Honoring Our Beloved K-12 Catholic Schools: Debunking Common Myths and Looking Ahead

Catholic-Schools-Week-2013By Bill Henk – With Catholic Schools Week now squarely upon us, it’s only fitting to honor these educational treasures.  Today’s affirmation takes the form of putting K-12 Catholic schools into proper perspective and looking toward a brighter future.

You see, there are a lot of misconceptions about Catholic schools out there,  and it’s high time to set the record straight.  And there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about Catholic education, especially when these common myths can be dismissed.

Sad to say, one of the reasons I know about these faulty perceptions is that I harbored many of them myself even as a lifetime Catholic.  It surely didn’t help that I am the product of public education from kindergarten all the way through my doctorate and then worked in public universities until 2004.  In fact, even in my first few years at Marquette, a Catholic university no less, I still didn’t truly grasp the realities of Catholic schools.

It wasn’t until I helped to co-found our Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium (GMCEC) almost five years ago that I finally started to become enlightened.  Since then, I have literally become a student of K-12 Catholic education, which explains the heightened awareness that I feel compelled to share with our readers here.

So, with the help of my valued colleagues in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office For Schools and the GMCEC, I’ve assembled  a list of common Catholic school myths below.  Be forewarned, I  don’t elaborate much, and believe me, it’s probably for the best, because I’m hardly an expert.  Instead I’m relying on your willingness to acknowledge that the very opposite of each statement represents the truth.

So What are the Myths?

Here’s my list of misguided beliefs about Catholic education.  Although several appear here, there are almost certainly more of them floating around:

Catholic School Kids Mass at Sacred Heart CathedralCatholic schools are not affordable.  Parishes often subsidize their schools, scholarship monies are frequently available, and in many cases families are expected to pay only in relation to what they can afford given their economic circumstances.

Catholic schools force their problem students onto public schools.  The implication here is that Catholic schools enforce a discipline policy that gets rid of challenging kids.  More accurately, Catholic schools initiate standards of expected behavior that help students to negotiate the many relationships in which they must engage.  They are taught to treat each other in a manner that highlights each person’s dignity and respects differences, and failing to do so simply isn’t an option.  For that matter, Catholic schools are called to be inclusive, and it is more often the case that they take on students that other schools have, for whatever reasons, failed to fully educate.

Catholic schools cannot educate students with special needs and don’t support linguistically diverse students.  Some Catholic schools actually specialize in supporting learners with special needs, and traditionally Catholic schools have supported bilingualism and increasingly are doing so again.

Catholic schools are not technologically or academically up-to-date.  Most Catholic schools are rapidly embracing new technologies, realizing that these capacities can not only make them more competitive with public schools, but can actually eclipse them with the proper resources and focus.

Catholic schools have no STEM curricula.  Science and math emphases have been strengthened and Catholic schools are often willing to take on technology and engineering as areas of study that add special value to their high school curricula.

Most Catholic families send their children to Catholic schools.  Actually, it’s the unfortunate case that 85% of Catholic families send their children to public schools.  The keys are in continuing to do a stellar job with the 15% of children fortunate enough to attend Catholic schools and to intensify marketing and recruitment activities to reach a greater share of the remainder.

You have to be Catholic to attend a Catholic school.  Not even close.  Catholic schools enroll students across the full expanse of religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, and social demographics.  I’m told that in some rare instances of urban schools, none of the children are Catholic.

Catholic middle schoolCatholic schools are only Catholic because they’re populated with Catholic students.  Rather it’s the case that Catholic schools offer a diverse array of students a rigorous education in a faith-based context.

Catholic schools aren’t really Catholic when some or many of the children are not Catholic.   On the contrary, these Catholic schools (like local participants in the parental choice program) serve as missions in the heart of the city, and principals and teachers at many of these schools truly evangelize and spread the gospel to students and their families.

Catholic schools are less “Catholic” today, because few religious sisters, brothers, and priests work in them.  There’s no denying that clergy are in shorter supply, but the laity in schools have taken up promoting the charism of the Church, Catholic identity,  and faith formation, and are doing so passionately and effectively.

Unlike public schools, Catholic schools can operate entirely as they see fit and are not accredited.  Teachers and principals in Catholic schools typically fall under the general auspices of an Archdiocese that either does the accrediting itself or insists that their schools seek accreditation from a sanctioned agency.  Whether it is the archdiocese or an agency, schools are held to compliance standards and various regulations comparable to public schools.

Catholic schools don’t insist that their principals and teachers keep up to date.  The commitment of Catholic schools to serving their students carries a moral expectation that its staff will engage in ongoing professional development.

Scientific reasoning and religion cannot be taught together.  Catholic schools find ways to bridge the void, not treating analytic thought and faith as though they were mutually exclusive.  The best testament to this possibility is that some of the most renowned scientists in the world are devout Catholics  whose schooling was faith-based.

