Coleman and Hoffer understood “functional community” to give unity and support to people in an institution. They defined it as “a community in which social norms and sanctions, including those that cross generations, arise out of the social structure itself, and both reinforce and perpetuate that structure.”6 A functional community is “social capital”: that relationship between people that produces trust, which, in turn, creates an atmosphere where more can be accomplished than when it is absent. The success of the Catholic schools is linked to the existence of its functional communities?they are communities of learning and believing.
Summary statements from their 1987 in-depth study entitled, Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, underscored higher achievement levels:
The Catholic schools bring about greater growth for the average students in both verbal and mathematical skills than do public schools, but not in science knowledge nor in civics where the two sectors provide comparable levels in achievement growth for the average students.
The achievement growth benefits of Catholic school attendance are especially strong for students who are in one way or another disadvantaged: lower socioeconomic status, Black, or Hispanic. A corollary of this is that the benefits are least strong for those who are from advantaged family background.
Catholic schools show a considerably less depressive effect of these family deficiencies in achievement growth than do public schools; other private (non-religious) schools show a greater depressive effect of these family deficiencies on achievement growth than do public schools.
The dropout rate from Catholic schools is strikingly lower than the rate from public schools. This reduced dropout rate holds both for those who show no signs of problems as sophomores and for those who as sophomores are academically or disciplinarily at risk of dropping out.
Coleman and Hoffer wanted a scientific explanation of the low dropout rate in Catholic schools. They hypothesized that there would be a similar explanation for the higher achievement in Catholic schools, fewer disciplinary programs, and higher aspirations of Catholic school students. In essence, they found that the very low dropout rate is evidence that the functional community surrounding the Catholic school does provide social resources which keep the students from dropping out.