Last week I got an email that begins with journalistic clarity I could never improve upon:
“My name is Carolyn Strong and I am a parent at Christ Our Savior Catholic School in South Holland, Illinois. The archdiocese recently announced that they were closing four Catholic schools. What they failed to say was that all of these schools were located in either Black or Brown communities. What they also failed to acknowledge was that with the closing of Christ Our Savior and St. Ann located in South Holland and Lansing respectively, they have created a 25-mile dearth of Catholic education in the southeast suburbs.”
That seemed worth a follow-up. I phoned Strong, who has a doctorate in education.
“We have 146 students, all Black and Brown, 137 Black, nine Latino,” she said. “It is the only all-minority Catholic school outside of the city. There are no others. My decision to send her there: because I am an educator, there are certain things I’m looking for. Because we’re a two-educator household. Because I am raising Black children, what I’m looking for is a mixture of academic rigor and cultural responsibility and a chance for my child to see herself reflected in the day-to-day of the school. Representation is very important. I’ve learned from my own work, which centers around Black students, the impact of anti-racism on Black kids. Representation matters. When you’re ‘othered’ from such a young age it has an impact moving forward; it’s not a good one. That was top of mind choosing a school.”
She has two daughters. Eden, 18, in the middle of her COVID-constrained freshman year at Northwestern. And Ever, 5, in first grade at Christ Our Savior. That age gap is no accident, Strong said. Raising a gifted daughter requires undivided attention and determination.
“There are people who believe you can’t be both Black and smart,” Strong said. “The things we went through with our older daughter. People doubting her. We came in with IQ scores. Came in with testing. None of that stuff mattered. All they saw was a Black child.”
Christ Our Savior is different.
“They were willing to dispel the notion that Black means inferior,” Strong said. “Unfortunately, there are not a lot of spaces willing to do that. That was a large part of what made that decision: they care about those kids. Those kids are not a number. If I were to call that school right now, they would know who I was. As an educator, I know that that’s rare. I’m sure that has to do with class size. They care enough to know who you are.”
What’s the archdiocese’s solution?
“They sent us a list,” she said. “There’s nothing. Go to Chicago Heights. Go to Midlothian. Go to these places 30, 40 miles out of your way. It doesn’t work logistically and doesn’t work for what I want for my child. Some of these other places may not remember me, but I remember them, from when I was searching for a school for my oldest daughter. I talked about acceleration and they looked me dead in my face and said every parent thinks their child is brilliant.”
To Strong, this is racism.
“Part of my concern with this is, in this go-round, four schools were closed,” she said. “The four schools are minority schools. Two white schools on the chopping block, they were given an opportunity to merge. St. Benedict and St. Walter in Blue Island are not closing. The white schools got the opportunity to merge. Why weren’t we given the opportunity to merge? Why can’t you put any money into a school in the south suburbs, where there is literally no other access to Catholic education? Why can’t you put any money into one Black Catholic school? The archdiocese could at least talk to us, could at least give us a chance to save ourselves. What would it take? How much money would it take? How many resources? Because you didn’t tell us. You just said, ‘You’re closing.’ Obviously, you did that for other schools. Why aren’t we afforded the opportunity?”
The archdiocese views the situation differently.
“We sincerely regret the decision to close Christ Our Savior; it is not a decision we wanted to make,” said Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese. “Because of a prolonged history of enrollment decline, we reached a point where we were unable to continue.”
How bad a decline? When Christ Our Savior was formed in 2005 — from a merger of three or four schools, according to school COO Walter Matthew — it had 700 students. Now it has, not the 146 Strong mentioned, but 129. It lost $160,000 in 2019 and $225,000 in 2020 and is projected to lose $300,000 this year.
“We have been working with the leadership of Christ Our Savior for years,” Rigg said.
Nor is it fair to call the merging schools, St. Benedict and St. Walter, “white schools” — their demographics, like Chicago’s, are thirds: one-third white, one-third Hispanic, one-third Black. They’re merging, the archdiocese says, because they’re a mile and a half apart. The closest school to Christ Our Savior is six miles away.
“Catholic education is a major priority of the archdiocese of Chicago,” said Rigg. “However, our schools must adapt to demographic shifts. We do open and expand Catholic schools. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to take steps. We see closure as a last resort, but we try to be transparent and make sure people are aware. We believe we have taken those steps with Christ Our Savior School.”
So where does that leave us? I’d hate to put my thumb on the scale for either a caring, engaged parent or a high-quality school system facing hard choices. But hearing Strong, I felt obligated to share both her thoughts and the archdiocese’s response. I’ll leave it to you to decide who’s right, while pointing out it is possible they both are.