Catholic Schools: You Might Want to Reconsider

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.

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • Greg Fazzari

    Patti – thank you for your thoughtful article. As the “new spring-time” comes about, I am convinced that Catholic Schools can play a major roll. Catholic schools are worth fighting for. Making Catholic schools authentic is worth our time and effort.

  • theshahids

    Wow, if you think the small differences in fatih and morals between the public school system and the Catholic school system is good, then you would be floored by Catholic homeschooling. If you look to where the vast majority of the the next generation of priests and religious are coming from, you’ll find a beautiful network of homeschools.

  • kirbys

    We, too, have been homeschooling our 7 children through 8th grade, then sending them to Catholic high school. SOme friends are very successfully homeschooling hish schoolers, but I know my limits and until the Holy Spirit knocks us upside the head, this is our plan! Nothing is perfect–how do you homeschool and also prepare your children for the “real world,” so thay they do not have too much of a “smugness” about the rest of the world? (Answer: very carefully! 🙂 )

    Anyway, we have met some very dedicated teachers who have been a good influence on our children, and they have always found friends they can rely on.

  • bambushka

    My grandchildren are fourth generation students of Catholic Education. It is ususally worth the sacrifice and effort.

    But this year the NCEA have invited Garrison Keellor to speak his wisdom to the group. UGGGH. What can he say that will inspire those in attendance to be uplifted in their faith and give those in their care a sense of the holy? Today, it seems more important to be entertained than to be inspired.

    Pray for Catholic school teachers. The competition for minds is tremendous.

  • I’m reminded of a saying, “If you want you kids to defend the faith, send them to public school. If you want them to lose their faith, send them to Catholic school.” While obviously a broad generality (since there are many fine Catholic schools), there is an element of truth.

  • pjem311

    Although I enjoyed the article, I can tell you that in South Florida Catholic schools are in a sorry state. I taught at a local K-8 school (middle school language arts) and this is what I saw in my 3 years there:

    –Religion was an elective
    –Many teachers who were not Catholic
    –A small group of parents who fundraised and then demanded preferential treatment for their children
    –A principal who had no formation, to the point of asking a teacher “how does one pray the rosary?”
    –Complaints that fell onthe deaf ears of the parents
    –True Catholic families leaving by the dozens
    –Etc., etc.

    I have a sister who has 9 children, another who has 5 and a sister-in-law that has 4. Adding my wife with our 3, they all homeschool and have raised children (including 2 priests as compared to 0 by the 40 year old Catholic school) that are more charitable, educated, spiritual, etc., than any student I ever taught in Catholic school.

    But yes, it is true, if it is your only option to public school, then go for the lesser evil. After I left private teaching, I taught 2 years 7th grade at the school district. More than half of the 12 & 13 year olds there were more interested in Ipods, sex and marijuana than in learning. So much for the theory that homeschoolers miss out on “social skills”…

  • patti

    I suspected there would comments from people complaining about Catholic schools that are not really Catholic. I homeschool until high school and I happen to think St. Mary’s is a model Catholic school because it teaches and practices solid Catholicism. Everything is not perfect, but it’s been a good choice for us. It is heartbreaking when principals are not solid Catholics. If the captain of the ship does not know the way, you can’t trust him/her to navigate a straight course. We should not put our kids on a lost or sinking ship. Parents in such a school should always speak up if the Catholic faith is being compromised to the offending teacher, principal the school board or the pastor. At a minimum, you would have done your duty before God for our children.

    We do need to pray for our Catholic schools. What a travesty to have a Catholic school and then through neglect or rejecting what is truly Christian to let fall away. I too would not pay tuition for a Catholic school that did not support my Catholic values. We should hold our schools to a higher standard. That is why I pointed out that some people do have valid reasons for not sending their kids to Catholic schools. However, I did not let parents off the hook. If they are not going to homeschool (not everyone is called to do so) they still need to take their role as primary religious educator very seriously.

  • Greg Fazzari

    Homeschooling is great for those that can do it. Catholic schools and Catholic home-schoolers should have much in common. I have neve understood the hard feelings between them. I have seen “horror stories” on both sides…Catholic schools and home schools. I have also seen excellence on both sides.

