This is the third in a series of columns on the importance of giving all Catholic kids a Catholic education (Part one, Part two). The presumption of the series is that we, as Catholic parents, are primarily responsible for giving our children an education that includes the essential ingredients of Catholic teaching no matter where they learn their ABC's and 123's. If our child is enrolled in a Catholic school, then all the essential knowledge in the ways of the Faith — heart, hand, and head knowledge — are going to be mixed into our child's school day.
In considering Catholic institutions, it is important to look at each school individually and with an eye to four important points: first, consistency in applying Church teachings across all classes and programs; second, the model of Catholic Christian living provided by the faculty; third, whether religion teachers and campus ministers are in line with the Magisterium, enthused, and engaged; and fourth, the vision and spiritual commitment of school administrators. Intellectual rigor and all our other educational desires remain important, but we will not accomplish our goal of giving them a thorough and authentic Catholic education by sending them to an institution that has for whatever reason morphed into just another private school with a veneer of Catholicism.
Our two older children attended a Catholic grammar school in California that had just such a veneer. Relationships with teachers and administrators that began with mutual respect, ended with confusion and disappointment. Despite having holy statues and crosses everywhere, after three years of involvement with the school, nothing could conceal the decidedly non-Catholic agenda of several important faculty members. It indiscreetly filtered through the curricula and down to the students. So disillusioned were we that we only barely considered a Catholic school when our oldest was ready for high school. But, thank heaven, we did consider one in our diocese; Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, MA. The spiritual and intellectual integrity of this Catholic high school has renewed our faith in the Catholic school system, and we are genuinely grateful to be partnering with them in educating our high school students.
Cost and distance are the most formidable barriers to enrollment in a Catholic school. Where we live in the Diocese of Fall River in the 2006-2007 school year, the lowest Catholic school tuition is $1,850 per year for pre-kindergarten and the highest is $6,950 per year for high school. That's a lot of clams to shell out for school tuition, so parents may need to make some hard financial decisions. Parents I've talked to come up with tuition by delaying home repairs, driving used cars, and dipping into savings accounts. Others sacrifice vacations, boats, golfing, eating out, and recreational shopping. We have never had a stash of cash labeled "free and clear to be used for tuition." Nonetheless, my husband and I determined that it was during high school, even more than during college, that we wanted our teens to continue in a system of learning where their hearts, hands, and heads would be educated side-by-side. Praying that God would make up where we lacked financially, we applied for need-based financial aid, my husband got a second job, we refinanced our house, cut household spending, and gratefully accepted help from extended family.
It's no fun to realize we can't have or do everything, but if we weigh the cost of providing the pleasures and perks of life against the cost of giving our child a Catholic education, we might find that we can balance the bank book by replacing one with the other. Every diocese in the country will have different aid programs; in our diocese, need-based scholarships for elementary and middle school students are available through the generous efforts of the St. Mary's Education Fund. Need-based assistance is also offered by individual high schools.
In terms of distance, every school will be different, but all have car pools, and some have busing. Faith in God's providence, along with hard work and getting assistance where possible — that is how most families are able to enroll their kids in a Catholic school. Even if the cost or the commute appears insurmountable, I would encourage families to investigate the lifelong benefits of giving their children a good Catholic education. Next time, we will take a look at our child's faith formation in partnership with non-Catholic grammar and middle schools.