school attendance, better educational outcomes, and more content parents and students when compared to their local public schools. These impacts on individual students translate into communities that are more cohesive, have lower levels of violence and property crime, and are more stable (less transient). Brinig and Garnett argue that parochial schools in urban and working-class neighborhoods increase the community’s social capital. This, they assert, is unique to communities with parochial schools present. “…Our findings suggest that urban Catholic elementary schools are one kind of neighborhood institution that acts organically to generate neighborhood social capital” (2014, p. 89).

The authors provide evidence of the thesis through statistical analysis of data from several cities in the United States. Chicago is central to their research and the authors closely analyze the impact Catholic school closings have had on several communities. The use of data is accessible and does not require the reader to be a statistician to understand it. At the most basic level, the authors compare communities in which Catholics schools once existed and were closed with communities where parochial schools are still functioning. The findings support their thesis. Parochial schools have a positive impact on communities and function to increase social cohesion. Further, they argue, the data show that newly-opened charter schools do not replace the ability of parochial schools to create community social capital.

(For another review of the source that delves into the findings, this review of the book is helpful.

Here, I would like to revisit this important book in the context of our current work, which focuses solely on Lutheran schools in the City of Chicago. After the success of our first project with parochial schools, my colleague, Dara Soljaga, and I were asked to develop professional development and curricular alignment programming. This issue of the LEJ delves deeper into several of the areas we developed.

Like Catholic schools, Lutheran schools are striving to stay open and serve the communities in which they are located. Like Catholic schools, Lutheran schools were originally created to serve the religious and sociocultural needs of immigrant communities. As communities have changed, so has the school population. Like Catholic schools, Lutheran schools are connected to a parish; administratively, the two institutions, church and school, are connected. Lutheran and Catholic schools share financial struggles; they share a dependence on tuition and the contributions of outside donors. Unlike Catholic schools, where immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Eastern Europe and the Philippines are traditionally Catholic, most new immigrants do not have a historical connection to Lutheranism. Still, many recent immigrants enroll in Lutheran schools; likewise, many African Americans who do not identify as Lutherans attend these schools. This continued commitment to serving all students, regardless of religious affiliation is a testament to the vocation of the Lutheran school teachers and staff.

Finally, one critical factor Lutheran and Catholic schools share is a commitment to religious education. The authors articulate the importance of Christian education. They do not emphasize theological or dogmatic claims as the cause for parochial school success; rather, they frame their argument around the schools’ desire to build “intentional communities, featuring high levels of trust among students, parents, teachers, and administrators” (Brinig & Garnett, 2014, p. 115). They further argue that parochial “school teachers and administrators saw their role as not just educational but formative” (Brinig & Garnett, p. 115).

The common history and their shared current challenges allow for much of the authors’ analysis in Lost Classroom, Lost Community to be extended to the impact of Lutheran schools in the Chicagoland area. And, while Catholic schools outnumber Lutheran schools, each school represents a community that can benefit from the fundamental support of parochial education. And each community suffers when one these schools is closed. Lutheran schools occupy an important sociological space within working-class communities of the city. And their continued closing will have a negative effect on the social capital of the neighborhoods in which they strive to thrive.

In chapter 7, Brinig and Garnett present seven different explanations for how and why parochial schools are important institutions in the creation of social capital. All focus on the role of the schools in establishing meaningful community, increasing social engagement, creating social capital, and therefore, “suppress disorder and crime in neighborhoods where they are located” (2014, p. 121). The explanations rely on sociological theories to make their case. For example, the authors show in great detail how neighborhood networks in parochial schools explain greater amounts of social capital. They argue that changing policy on school choice in public institutions has left religious schools as the “neighborhood choice” for many parents. They write, parochial schools “generate social capital not (or perhaps not only) because they are educational institutions that connect parents but also because they are community institutions that connect neighbors. That is, they may generate community-specific social capital not because they are schools but because they are neighborhood institutions” (Brinig & Garnett, p. 131). Revisiting this book refocused my efforts on helping to create schools of excellence that focus on academic engagement and faith formation for all students. Parochial Lutheran schools in the city of Chicago are institutions of social cohesion. As the authors argue, they cannot be replaced by non-religious charter schools. Yes, these are beneficial to the students that attend these Lutheran schools (high graduation rates, greater academic proficiency, etc.); but more broadly, the schools are important institutions for the health and wellbeing of the city. The parochial Lutheran schools in Chicago benefit the wider community. LEJ

Dr. Simeon Stumme serves as co-principal investigator on many of the Center for Literacy’s projects and was instrumental in its development. He is currently an associate professor in the department of Teaching, Learning and Diversity at Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Stumme grew up in a missionary family and spent most of his formative years speaking Spanish. Professionally, he spent eleven years as an elementary classroom teacher in a bilingual and dual-language setting in Evanston, IL and in Southern California.