As Catholic Schools Close, Minorities See a Lifeline Slipping Away

From the New York Times: 

Sonia Sotomayor lives in Washington, but she has never forgotten her roots in the Bronx. On a drizzly March afternoon, she returned to Blessed Sacrament School, where she began her celebrated, if improbable, journey from her South Bronx childhood to the Supreme Court. But instead of a joyous reunion, it was more of a valedictory for her and the children — the school is closing for good.

“I’m really upset,” Justice Sotomayor told a fourth-grade class. “It’s hard to say goodbye. I won’t tell you it’s easy. I won’t lie to you.”

The children drew close and peppered her with questions: Why is the archdiocese closing the school? Doesn’t it know their parents worked hard? Why couldn’t it come up with the money? One girl, crying, got up and slumped into Justice Sotomayor’s embrace. The justice, her voice steady and reassuring, reminded the children to cherish the good times and move confidently ahead. But later, she, too, revealed her pain.

“The worst thing is, these kids could lose their faith in the adults around them,” she said in an interview inside her old fifth-grade classroom. “Children need to feel secure. This makes it worse. These kids are going to carry this trauma with them for the rest of their lives.”

Justice Sotomayor’s emotions are shared by a generation of accomplished Latino and black professionals and public servants who went from humble roots to successful careers thanks to Catholic schools. But they fear that a springboard that has helped numerous poor and working-class minority students achieve rewarding lives is eroding as Catholic schools close their doors in the face of extraordinary financial challenges and demographic shifts.

Since 2011, the Archdiocese of New York has closed 56 schools, the vast majority of them elementary schools, including 13 in the Bronx. Now 219 schools remain in the education system. Blessed Sacrament is one of 26 schools closing this year throughout the archdiocese, which covers the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and seven counties north of New York City.

According to archdiocesan figures, enrollment in elementary and high schools shrank to 75,875 this year from 95,837 in 2006. While the Latino percentage of total enrollment increased during that period, the proportion of black elementary school students dropped precipitously, to 17 percent of enrollment from 31 percent.

Catholic high schools, which routinely boast of near 100 percent college admissions for their graduates, are worried that they will face harder times with fewer parochial schools to feed their ranks. And minority alumni are increasingly alarmed that New York will be deprived of a future generation of professionals — like lawyers, doctors and executives — to contribute economic and cultural vitality.

“The Catholic schools have been a pipeline to opportunity for generations,” said Justice Sotomayor, who was raised by her mother after her father, an alcoholic, died. “It gave people like me the chance to be successful. It provided me and my brother with an incredible environment of security. Not every school provides that.”

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