Nurturing Catholic identity in schools is a team job

“Education is integral to the mission of the Catholic Church to proclaim thegood news,” Pope Benedict XVI said in 2008.
Words such as these from Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis about living the faith in our daily lives have impelled educators nationwide to explore ways to strengthen Catholic identity across curricula in Catholic elementary and high schools.

With the new strategic plan of schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in place, the Office of Catholic Schools (OCS) created a workshop offering practical tools to foster schools as centers of evangelization.

“We want all of our schools to have a renewed Catholic identity,” said Kevin Calkins, OCS’s associate superintendent of secondary schools and secondary school Catholic identity, at a recent workshop he conducted at St. Pius X for teachers and administrators with Joe Rosolino, associate superintendent of elementary school Catholic identity.

Collaborative process
They introduced proven research from “National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools,” a document released in March 2012 by the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness, School of Education, Loyola University Chicago in partnership with the Roche Center for Catholic Education and the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
The study was the result of much collaboration with a national task force of Catholic school educators and supporters in communication with the National Catholic Educational Association, bishops, pastors and others.

Calkins and Rosolino used this guide, which contained ways to evaluate and strengthen schools, and designed reflective questions to go with it.

“A school’s Catholic identity is really a question of conviction,” Calkins told teachers and administrators, quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict. “How do you renew, on a constant basis, the Catholicity at your schools?”

While he recognized the different mission statement or charism (if they are a school run by a religious order) of each school, there’s a universality of being Catholic. He stressed that this was not intended to replace existing standards at any Catholic school, but meant to enhance and renew Catholic identity by ensuring there is Gospel-based education of the highest quality at every school.

Learning from one another
“We all have to get on board and advance the mission of the school to be successful,” he said. “It makes sense to have a common language throughout the archdiocese,” Calkins said.

The five-hour workshop was the fourth that OCS conducted, delving into areas addressed by the study: Defining Characteristics of a Catholic School; Mission and Catholic Identity; Governance and Leadership; Academic Excellence; and Operational Vitality.

Attendees were split into small groups to discuss each standard and benchmark and how their school was meeting that standard, the challenges they might face, how to address challenges and the steps needed to move forward.

Beyond academic excellence, educators shared individual experiences and gave suggestions to better promote Catholicity. Suggestions included emphasizing God, how God loves each student and is with them every minute of the day; establishing a moment of silence to remind students that God is with them; having committed teachers who believe in each school’s mission, model the qualities of high moral standards and behaviors and promote social justice and evangelization inside and outside the classroom at retreats and field trips; helping parents and faculty be better formed in the Catholic faith; learning more about Catholic saints beyond a school’s patron saint; making sure faculty and students know, understand and model the school’s mission statement; recognizing and nurturing Catholic leadership among faculty and staff.

Tag team approach
    Rosolino also gave personal insight over his many years in working with pastors and school principals. He’s found the biggest obstacle faced by Catholic schools today in trying to teach the Catholic faith is the lack of parents practicing their faith at home. He emphasized the importance of evangelizing not only students, but parents, staff and faculty, too.

“Our kids are not growing up at home with parents who go to church,” he said. “If we are going to be effective in evangelizing our kids, we need to evangelize our parents, too.”

In addition to the study, Rosolino and Calkins mentioned several resources administrators could access to strengthen the faith, such as St. Paul Inside the Walls, a Catholic evangelization center in New Jersey. The two administrators visited the center to learn how to create centers of evangelization (in school and church parishes) in a practical way.

While offering practical tools to build Catholicity in schools was the goal of the OCS workshop, the bonus was having administrators share their individual faith experiences with each other to reinforce Catholic standards and benchmarks.

“Our strength is in the self-governance of our schools, so we want the schools to do this individually, but at the same time, we are building a faith community of schools,” Rosolino said.

OCS can bring workshops such as this to schools at any time, Rosolino said. He has worked previously with a number of schools in the River parishes.

Administrators walked away energized with new ideas. De La Salle principal Peggy St. John said the workshop was helpful since often administrators at different schools don’t have time to talk to one another.

“We are all united in Catholic identity, and I have learned so many things today that I want to take back to De La Salle,” she said.

Father Roderick Coates, pastor at Corpus Christi-Epiphany Church who was representing St. Augustine High School as chief religious officer, said being at the workshop and sharing experiences affirms the strength of Catholic schools.

“When you hear what’s going on in our schools, there is hope,” he said. “Catholic schools are not dying.”

Archbishop Hannan High campus minister Joey Pistorius also found it encouraging to hear what leaders are doing at other archdiocesan schools.
“You recognize that our jobs are not jobs but a vocation,” Pistorius said. “Students are our future, and we are participating in their growth.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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