    If you find that your local Catholic school is not living up to it’s potential – get involved. Imagine what could be…if the Catholic school was exceptional! The effect on the local community could be extraordinary – it is worth the battle!!

  • backtothebeat4

    Being a junior in high school, and having gone to a catholic school all my life, i can tell you from first hand experience that i will never send my kids to a catholic school. The first reason is in private school there is no diversity. i can count of one hand the number or non-white kids at my school, all the kids come from wealthy backround, and no one has truely gone out and seen the world. Most of my friends and i, believe that in a catholic school the faith is forced upon you. Forced mass, forced reconciliation, and forced adoration are not going to bring you closer to God. People are also sheltered from the real world. People are poor in this world, there are people that don’t believe in God. And placing your kids in a sheltered perfect environment is not going to help the world. I work part time at a public school after program, and this experience has truley changed my life. The first day was a total shocker and i will never forget walking in and seeing half as many black people as white people. There are jewish people too, also hindu people and athiests. Placing children in catholic school shelters them from the real world and does not teach kids how to defend the faith. The responsiblity of religious education lies with the parents, and they need to show kids how to practice their faith in the real world.

  • patti

    Hey, backtothebeat4,

    I hear you. Keep in mind that I have teens and young adults now. All my kids that went to the Catholic school (the oldest didn’t) are very glad that they did. I have two black kids. They were the minority of 2. Have you seen the movie Blindside? That’s so much like my second son from Kenya–the great athlete, struggling from early education deprivation in a very white environment. Yet, they too are so glad they went to St. Mary’s.

    I know what you are saying regarding forced Mass, forced confession, etc. But is your education also forced? Face it, we parents have an obligation to give you all that God has to offer. It’s our job to force education, health care, and a host of other things. At this stage, we cannot allow you to reject Catholic teaching and practices (no we can’t force you to love it, we just want you to) What happens at St. Mary’s, is that due to the strong spirituality, the kids stop feeling forced (if they ever did) and begin to embrace it. Some kids that started out partying, have ended up in the priesthood. I think we are #5 in the country for per capita seminarians. Catholic practices are not bad things, they are gifts. We don’t want to force them on you, we want to give them to you in hopes you will receive them.

    One of my sons, Luke, is now in Guatemala working as the program director for the God’s Child Project. Another son spent 3 months there and now lives in MN with my oldest. Their sheltered high school years were really not sheltered, they were guided.

    Yes, you will find elitism and all sorts of bad qualities in Catholic schools is you look for them. Jesus had apostles with bad qualities such as Peter’s impulsiveness, all but John ran away and I can’t speak for every Catholic school in the country. I know not all of them are as good as ours. But I’m wondering if you are so busy rebelling against the Catholic school that you are rejecting all that it has to offer? Wonderful that you are ready to be out in the world and leave a sheltered environment. I just hope and pray that you don’t leave the integrity of your Catholic faith behind. Go out and be Catholic, loving others and being an example of Christ.

  • backtothebeat4

    hey patti, I agree with your statement about the forced education, but
    I still do not agree with forced religion. I have not lost faith in God personally or left my faith behind, i am just speaking of some of my, and my fellow peers frustrations. I enjoy going to mass weekly, but its almost an insult to have people there who quite obviously don’t want to be there, and are disrespectful about it. It’s not that i don’t want people to come to mass, I am all for filling up the church, but i don’t believe forcing people is the answer.

    Another disagreement with our catholic school system, and our church as a whole i have is the pressuring of young men to enter the priesthood. I would first off like to say that men should not be told to enter the priesthood, but to listen for God’s call to become a priest. Not ever man age 17 is called by God to become a priest. Yes every man should consider this, but they should also consider single life, and married life as well. In Marriage and vocations class we have had two weeks of class worth of lectures and videos of why we should become priests.Today a teacher told me (and i quote) i believe you are rejecting a call from God to become a priest by commiting to this college. That is absolutely ridiculous. My teacher has no idea if i am called by God to become a priest. We need not to be persuaded to become priests, but learn how to listen for Gods call for our vocation, if that may be priesthood or married life or single life.

  • patti

    Well, I mostly agree with you. Entering the priesthood is certainly between a man and God, although encouragement from parents, teachers and religious, is a good thing to help guide young people’s path. In Bismarck, I know young men that have wanted to enter the seminary and they were told to hold off and spend more time discerning. I also know former seminarians that ultimately decided they were not being called to the priesthood, but value the time they spent in the seminary. I agree with you that gentle encouragement is good but certainly not downright pressure.

    It’s unfortunate to have young people at Mass not being respectful, but if you have a Catholic school and then say: “Who wants to go to Mass and who doesn’t?” then you have a chaotic atmosphere. Parents give their children an education because it is important. They also give them religion because it’s even more important. Ultimately, kids will grow up and decide for themselves. Attending Mass is beautiful and powerful and should be a part of the Catholic school experience. If there are people with bad attitudes, that’s unfortunate but inevitable. At least they are in a place where God is present, and who knows, maybe something will get through. If not, well, are these kids allowed to be disrespectful in history class? If they are, does that give them a free pass to leave? Why are you so quick to want to exclude religion when people have bad attitudes?

    And what about you? Do you ever stand up for your faith, defend God and tell kids that their behavior is disrespectful, not just to the other kids but to the God you worship? It’s hard to speak out sometimes, but remember, Jesus told us that if you were ashamed of Him before man, He would be ashamed of you in Heaven. I know I slaughtered that quote but you get the idea. And if the kids give you a bad time for defending God, then remember, “Blessed are those that are persecuted for my sake.”

    I understand everything you are saying. I was always one to question things too and I have a some kids that are doing that right now. In the end, I can only teach them and lead them. They will be the ones to ultimately choose their own course.

    God bless you!

  • patti

    Dear Backtothebeat4,

    I’m wondering what kind of school you go to? Someone emailed me wondering if it was a Legion of Christ school. Bismarck is #5 for seminarians per capita in the country. I know the vocations director and I have 5 boys that have gone through the Catholic high school. I can vouch for the fact that kids are encouraged but NEVER pressured.

  • backtothebeat4

    Dear Patti,
    I go to O’gorman high school in sioux falls south dakota, don’t get me wrong its not a bad school, it just has some flaws, and partially its just me disagreeing with the idea of catholic schools. Like I said earlier i’m more for going out and seeing the real world, instead of a more “sheltered” (if you will) education.

  • patti

    Hmmm, wonder what you mean by “sheltered” education? If it’s that Catholic teachings are given in spite of a world that often rejects this, then “guided” and “consistent” would be my words. Love is the primary lesson, however, and students at our school are not sheltered from the issues of the day. There are yearly trips to an Indian Reservation to work, to Guatamala’s God Child Project, again to work, and the Senior trip to Rome. That’s surely not sheltered.

    Of course, in a storm, a shelter is a good thing. When you do go out into the world and there are storms to weather–as there always are–then I hope the shelter of your religious upbringing will give you comfort and protection.

    I know nothing about your school, so of course I have no idea if it’s all it could be in terms of preparing you for the world. You are feeling pressured to the priesthood. I agree that such an approach is not how one hears God’s call. I only hope that your Catholic faith provides some guidance and protection when you embark into the future.

    God bless you,

  • walkthewalk

    Visiting some Wisconsin friends last Friday evening, we went to a HS football game at SMC where there son played. I will not say whether he played for the public school or SMC as I was unimpressed with some of the sportsmanship demonstrated on both sides.

    Since I was a visitor, I did feel somewhat impartial and questioned why the officiating was so imbalanced toward SMC and why the SMC coaches were so very rude. At the same time, the visiting school, which was very difficult to observe across the field in the rain, seemed a bit lacking in control of their players at times and the fans were, at times, at bit rude. Perhaps, if the officials would have followed ALL of the rules things would not have gotten so far out of hand.

    When the SMC coaches ran out on the field to celebrate the sacking of a High School QB, I wondered where their Catholic Faith was. When 5 members of the opposing team slid in the mud on this field, I wondered where things had gone so wrong.

    As I left, I noticed the opposing team quieting boarding their bus with their coaches. Numerous “Good Catholic???” parents stood around these children with their middle fingers raised in the air and shouted obsenities at them. I believe I saw one or two of the teams coaches with them. I later went online and read the code of conduct for SMC and this behavior did not describe what they wanted to see from “Good Catholic Children.”

