This fall, I read The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen because I was curious as to whether his exploration of island biogeography and extinction had any application to Catholic schools.  Quammen posits that islands are the source of our evolutionary diversity.  In fact, he argues that isolation plus time yields new species.  He examines the factors which lead to the rise of these species as well as the extinction. Here’s another great article about species extinction.

If you approach Catholic schools—or American schools in general—as an ecosystem, Quammen’s work has value.  Recently, Edutopia published a great article comparing schools to ecosystems.  Certainly, the emphasis on autonomy and site-based management in our Catholic schools resists any systems thinking.  And we (Catholic schools) need to think ourselves that way.  When a Catholic school closes, we all suffer.  We should be committed to collaborating to raise all boats.

Quammen argues that evolution is a consequence of insularity and isolation.  Evolution is a consequence of geographical isolation and thus explains why islands are the source of such species diversity.  This could be interpreted as an argument against systems thinking and for site-based autonomy.  But if one widened the interpretation of island to the entire country (as opposed to Catholic schools across the world) his argument has validity.  Catholic schools have a strong and unique development in this country as the country has grown.

But the growth in numbers of schools and students has reversed over the past few decades.  Why?  And does it mean we’re heading for extinction?

Quammen points to deterministic (human-caused) and stochaistic (beyond human control) factors which contribute to extinction.  Just as islands are the source of such diversity, they are also the sites of most extinctions.  The dodo, for example, was a Madagascar bird which developed into a large, flightless bird.  Without predators, wings weren’t necessary.  Their size insured them against famine and allowed them to fill an environmental niche.  However, deterministic causes (hunting) caused them to become extinct.  These causes don’t have as much application to Catholic schools, although one could argue that without competition many Catholic schools became bloated and resistant to innovation.

The stochaistic factors, however, are relevant: habitat loss, alien competition, plague, and habitat loss.  Look at the demographic shifts in the size of Catholic families.  Or the loss of religious teaching sisters.  Or the drop in Mass attendance and church contributions.  Add charter schools, magnet schools, and other public school innovations competing for students.  These are all real stochaistic factors which have affected our ecosystem.  These changes have caused “trophic cascades” to our schools—meaning disruptions which affect all parts of the ecosystem.

In the last third of the book, Quammen examines the controversies surrounding wildlife preserves—the appropriate size as well as the necessary equilibrium.  As the area shrinks, species immigration ceases.  The equilibrium of an ecosystem tips and extinctions rise.  The use of immigration has real applications to the Catholic school ecosystem.  I wonder if Catholic schools are set up to absorb new populations (Catholic and non-Catholic).  Or if they’re ready to shrink their models to adapt to the new situation.  In some areas, those population levels of 30 or more years ago are simply unrealistic.

Quammen also points to research for the minimum viable population in an area.  If Catholic schools are not ready to expand their potential population by serving Hispanic and non-Catholic communities, then are they willing to accept that they might not have a minimum viable population?

Song of the Dodo is a great read—entertaining and fascinating—which has relevance to our thoughts about Catholic schools as an ecosystem.  Even the author, however, cautions against overapplying island biogeography to our Catholic schools.  But the book provides insight and new way of approaching our systematic problems.

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