Closing Schools Is Same as Turning Back on Students


It’s over. The furniture has been tagged and removed, the books have been packed up and picked over, and the crucifixes have been taken off the walls.

At Holy Redeemer, the high school where I have taught for the past decade, 105 years of history in Southwest Detroit has come to an abrupt end.

Redeemer is not alone. Eight high schools have been closed – without so much as a pastoral visit from our church leaders or a letter of explanation or gratitude from the Archdiocese of Detroit.

While the outrage is still palpable, the deeper response is grief. Grief over the destruction of our tight-knit school communities. Grief over the abandonment of children in a city ravaged by a cruel economy. Grief over the loss of our ministries. Grief over the dismissal of our dreams.

Perhaps the greatest grief of all is reserved for the church itself, a church that appears blind to what it is giving up by turning its back on these young people and their schools. The students, parents, staff and teachers who have been protesting the closing of the schools want more than anything for the Church to look – really look – at what it is losing.

If we are one body in Christ, as St. Paul says, then the church in closing these core city and working-class suburban schools is choosing to reject a part of the body that is precious and irreplaceable. The church – indeed the world – needs what these schools and students have to offer. Far from being a drain and a burden, these schools constitute the very heart of our archdiocese and the lifeblood of their neighborhoods.

Archdiocesan spokesman Ned McGrath was quoted as saying that “the demographics and economics kept heading in the wrong direction” for the schools being closed. It’s true.

While more than 90% of our students went on to colleges and universities in a city with a high school dropout rate that hovers near 60%, the demographics and the money did head in the wrong direction. But McGrath’s explanation raises the question: In which direction would Jesus walk?

Is it possible that in walking away from its core city and working-class schools, the church itself is heading in the wrong direction?

While there is no disputing the fact that the archdiocese helped subsidize these schools, the blame for the closings has been unjustly placed on the schools. The archdiocese has cited the lower enrollment numbers at these schools as a justification for shutting their doors without taking into account the changing nature of the teaching ministry in today’s world.

It is precisely the small and steady size of our schools that nurtures the family atmosphere that has allowed our students to succeed. If small class size were a criterion for closing schools, then it would seem Sacred Heart Seminary, with its dwindling enrollment, should be on the chopping block as well. For those of us who believe deeply in Catholic education, it is a simple matter of priorities. It is not a matter of “Will we spend money?” but rather, “On what shall we spend it?”

When Cardinal Adam Maida told President George W. Bush that “we just don’t have the resources to accommodate” our schools, the cardinal revealed his priorities. The schools are obviously not as important as renovations to the Cathedral, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, or the St. John Family Center in Plymouth, all projects for which money has been found. Clearly, the students who are losing their schools matter less than the seminarians whose student loans will be financed by a $250-a-plate fundraiser at the Ritz Carlton.

The second justification for closing the schools had to do with the number of non-Catholic children attending them. A priest from one of the more affluent schools argued this point with me on the afternoon of Redeemer’s final graduation.

“I don’t understand why they’re closing Redeemer, “ he said, “considering that so many of your students are Catholic. But the students at most of those other schools are Baptist, and our job is to teach Catholic kids. You’re a teacher, not a missionary.”

“You mean, Father,” I snapped, “that the kids at the other schools and it’s our job to teach middle-class white kids.” I then quoted Mary McDonald from the Memphis archdiocese, who said, “We don’t teach students because they’re Catholic; we teach them because we are.”

I don’t recall Jesus saying, “Let the children come unto me . . . only if they’re Catholic.”

If our church cannot recognize the value of what we offer Catholics and non-Catholics alike in our schools, then it is blind indeed. Until our church confesses the sin of racism – and it is a grave sin – we are going to be less than whole. The gift of religious, racial, and cultural diversity in our schools is a great gift to the church that – sadly – is being rejected.

Yes, the grief over what the church is walking away from as it bolts the doors to these schools is heartbreaking.

Surely, if the archdiocese had looked at our students, our schools, our ministry through the eyes of faith, it would have found a way to work with us to ensure that education would continue to thrive in our Detroit Catholic schools.

Published in Detroit Free Press, June 16, 2005