January is an important month for Catholic schools. On Jan. 4, as students and teachers returned to school after Christmas break, our Church celebrated the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the patron saint of Catholic schools. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American canonized by the Church, and she founded the first American Catholic elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1809. Many Catholic school leaders identify Mother Seton as a source of inspiration for their continued commitment to faith-centered education. From the founding of Catholic schools through to today, our schools are communities where young people can receive a top-quality education while deepening their relationship with God.
Our tradition of faith-centered education is honored at the end of the month when Catholic schools across the United States celebrate Catholic Schools Week. From Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, our schools will celebrate the achievements of our students and the strength of our faith communities. This year’s Catholic Schools Week theme, “Catholic Schools: United in Faith and Community,” differentiates the experience of students in Catholic schools from their peers in public education.
Our schools excel because the foundation for Catholic education is Jesus Christ. The Gospels provide an extraordinary example of how young people should be formed to reach their God-given potential. Catholic schools are tasked with developing programs, courses and activities that support students in deepening a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Students in Catholic schools are challenged beyond just homework and tests because they are tasked with answering the essential question of what God is asking them to do with their lives.
Catholic schools are unique communities where faith, learning and family come together to transform the lives of young people. Catholic school students, from the earliest grades, are exposed to the Gospel message of love of God and love for neighbor. This Christ-centered approach only expands and deepens as children progress in school. Catholic schools are essential to the evangelizing mission of the Church. Catholic school students learn that the Gospel calls them to become servants ready to serve the needs of the world, especially the poor and marginalized.
When new parents or students tour a Catholic school, some of the most common feedback shared is that our schools “feel different.” That statement may be the best way for a newcomer to articulate the experience of community that is found in a Catholic school. Catholic schools are centered around a common expression of faith which binds leaders, students, parents and teachers into a shared mission. Catholic schools recognize parents as the primary educators of their children and as essential partners in the formation of an effective school. Through a genuine collaboration between dedicated teachers and parents, Catholic schools become communities that serve as an extension of family life. This dynamic can be a shock to parents more familiar with public education, where schools are institutions, not faith communities centered on family.
Catholic schools create a culture where students develop as unique individuals, form healthy moral attitudes and build a personal prayer practice. School culture places a premium on both academic achievement and on the forming of healthy Christian relationships with peers. The culture and community of Catholic schools is what separates our schools from other learning environments. When students are infused into a healthy culture with a vibrant moral and spiritual life, students are set on a track for a complete education that includes academic, spiritual and social development.
Studies from across the country continue to show the incredible impact of our Catholic schools. This past year, the National Catholic Education Association published some important statistics on the success of Catholic school students as they finished 12th grade. Catholic schools graduate 98.9 percent of Catholic high school seniors compared with 86 percent of public school students. More than 85 percent of graduates of Catholic high school attend a four-year college compared with only 43 percent of public school graduates going on to a four-year college. That brief snapshot of graduating seniors from Catholic high schools is indicative of the academic excellence that Catholic school students receive from kindergarten to college.
I encourage all Catholics to join their parish school or a Catholic high school in celebrating this year’s Catholic School Week. “Catholic Schools: United in Faith and Community” summarizes the extraordinary impact that our Catholic schools have on our families, parishes and communities. The future of our Church can be found in our Catholic schools, and that is a future centered on faith and community.