Monday, January 30, 2012

Nine reasons why Catholic education rocks

There are many people, Catholics in particular, who have objected to the Obama administration’s decision not to expand the religious exemption in the new federal regulations mandating that all employer health insurance plans – even for religious institutions – provide free contraceptive coverage.

But perhaps few have as much cause to complain – and are less likely to do so – than the nine Catholic educators (one a student) honored by the White House last week ahead of Catholic Schools Week.

The furor over the contraception mandate dominated news coverage because reaction from church leaders and political activists was understandably vocal. Yet that in turn drowned out the stories of these Catholic figures – stories that ought to be heard whether they are being honored by the administration or the local Rotary Club.

For example:

  • There is Bertha Castaneda (that's her at right) a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. who maintains a 4.0 GPA in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. She is the daughter of a hard-working single mother who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, and Bertha began her own summer program for neighborhood children when she was in the tenth grade.
  • Sr. Jennie Jones, who led the rebuilding of the campus of her own alma mater, St. Mary’s Academy, in New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The school was rebuilt and even expanded the curriculum and program to include classes from K-8 to accommodate students and families displaced by the storm.
  • Yvonne Schwab is the principal at St. James the Less Catholic School in Columbus, Ohio, and in eight years took a declining school and turned it around by drawing on the diverse population base of the neighborhood: school enrollment doubled, test scores have risen, and students are involved in service learning and “are able to see that their own financial situation does not prevent them from helping others.” Teachers have been trained to address the needs of bilingual students and children of poverty. The school has expanded its arts and music program, has instruction in English and Spanish, and all students learn American Sign Language.


And because I can’t resist anything Jesuitical, there are also three great Jesuits among those honored:

  • William P. Leahy, S.J., president of Boston College; Charles L. Currie, S.J. longtime educational leader; and last but not least, John P. Foley, S.J., who founded the first Cristo Rey high school, in Chicago, which has a unique model of education for children in tough neighborhoods: the students work five days each month in an entry-level job at a professional company, with the fee for their work being directed to underwrite tuition costs. I’ve seen it in action, and it’s amazing.

Anyway, read about all nine here. These are remarkable stories, but what is the future of Catholic education? Catholic schools are not the first choice of Catholics themselves, and because of that they are fading in many places, or don't have enough money to get off the ground in others.

Yet they play a vital role in inner-cities in particular, educating non-Catholic kids who desperately need all the help they can get. Catholic bishops are advocating for vouchers to help. But will that only complicate the difficult church-state relationship that overshadowed these honorees in the first place?

All tough questions, but worth asking.

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