When you walk into a Catholic school you notice that there is a profound and special difference. Having spent 31 years in public education, I have worked with capable leaders, committed educators and wonderful students. Yet, each time I have stepped into a Catholic elementary, middle or high school, I have been struck both by the similarities and more importantly by the differences between public and Catholic schools. In this article I will explore some of the similarities and differences that make a Catholic education a special and enduring gift for any child.
Academic excellence can be found in both public and Catholic schools. Athletic effort, talent and success can be found in both. Wonderful fine and performing arts programs can be found in both. However, in Catholic schools we can sing Christmas carols and display Christmas trees. In recent years, public schools have started including character education in their curriculum initiatives. While it is not new, character education has always been a part of the curriculum in Catholic education. We teach the Christian values of love of God and love of neighbor. Increasingly, a number of public schools have begun to require community service projects of their students’ experiences. Service is not new to Catholic education. Outreach and service to community members in need is also part of the fabric and tradition of Catholic education. The Catholic Church has missions all over the world. As a result, our schools can and do connect with schools throughout the world. This was most evident during the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Catholic schools had contacts in Haiti and were able to respond immediately. Clearly, being aware of our responsibilities as Catholics and as global citizens is also part of the fabric of Catholic schools. It is part of how Catholics are expected to live the Gospel message.
There are other similarities. Like public school teachers, our teachers are highly qualified and licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Like public school teachers, our teachers engage in ongoing professional growth and development. While our students do not take the MCAS, our students, like those in public and private schools nationwide, do take the Terra Nova tests which are standards-based assessments.
While there are many similarities, it is the differences that make a Catholic education unique. The differences go beyond the presence of crucifixes and religious statues. At one time in public schools, praying at commencement exercises and other functions was permitted. That is no longer the case. In our Catholic schools, prayer is an important part of the school day. Students, teachers and others are free to talk about God’s blessings, love and the power of prayer. During the school day our students can, with the support of capable and caring staff, grow in their relationship with God. For example, one may observe at the start of a class, students joining in prayer to support a student who may have lost a loved one. Teachers, counselors and administrators, when dealing with issues of discipline can work with students and have them consider their challenges and resulting decisions in light of the Gospel message. While many schools say they educate the whole child, it is clear that Catholic schools can and do address the mental, physical and, unencumbered by legislation to the contrary, spiritual needs of a child.
Yes – there is a powerful difference in Catholic education. People visiting our Catholic schools for the first time comment on the courtesies extended to them by our students and staff. Students, even the youngest, make eye contact and greet people. Without prompting, students hold doors open for guests, teachers, and each other. Visitors continually comment on the respectful, active learning environment they find in our schools.
Whether seeking an academic curriculum that offers rigorous math and science programs, Advanced Placement courses that produce students prepared to do well on the AP exams, or reading programs that take both struggling and advanced readers and move them forward, parents will find these in our Catholic schools.
Relationships with Anna Maria College, Assumption College, Boston College, The College of the Holy Cross, and Notre Dame University have resulted in teacher development around a number of areas including math and science, special needs, and technology. Fitchburg State University in collaboration with the St. Paul Consortium has provided support for our very successful summer math and science camp.
As superintendent I am extremely grateful to the many clergy and religious, administrators, teachers, families, community members, and business and community leaders who give of their time, talents and treasures to support Catholic education. Catholic Schools are different and make a profound and lasting difference in the lives of students, their families, parishes and communities.
Delma L. Josephson, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Diocese of Worcester