Catholic Schools Week

Last year, Pope Francis told a gathering of 300,000 students in Saint Peter’s Square that he learned to love school as a first grader and continued to love it as a teacher and as a bishop. He said schools prepare students to graduate speaking three languages – “the language of the mind, the language of the heart and the language of the hands.”

That sentiment is expressed in the theme of National Catholic Schools Week – “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service” – which is observed this year January 25th-31st. Our Catholic schools are illuminated by the light of faith, and they teach students to love and serve others as Jesus did, through the work of their minds, their hearts and their hands.

Our 68 Catholic elementary schools, along with our 20 Catholic high schools and seven early childhood centers in the Archdiocese of Washington are serving approximately 27,000 students this school year. These communities of faith, knowledge and service have an incredible impact on the minds and hearts of our students and in the nation’s capital and five surrounding Maryland counties.

Catholic identity is central to every one of our Catholic schools. In addition to crucifixes, statues of Mary and pictures of saints, Jesus is present in every classroom through the example of teachers and by the lessons that students learn about their faith.

During last year’s bitterly cold winter, students from Catholic schools across the archdiocese helped bring warmth to the homeless. Students from 45 Catholic schools, along with local parishes and church groups, collected 9,000 coats for Catholic Charities’ “Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors” drive. That same spirit is reflected in the annual Thanksgiving food drive at Archbishop Carroll High School, one of the largest such efforts in the country, where last fall students collected 18 tons of food for the region’s poor.

Academic excellence is another hallmark of Catholic schools here. Twenty-seven schools in the archdiocese have been named as National Blue Ribbon Schools in the 30-year history of the award.

Catholic schools in our community have adopted innovative academic programs to help students succeed in life and build a better world. Saint Jerome Academy in Hyattsville has developed a classical curriculum that has revitalized the school. To help students succeed in an increasingly interconnected world, Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring offers a global learning curriculum for its students, who have family roots in more than 50 countries.

Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, which is co-sponsored by the archdiocese and the Salesians of Don Bosco, helps students work toward their dreams by participating in an innovative corporate work study program whereby they gain professional experience and help earn the majority of the cost of their education through their jobs. The school, which serves primarily immigrant and minority families, has a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its students, most of whom are the first members of their families to go on to college.

In the District of Columbia, the four elementary schools of the Consortium of Catholic Academies provide a beacon of hope to families in their neighborhoods. Consortium students have strong test scores and a 100 percent on-time graduation rate. Sacred Heart School offers a bilingual English/Spanish immersion program for students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Other consortium schools include Saint Francis Xavier Academy, Saint Anthony School and Saint Thomas More Catholic Academy.

The future of Catholic schools depends on all of us working together, though.  Following an extensive consultative process, the archdiocese adopted new policies in 2009 to strengthen and sustain Catholic schools. Now, Catholics at all local parishes support Catholic education, and 112 out of 139 parishes have entered into regional school agreements. With the support of local Catholics and other community members, the archdiocese has greatly expanded its tuition assistance to families, awarding $5.7 million for the 2014-15 school year. Millions more are provided by other sources, including parishes and schools.

Our Catholic schools are recognized as an invaluable blessing and many people work very hard to sustain them in the face of various challenges. Still, I am sad to say, the need for tuition assistance far exceeds what we are able to offer to those parents who want to send their children to Catholic school. Thus, no longer can we automatically assume that the future of every school will be guaranteed. Rather, it is necessary that we all work together – parents, parishes, archdiocese and government – so that our schools are affordable and accessible to as many students as possible. For example, it is important to support reauthorization and full funding of the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, as well as enactment of the proposed Maryland Education Tax Credit.

Looking to the future of Catholic education, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that we bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus and his words of truth and life, which transform lives and help build a better world by manifesting God’s kingdom in our community.