Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Catholic schools are grounded in faith and family

By Patricia Vesely
Superintendent of Catholic Schools


January 27 begins “Catholic Schools Week” in our country where we reflect on the importance of Catholic school education for ourselves and for the children we serve in the Diocese of San Bernardino. As a product of Catholic school education, I remember the sacrifices my parents made to send me and my five siblings to Catholic elementary school at St. Catherine of Alexandria in Riverside. I remember my mother saying she would scrub floors to keep us in Catholic education. My father worked many hours of overtime to make – in today’s dollars - very small tuition payments. In spite of these challenges, my parents never considered anything but Catholic schools for their children. When I started high school, I chose the Catholic girls school in Riverside, St. Francis de Sales. I paid my own tuition of $15 per month, bought my uniforms and my books, with babysitting dollars at 50 cents per hour.

So, what was significant for my parents’ perspective on education that is different today? In the 50’s through the 70’s, almost every parish had an elementary school. The principal and most teachers were from religious communities. They served as catechists in the “CCD” program, as well as classroom teachers during the school day. The parish priests (there were several) also taught in the school classrooms and spoke about the school from the pulpit. It was an unstated expectation that families would do whatever they could to send their children to the local parish school. Classrooms were overcrowded – but we didn’t know it because that was the reality of our education.

Family life and social connections were deeply connected to the parish. There were “small faith communities” arranged through the Christian Family Movement where groups of families were connected for prayer, support, and social interaction. We had Sunday barbeques together, played miniature golf, attended baseball games, participated as a group in the annual Parish Festival - and went to school together.

Most of these values are still evident within today’s Catholic school communities; however, our enrollment numbers are much smaller. The financial challenge of affordable tuition is impacted by the opportunities and experiences afforded through modern technology, mobility, and social expectations. The sacrifice needed to meet today’s tuition dollars is much greater than it was 40 years ago.

Yet, many parents and families continue to make these sacrifices. I drove the same car for 13 years in order to make tuition payments for my three children through St. Catherine and Notre Dame High School. And why is that? What do we treasure about the Catholic school experience?

Our schools reflect the same general dynamic within the local geographic populations. We value the rich diversity of socio-economic backgrounds, of cultural, ethnic, language and tradition varieties, of many generational and family structures. Our children come to us from families where education is a priority. Our basic curriculum aligns with the State of California and now our teachers are working to align with the National Common Core Standards. Educational research tells us smaller class sizes benefit the learning potential of students. Our schools keep current with best practices for meeting the needs of each child. Our graduation rates are over 95% and college acceptance rates over 85%.

But more importantly, our schools are family-centered communities. In our diocese, over 80% of our school population shares our Roman Catholic faith tradition. We celebrate our family joys and sorrows together in faith and in familiar ritual. Our teachers answer their call to ministry as they share the faith journey with their students and their families. They support the emotional, social, and spiritual growth of their students, in addition to their academic achievement. Research shows that children from Catholic schools are more likely to be involved in their communities and in civic organizations. Children see the sacrifices their families make to provide this educational and faith experience and recognize, in turn, that sacrifice is an important part of being a good citizen.

Very often, over 50% of the families that begin the adventure of education with their preschool or kindergarten age children are still connected at 8th grade graduation. We share a values system that supports parents in their role as first and most important educator of their children. My daughter-in-law says she feels like she drops her children off with family when she leaves them at school.

My experience with Catholic education gave me a solid foundation for my growth as a citizen, as an individual, and as a Catholic. I firmly believe this same formation and this level of support and relationship are important for our children to better meet the challenges they will experience growing up in todays’ world. These children are the future of our Church and the future of our society. May we continue to provide every possible opportunity for them to grow in faith, in love, and in knowledge.

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