    I will not be sending my children to this school nor would I recommend anyone else to either. As we Catholics try to stand strong amid bad press, we cannot condone this type of behavior from parents of students who are being coached by men and women who are inciting our children to behave in a manner that brings shame to our faith. I heard the mutterings of “typical hypacritical Catholics” from a fan from another school and I wanted to cry. THAT IS NOT THE BEHAVIOR OF A TRUE CATHOLIC!!!

    SMC you might think that you have some reasons to complain about but please use this as an example of those men and women of the Bible who suffered greater pains and held their heads much higher in the name of our Lord. Shame on your coaches for NOT following the rules during the game. Shame on the officials for not making you, And shame on the rest of you who call yourself “Good Catholics” for your obscene demonstrations that night.

  • patti

    Oh my goodness, what terrible examples. Is this school in WI? I’m hoping you are not talking about SMCHS in ND. I’ve had kids play in sports and other than people sometimes getting hot-headed (inappropriately so) I’ve never seen the likes of people putting up their middle finger. Shameful behavior for sports. But regardless of how parents and coaches might behave, I send my kids to our Catholic high school because the religion department is amazing, the priest/teacher is solid and enthusiastic and the chapel has the Blessed Sacrament in it. Mass is said once a week with the whole school, there is a once a month gathering of speakers and small social/Catholic groups. I look to the school leadership and religion department not to parents and coaches, although such bad behavior is certainly unnerving and should be firmly addressed. I would certainly complain about such behavior. The public school is less open to such complaints based on good Christian behavior and there is no religion department.

  • walkthewalk

    I am referring to St. Mary’s Central in Neenah, WI. There are other Catholic School options in the area and, possibly, a smaller public school that might cooperate with a local Catholic Church to help get your needs met. I’m just speculating. I would certainly Home School before sending my child to SMC and if we wanted to participate in extra cirricular activities, we’d find a different way.

    I’m simply saying, please look around at all of your options before making your choice. Not all Catholic Schools are the same. Many are WONDERFUL. I just think that what the school teaches during the day needs to be demonstrated after school as well.

    My public school friends tell me that some public school districts are very flexible on Wednesdays about religion classes and that they are very heavy handed with discipline regarding sportsmanship. Some are not. I’m only repeating what I have been told. This is in WI.

    They also tell me that it is frustrating that in High School sports, the Catholic Schools get to pick their own Officials while public schools are chosen for them by the State Ruling Athletic Board. They feel that this is why officiating problems can get so far out of hand so quickly as it did at the game I went to. It was maddening to watch.

    My children are young and my husband will most likely be transferring in a few years, possibly to this area. I know where we will NOT be sending our children.

    If I would have written that the public school parents surrounded a Catholic school bus waving their middle fingers, most adults, sending their children to Catholic High Schools would not have batted an eye. These were Catholic Adults and their hired coaches. I was, and continue to be, associated with “typical hypocritical Catholics” as they were called. The voice still and behaviors still haunts me.

  • patti

    Dear walkthewalk,

    I could not agree with you more. Please pray for Catholic schools. Our is amazing but it was not always so. The wonderful priest we have as a teacher/chaplain, says that when he went to the school, it left a lot to be desired. A string of dynamic priests and a good religious ed director, have built up a strong religion department. Prayer groups, Masses and so much more, has resulted in a slow evolution that has deepened the spirituality of the school and set it on a strong course. I hope that along with your prayers, you also express dismay at this behavior to someone in the administration. Don’t concern yourself with what their reaction will be. That is on their shoulders. You just do the right thing and speak up for Christ–it’s an outrage that such unChristian behavior would be perpetrated by people that represent a Catholic school.

    God bless you.

  • CatholicConsult

    This Catholic school seems like a rare gem into today’s Catholic school. I work with Catholic schools nationwide and sadly, 90% of Catholic schools are no longer Catholic. The majority have been stripped away from the Masses, prayers and adoration. The students are encouraged to partner with the United Nations, participate in International Bacculerate and give to YWCA (partner with Planned Parenthood. Several Catholic schools are associated with Girl Scouts, have lesbian and gay staff, staff who have one night stands with each other and have abortions to cover up! And, then you have staff who drink and promote drunkeness at every Catholic school fundraising event. Catholic schools no longer Catholic in many cities.