Catholic schools do not have licensed teachers and administrators.  In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, every teacher and principal is expected to hold the appropriate professional license.

You must be Catholic to teach in a Catholic school.  There are plenty of non-Catholic teachers functioning beautifully in Catholic schools and their services are most welcome.

Teachers work in Catholic schools, because they can’t get better paying jobs in public schools.  This notion might be true for some newer teachers, but those with more experience tend to stay in their positions their entire careers, finding profound gratification in contributing to a faith-filled education for their students.  In my experience, Catholic schools enjoy a very high percentage of some of the most talented, passionate, and committed teachers anywhere.

Catholic school food driveCatholic schools shield students from societal trends and challenges.  If anything, Catholic schools encourage their students to confront the harsh realities of the world according to the tenets of Catholic social teaching.

Catholic schools are relics from the past.  There’s little that could be characterized as antiquated  in modern Catholic schools.  Far from throwbacks, they now aspire not just to be in sync with the times, but rather to educate students in anticipation of a future that figures to be dynamic and require resourcefulness and resiliency.

Looking to the Future

I’ll end by sharing two thoughts.  First, I believe that we are at a defining moment in Catholic education.  After several years of school closings and a sharp decline in Catholic school enrollments, these regrettable trends seem to have pretty much bottomed out.  Don’t get me wrong; many Catholic schools will still struggle to remain sustainable, but greater hope now exists.

That reality brings me to my second thought, namely, that we now have the will and skill to win these battles.   A critical mass of Catholic education supporters has arisen nationwide to scaffold our existing schools and to position them for academic excellence, faith formation, and longterm viability.  In particular, I see Catholic institutions of higher education across the country stepping up to assist K-12 schools in unprecedented ways.

For the record, I’m especially hopeful about Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  My optimism starts with Archbishop Jerome Listecki who cares deeply about Catholic schools, understands them, and works tirelessly to support them.  It then extends to the Office for Schools and the extraordinary leadership provided by Superintendent Kathleen Cepelka and her gifted team of Associate Superintendents, Sue Nelson, Brenda White, and Pat Lofton.  The schools in the Archdiocese clearly have the opportunity to avail themselves of this team’s exceptional services and flourish under their stewardship.

Our Archdiocese is also blessed by the efforts of each of our Catholic colleges and universities lending their assistance to our K-12 schools, separately and collectively through the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium.  Alverno, Cardinal Stritch, Marian, Marquette, and Mount Mary all support Catholic education with special initiatives and together as a unique partnership that other archdiocese across the country have come to regard as a national model.

And soon the Archdiocese and the GMCEC will be working collaboratively with a new major entity at Marquette that will focus on Catholic Education leadership.  Stay tuned for more news about this exciting initiative along with the Archdiocese’s recent partnership with Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education.  Its ongoing relationships with Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), the Stollenwerk Family Foundation, and School Choice Wisconsin all figure prominently as well in taking our region’s Catholic schools to an unprecedented level.

BelieveAll in all, I believe that we are turning the corner on Catholic education, and a renaissance is at hand.

Now THAT ‘good news’ is something truly special to celebrate during Catholic Schools Week 2013.

7 Responses to “Honoring Our Beloved K-12 Catholic Schools: Debunking Common Myths and Looking Ahead”

  1. 1 John Stollenwerk February 1, 2013 at 1:09 am

    So true! Excellent blog especially at this time: Catholic Schools Week! No more to be said!


  2. 2 John Stollenwerk February 1, 2013 at 6:53 am

    The pics add a lot to the warmth of the blog!


  3. 4 Deborah Golias February 1, 2013 at 11:03 am

    This is one of the first time I have seen a blog on Catholic Schools so complete. I do believe with the extraordinary leaders in the Office for Schools and the GMCEC, these myths will become mis-conceptions of the past. Sr. Deborah Goalils


    • 5 billhenk February 1, 2013 at 2:33 pm

      It’s truly gratifying that such a distinguished Catholic educator as you found the post to be thorough, Sr. Golias. And it’s reaffirming that you share my optimism for the future of the Catholic schools, in large measure because of the Office For Schools and the GMCEC.


  4. 6 Jennifer Maney February 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Excellent blog. My current work with the Catholic schools in our local Archdiocese (which reaches far and wide) gives me the opportunity to get an up front and personal look at a faith-based education. I would match up what many of our Catholic schools are doing with anything else in the city, including technology and differentiated instruction, being provided in no small part by passionate and committed leaders and teachers. Glad some of those myths were addressed here in a way that leaves those of us wishing for a solid educational opportunity for all of our children across a spectrum of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, and learning ability hopeful for the future.


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