Monday, September 05, 2016

The Case for Catholic High Schools

Where should we place our children for high school? 

Clearly, the question of academics will be an important part of our analysis, and my experiences with Catholic schools is generally very positive in this regard. Yet each Catholic school is different.  How well we teach Math, English, History and Science depends on the school. 

For the purposes of this article, I want to bracket the discussion of academic programs and focus instead on three philosophical and practical reasons to send your children to a Catholic high school.

An Integrated Faith Life

During Advent and Lent, our school hosts a Reconciliation services for our students. We start with a common prayer service in the gym, then invite kids for individual confessions with any of the 6-8 priests who help us, each placed in a different classroom. If students don’t want to go to confession, they stay in the gym. Typically about 75% of our students stand in line to go to confession, meaning each line is  8-10 students deep, which gives them a chance to examine their conscience and think about what they want to confess. 

That’s a pretty common practice in Catholic high schools. But you’d almost have to be non-Catholic to appreciate how weird this is: Teenagers, publicly admitting their own sinfulness to their peers, standing in line to confess their darkest secrets to a man they don’t know, raised in a culture that isn’t even sure there is such a thing as sin! But here’s what’s important: It never occurs to them it’s weird.  It’s simply normal. It’s what we do. 

Yes, Catholic schools have theology classes and public and secular private schools don’t. But I believe the most important distinction is that the practice of faith becomes so interwoven into the daily life of a Catholic school student that it becomes natural and normal, and even, at times, unnoticed, like breathing. Prayer before school, prayer at assemblies, before ball games, and in locker-rooms, become routine. Masses are frequent, service opportunities abound, and prayers for those in need are common. Slowly, inexorably, the Catholic faith becomes the lens through which a teenager understands his or her life— in an integrated, genuine way. 

No matter how faithful we are as parents in raising our children in the faith, no matter how frequently our children attend parish formation programs, no matter how exciting or gifted our parish's teachers,  faith formation becomes a "family" or "parish" thing, not part of their life as a teenager or student somewhere else. 

A Moral Tradition and Framework

The local newspaper recently published brief biographies of the valedictorians from area high schools and included snippets from their valedictory addresses, and it was interesting to compare them.  The differences were not a matter of accomplishments—they were all impressive kids—but one of context and world-view. By way of illustration, the valedictorian of the local Catholic high school, said “It will always great to be a yellow-jacket (the school mascot), but it’s even greater to be a saint.” In contrast, one young lady from a local private school, arguably the most academically accomplished of all those listed, said “Whatever your definition of success is—go for it!” 

I believe one of the most important reasons to send our children to Catholic schools is that they’ll be raised in a community that has inherited a moral tradition which is a “given”—an important thing in a culture that is increasingly hostile to the notion of a “teleos,” or to a Tradition, or any other coherent proclamation of “Truth.” In Catholic schools, we not only want to prepare children for college, we want them to become virtuous, and even more boldly, to become disciples.  We can talk more confidently about “right and wrong,” “should and should not,” and what God may be asking them to do. 

Surprisingly, one of the great benefits of the “given-ness” of this tradition is the freedom it gives us to speak plainly and honestly with each other, without quibbling over minutiae. G.K. Chesterton once said the problem with rejecting the “big laws” is not that we get liberty, or even anarchy. It’s that we get the small laws. I believe one of the great burdens of working in a public school today is the crushing level of intrusive policies, detailed scripting and documentation we demand of its teachers and administrators, required by lawyers to defend the school against those who disagree with their decisions. 

Local Influence and Control

People might assume, because of the visible hierarchy of the Church, Pope Francis and the bishops, that the Catholic Church is a “top down” institution, with all decision making authority centralized by the hierarchy and disseminated to the local Churches and schools. But in fact, the Church practices the “principle of subsidiarity”, which says that things are best handled at the most local level possible. 

Yes, there is a hierarchy that articulates and defends the deposit of faith. Yes, there is a “Cathechism” and “Canon Law” that spells out our teachings and codifies our practices. Yes, there are Catholic school central offices and superintendents. It’s instructive to realize, however, that Catholic school central offices are typically staffed by 80% to 90% less people than their public school central office counterparts. That’s because in Catholic thinking, “policies” are defined in broad parameters, within which the local schools have true freedom to innovate and to address the unique needs of their families. That’s why each Catholic school typically has its own board or advisory council: to establish local policies and procedures. 

I didn’t appreciate this difference personally until I was asked to be an accreditation consultant for one of the largest public schools in the state, a high school with over 2,000 students. The principal was a very good, smart guy, yet the scope of his decision making authority was severely curtailed. I remember asking him how much discretionary spending authority he had in his budget. He smiled ruefully, then said “Let me show you.” He then walked me down to the cafeteria, pointed to the coke machines, and said “Whatever profit they generate.”

By contrast, together with our local advisory council, I create the budget, establish tuitions and set salaries for each year,  and then send these to approval by the bishop. I then administer that budget, approving or not approving all spending requests, in accordance with the budget and what I believe is good for the school. If parents have a good idea how to make the school better, they share that idea with me and if it’s a policy issue, I discuss with the advisory council. If we think it’s a good idea, we implement it. 

Why does this matter? Good Catholic schools are responsive to parental or family concerns. They can be, because authority is vested with local leadership, and they have to be, since families can go elsewhere if their ideas are not taken seriously. In contrast, it’s difficult to create a sense of ownership with families if all decision making authority resides somewhere else. 

Equally destructive, if we strip local teachers and principals of the ability to act in entrepreneurial, creative ways, we undercut a lot of the impetus and enthusiasm for innovation that gives energy and a positive vibe to a school. We replace it too often with the language of powerlessness: “My hands or tied,” or “I would if they’d give us more money,” or “downtown would never approve that,” creating a culture that is pessimistic toward positive change.” And "a school culture,” the saying goes, “eats new strategies for breakfast.” 

Final Thoughts

Catholic schools aren’t perfect. The three Catholic high schools I’ve been in charge of in my career have stumbled from time to time, endured set-backs because I’ve hired poorly, or on occasion, have not been as vibrant a Catholic community as they should have been. Occasionally their principal makes bone-headed decisions!  Despite these setbacks, my four 20-something year old children have been greatly blessed by their Catholic high school education, having subsequently attended (or are now attending) excellent universities, with good jobs (so far), and the oldest two (so far!) in faithful, strong marriages. 

Catholic schools help young men and women become leaders, steeped in a moral tradition, informed by an active faith.  I am convinced they are our best chance of creating the kind of confident young men and women we need to build a more human, more fraternal world. 

Support Catholic schools, by sending them your children and grandchildren. Support them through your generosity. It could make literally an eternal difference in the life of your children or someone else's children!

No comments: