My husband, Mark, and I were sitting next to each other across from an English teacher at the public high school’s parent/teacher conferences. She and another teacher had just been laughing about something. Turning to give us her attention, she briefly explained her exchange.
“I guess some parents got upset when they heard there was a live, nude model in the art class today,” she smiled and rolled her eyes. It was clear that this teacher’s sympathies were not with the concerned parents. Mark and I exchanged glances. In that silent moment, we spoke volumes to each other: “What? A nude model! Are these people insane?!” After home schooling Aaron for 7-9th grade, we were deeply grateful that he was not taking art.
Two years later, our son, Luke started high school. This time, it was at St. Mary’s Central High School. Luke had kept some of his friends from the Catholic grade school he had attended from grades 1-3 before we began home schooling. He desperately wanted to go to school with these friends. Although initially we thought we could not afford it, we discovered that the school provided some help and ways for kids to help work towards the tuition. So, tightening our budget, we enrolled him at St. Mary’s.
During our first parent-teacher conference there, Mark picked up a copy of the school newspaper. On the back was a parody of zodiac signs and horoscopes. Granted, it was in jest and many Christians are unaware that horoscopes fall under the occult. However, we hoped that the Catholic school would not even loosely endorse horoscopes. Mark held the paper out to one of the teachers, Mr. S., and explained his concern. The teacher nodded his head wholeheartedly. “You are right,” he said. “I was just talking about that with Mrs. D. and she agreed with me that we should not have stuff like that in the paper.” To my knowledge, they never did again.
The Catholic Difference
Welcome to the difference. Yes, there are some great teachers at both Catholic and public schools. There are also bad teachers at both. But at least in our world, we are getting our money’s worth by paying for a Catholic education. We will be sending a seventh child there this fall. Our kids are learning their faith and integrating it into their day, having it reinforced through small faith and fun clubs such as Little Flowers and Knights of Virtue, weekly school Masses, a dress code (a nude model would not meet it) and a whole Catholic world that supports what we are trying to teach our children. Oh, did I mention the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament? During Lent, kids sign up for adoration. Then, there was the day of fasting the kids chose to participate in to sacrifice for the victims of Haiti.
Can you tell I’m excited about Catholic education? I’m not blind, however. Drinking, drugs and pregnancies do occur among the Catholic school kids. But look a little deeper. A pregnancy means there was not an abortion. Also, teachers and the priest on staff are quick to get personally involved on a spiritual level in the lives of these kids beyond school. And when there is a serious illness or death, the whole school comes together to pray.
Some Things Have Changed
When I attended Catholic school in Dearborn, MI, the standards in academic performance, dress and behavior were much stricter than today. I wore a uniform all twelve years and half the teachers were nuns in full habits. Knuckles were sometimes cracked with rulers for sloppy writing in grade school and nuns kept close watch on hemlines on skirts and the length of boys’ hair. Still we had fun; maybe even more fun at times than students in a less restrictive environment.
In the library in high school one morning, I looked up from my book and saw a fellow classmate climbing in through a window. The elderly nun/librarian did not notice him quickly pulling a book off a shelf and sliding into a chair across from me. “Brian, why do you even go here?” I whispered to this student, a public school transfer who was forever trying to get away with things. “I bet you were much happier at the public school?”
“No,” he answered, looking surprised. “It was too easy to get away with things there. Here, it’s a challenge.” Brian, in his own special way, understood the value of a Catholic school education. You did not get lost in the cracks and the faculty kept a close eye on you–although Brian certainly challenged their vigilance such as the day he used a Bunsen burner in chemistry class to imitate fire breathing. He did make things interesting.
Much has changed since then. In 1960, our country elected a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, as president. It was during this era that the number of Catholic schools reached their high-water mark. In 1965, 13,300 Catholic schools in this country enrolled 10 percent of all students and half of all Catholic students. But as time passed, Catholics melded more seamlessly into Americana. They started thinking there were better places to spend their money than on Catholic education. Even though the Catholic population almost doubled from 1965 to 1995, the number of Catholic schools in the U.S. had fallen to 8,220 (a loss of 5,080) with a total enrollment of 2.6 million students. But, the value of a Catholic education still holds to this day.
Some Things Never Change
In 2004 President George W. Bush spoke to Catholic Educators in Washington D.C. for the centennial celebration of the National Catholic Education Association. He described Catholic education as a “noble calling” and praised our schools as “models for all schools around the country.” He stated, “Catholic schools have a proven record of bringing out the best in every child, regardless of their background. And every school in America should live up to that standard.”
The United States Department of Education reported that Catholic School students are consistently high in reading, math, and science skills, and are especially effective in educating minority and low-income students. Ninety-nine percent of Catholic secondary school students graduate, and 97% go on to post-secondary education.
During this past Catholic Schools Week, Bishop Paul Zipfel spoke of the value of a Catholic education during a Mass at our high school. He explained that it is about so much more than just academic records. “Research also shows that graduates of Catholic schools are more closely bonded to the Church, more deeply committed to adult religious practices, have better images of God, and exhibit a greater awareness of the responsibilities for moral decision making,” he stated. “Although it never replaces the primary education that must take place in the home, it is one of the best investments we can make in the future faith of our children.”
Recently, Pope Benedict XVI speaking in Scotland to that country’s eleven Catholic bishops, endorsed the value of a Catholic education and urged them to protect it. “You can be proud of the contribution made by Scotland’s Catholic schools in overcoming sectarianism and building good relations between communities,” he said. “Faith schools are a powerful force for social cohesion, and when the occasion arises, you do well to underline this point.”
The Pope encouraged Catholic teachers to place special emphasis on religious education in order to produce “articulate and well-informed” followers capable of taking part in the highest levels of public life. He stressed the importance of a strong Catholic presence in the media and politics, the judiciary, the professions and the universities, “…as people of faith bear witness to the truth, especially when that truth is called into question,” he said.
The Question of Value
I admit, Catholic education has not been easy for us financially. But, the question has been one of value–is there something more important we can spend our money on? At the same time, we’ve been home schooling during grade school and junior high for the last fifteen years. I admit it would have been very difficult to pay for Catholic school for ten kids for all twelve years.
Ironically, this article began with the idea of Catholic home schooling being a treasure that many traditional Catholic schools overlook when it comes to building bridges through extracurricular activities or part-time enrollment at the upper levels. It’s too late in this article to introduce such a big thought, however. Perhaps another time.
In the meantime, I hope every Catholic reading this article seriously contemplates the Catholic education they are providing for their children whether through Catholic school, home school or providing it at home in addition to a public school education. As a CCD teacher for nine years, (on and off), I know first hand that the eight-month, once a week class (minus many days off for various reasons) is not nearly enough to provide solid religious training for our children. And regardless of the type of schooling you provide for your children, it is your God-given responsibility to integrate them into their Catholic faith through teaching and example.
I know that nothing is perfect and we Catholic school graduates all have our “stories” to tell of things that we got away with and shouldn’t have or things that should not have happened but did. It’s not a perfect world but we must look for the school that best reinforces our values. Hands down, for us, that would be St. Mary’s Central High School.
No doubt there are many good reasons why children from some Catholic families are not attending a Catholic school (whether private or home schooled). However, no doubt, there are also many bad reasons why Catholic kids are not in Catholic schools. It’s not about isolation or elitism, it’s about the beauty and fullness of our Catholic faith and not skimping on our children in the most important areas of their lives.