Catholic or Private?

A few weeks ago, during a curriculum standards meeting, one of our principals related the following incident:

A prospective parent called the school to get information about enrolling their child. During the course of the conversation the woman said that she wanted “a good private education” for her child. The secretary (God bless her!) replied that they have “a very good Catholic school.” Undeterred, the mother reiterated again: “Well, I just want a good private education for my child.”

Somewhere along the way people have got the idea that Catholic education is private education. This is, I believe, a dangerous misconception, for it implies two things which go against the nature and purpose of a Catholic school.

1. Catholic schools are non-exclusive.

Private schools are by their very nature exclusive; some people are allowed in, others are not, usually on the basis of some sort application process. This is not to say that they don’t value diversity or offer scholarships to students who cannot afford the tuition, but the assumption is that students have to earn their way into the school.

Catholic schools, on the other hand, welcome all. At their best, Catholic schools reflect the communities in which they are situated. This includes race, ethnicity, special educational needs, and socio-economic status. Tuition must be paid, of course, but I have seen Catholic schools bend over backwards to provide scholarships for students who could not otherwise afford to go to the school.

This committment is even reflected in educational policies. In our own diocese we have an unfortunate history of racism (including some so-called “sundown towns”) which actually led the diocese to enact a policy forbidding parents from using Catholic schools as a means of de facto segregation. The focus for the Catholic school should be on inclusion whenever possible, and avoiding an air of  privilege  or partiality.

2. Catholic schools are focused on discipleship, not matriculation.

Catholic schools, like many private schools, have a reputation for academic excellence — and rightly so! Students from these schools have higher rates of college attendance and higher SAT scores than students from public schools.

Yet, for Catholic schools, this isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the main focus. The main focus is on creating disciples for Christ. Catholic schools are a tool for evangelization and catechiesis, not an alternative means of secular education. Catholic schools prepare students to live as Christians in a world that, too often, is  ambivalent  or hostile to faith. This means that, before anything else, schools must encourage their students to build habits of virtue, participation in the faith, and prayer if their faith is to survive after leaving school.

Education in history, science, math, and the like are a part of that preparation, but only with an eye towards a lived faith.  Indeed, this focus should be so unrelenting that, if things were to get drastic enough, I would rather see Catholic schools toss out math and reading than their religious curriculum!

If Catholic schools are to survive into the 21st century, they must be clear on who they serve and what they seek to accomplish. Allowing a perception of “private” education to creep into the public’s perception of our identity is, I believe, counterproductive to our survival and our goal.

photo by mertala/FlickrCC

What makes for a healthy Catholic school?

This is the question our Diocesan Board of Catholic Education has been wrestling with this year. And, as you may guess, it is not an easy question! There are many different factors that contribute to our schools. But, as we’ve reflected on the question, we’ve settled on three key themes:

Catholicity “ This is the sum total of the Catholic identity of our schools. It starts with an identifiably Catholic environment “ crucifixes and statues in the classrooms, icons on the wall “ but can’t be confined to that. It also includes regular prayer, teachers and administrators who uphold the doctrines of the Church, recognition that we are part of a Church that is larger than our parish, and families that participate regularly in the Sunday Eucharist.

Expertise “ Because our schools are places of learning we need excellent educators to lead them. Teachers with state certification who are engaged in continuing catechetical formation; school boards with members who can contribute their knowledge and skills; principals committed to leading even in difficult times; all of these contribute to the shared knowledge and wisdom needed to help students achieve their potential.

Resources “ Of course, no program can run smoothly without adequate resources in place. This means tuition, of course, but it also means support from the parish as well as corporate and individual donors; the time and talent of volunteers; up-to-date textbooks and technology; and robust fundraising activities such as annual fund drives and auctions.

Which of these is the most important? While I’m tempted to say the first, the truth is that they are interdependent; a Catholic school cannot thrive without all three. A school with a foundation in the Church and a strong endowment, but without a solid curriculum or well-prepared teachers, will not graduate students ready for the next phase of their live. A school with excellent teachers and a vibrant faith life but no funding won’t keep its doors open long!

Our challenge is to keep all three pistons firing in order to maintain the œengine  of our schools.