Ushering in the New Renaissance in Catholic Education

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled
Photo Credit: Michael 1952 via Compfight

Catholic education once stood as the bastion of Catholic faith formation and academic vigor. In 1965 there were approximately 12,000 Catholic schools serving nearly five million students. According to a recent NCEA report there are now 6,685 Catholic schools serving nearly two million students. If we liken this to historical events, I would argue that it is safe to say that Catholic education has been, and is continuing to go progress through its own “Dark Ages”. I believe that it will take a New Renaissance in Catholic education to bring our schools out of these dark times. What does this mean? First it will be important to identify just what makes this the “Dark Ages” for our current system.

Logically, the decline of enrollment and the closure of schools is the first indication that things are not well for our Catholic school systems. Like most large institutions the Catholic school system has been slow to change and to adapt to the modern world. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic education had a very easy way of being self-sustaining. The pastors would compel the parishioners to send their children to the parish Catholic school. Religious, keeping the costs of operating such schools to a minimum largely operated the school.

As the teaching and administrative positions in schools were filled by the laity, and parents were no longer compelled to send their children to Catholic schools, a natural decline in enrollment took place. Unfortunately, many administrators and teachers falsely believed that enrollment would hold steady or increase simply because it always had in the past. Despite decades of decline, I find that some still hold this perspective. This is a sure recipe for the complete collapse of the system. So what are we to do?

It is at times like these that we stand on a defining point. It is our perspective and willingness to take action that will determine if we fail or succeed.

If we take the traditional view, we will be doomed to failure. This view makes the point at which we stand a precipice that falls to a bottomless pit. Taking no action and simply expecting parents to show up will not work. Relying on strategies and implementations that have not yielded results over the last few decades with the expectation that they will somehow suddenly reverse the tide is foolhardy at best. In the words of St. Joan of Arc, “Act and God will act, work and he will work.” Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for bold action and bold change.

Rather than see our current status as a precipice, I see it as the base of a steep incline toward growth and rebirth. We have an opportunity to redefine Catholic education, while still holding strong to our faith, Catholic Values, and teachings. For so long, we have been complacent to teach using traditional pedagogical approaches. We have held fast to the rows of desks facing the front of the classroom and surprisingly…. we STILL have schools with the green slate boards and chalk! We have held onto antiquated designs and methods simply because it is the easiest road to take; it requires the least amount of work. Parents are less likely to argue if you keep the system the way it has always been, yet the system has been ill for quite some time. We, as professional educators and administrators, have a duty to become the penicillin for our ailing school system before it becomes terminal.

As we stand at the beginning of a climb to greatness, we must be bold and strategic. My motto has been, “Business as usual is not how we conduct business”. This means that there will be conflict. Teachers will be asked to work harder in ways that they have not worked for the last few decades. Administrators will need to acknowledge that some will resist these changes, even from those that have been their most ardent supporters. And in the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, sometimes, “Parents just don’t understand”. I am not saying that this road will be easy. On the contrary, those willing to take up the noble goal of breathing new life into Catholic education will often feel as though they are standing in an empty field taking on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is important to remember in these times that our mission is to provide the best possible Catholic education to families who desire to receive this type of education.

Those who take up arms against this change do so largely from an innocent ignorance. It is important to remember that parents assume that their children will be taught in the same manner in which they were taught. Often, this means that parents came from a time before state standards, academic standardized testing, and differentiated instruction. The modern classroom is perceived as alien to many parents. Likewise, many seasoned administrators and teachers have similar perceptions. If we are to change the course of this ship, it will take bold action on the part of administrators and teachers. Some administrators will need to face a faculty and parent community that does not understand the change. Some educators will have to face administrators who do not see the benefits of implementing a new program that will cause dissonance among other faculty members and parents. Some parents may desire this change and face a school environment that is content to keep business as usual, as the faculty and administration watch enrollment ever decrease.

Ladies and gentlemen, whether you are a parent, administrator, or teacher, if you wish to ensure that Catholic education not only survives (something which many perceive as the goal) but THRIVES (what the real goal should be) then we must make the difficult decisions. We must admit that we need to work harder. We must join the current century and prepare children to enter the adult world prepared, not for the present, but for the future. You will face opposition. You will encounter resistance. The battle will not be easy. But the faith formation and academic preparedness of our students is of paramount importance. I challenge each of you to take on the goal of implementing at least one small change this year. Step by step we can usher in the New Renaissance of Catholic Education.  We can not only match the enrollment that occurred in the mid 1960s, but we can surpass it. Join me in this journey and let us walk together in prayer and thanksgiving for the success we are sure to experience with our faith in God and our hard work at his disposal.

Some ideas for change:

– Alternate classroom arrangements / environments

– Implementing a 1:1 technology program

– Changing grading practices (IE. Homework worth 0% of grade or elimination of HW)

– Removal of textbooks and other primary sources used in their place

– Strengthening the schools Charism throughout all programs

These are just a few ideas; I’d love to hear yours. Please leave a comment below and lets build a bright future for our students and Catholic schools!

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2 thoughts on “Ushering in the New Renaissance in Catholic Education

  1. Excellent call to arms, John.

    One interesting aspect is your use of the term “Renaissance,” which denotes both a “rebirth” and a “return.” The Renaissance itself saw a rebirth of Classical Greek and Roman ideals. To what shall we return in Catholic education? What renewal of Catholic education would be the equivalent of the Renaissance renewal of classical thoughts and ideals? To be sure, it’s not a return to the rows and rote days of Catholic education of 60 years ago.

    Your suggestions are fantastic approaches to bring about a rebirth. I humbly add a unifying framework for us to consider returning to: our schools must return to the three-fold mission of Catholic education put forward by the U.S. Bishops in “To Teach As Jesus Did”: message, community, and service.

    Sharing the message of the Good News gives us relevance. Building community through new approaches strengthens our hope. Using our knowledge and gifts to serve a world in need gives us purpose.

    Thanks for sharing, John.

    • Thank you Joe,

      You grasped my message and enhanced it. Yes, it is a rebirth from what I see as the classic ideals of Catholic Education. It is so important to remember that everything is brought forth from our faith. The framework that is at the heart of Catholic education should never be diluted. I think that too many have believed that change would dilute or change this framework and have therefore held to antediluvian pedagogy and practices that have hindered our ability to provide what our students need. If we realize that our students need to understand and embrace their faith, and that this is a faith that exists in this century, then we need to help them make sense of the world in which they live.

      We have the ability to help every child succeed. We have the ability to ensure that Catholic education thrives. It will take change. A change that embraces our faith and applies it to the world in which we all live.

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