I never imagined that crossing paths with homeless people would become a part of our children's grade school education. Who would put that on the curriculum? But it happened, unofficially anyway, as our city's transient people roamed freely on the other side of the fence near the school yard. With a degree of humor and fondness, the kids gave nicknames to the regulars. One was "The Sheriff" because he wore a toy badge as a daily accessory. Another was "Buddha" due to his physique and habit of sitting calmly on the church steps for hours.
The children also had a rule, when given the privilege of running errands on school and church property, that they had to travel in pairs because they never knew whom they might encounter. One morning, however, they learned that a man who routinely kept warm by sleeping in one of the church pews was found murdered not far from their school.
Such was their observation of life. "Diversity" was not a concept to be learned but a reality to be lived. In school they studied alongside both very wealthy children and some from the well-known poor side of town. They learned almost with a shrug to include children and adults from vastly different backgrounds with compassion and acceptance. Doing so at a Catholic school, they learned about the world through a lens filtered by charity, the greatest virtue of all. There is no trade-off for that. None.
After 16 years, my wife, Sally, and I are in our first year of not having our two children in Catholic schools. Our daughter and son now attend a public university. So as we reflect on our choices, we zero in on two principal reasons that we are pleased we chose Catholic schools.
First, we wanted our children exposed to the Catholic faith daily and to a value system that would forever be a part of their lives. They could and did get this exposure at home as well. But parents are not perfect. So the institution's reinforcement of our values and a community to support us were blessings, indeed.
The second reason was to have our children experience their inevitable exposure to a secular world through the filter of Catholic institutions that theoretically value the life of every person. In their grade school, our children endured an interesting playground rule. The older children did not play games but rather monitored the younger students. The older ones grumbled, but they learned every day that to a certain extent they are indeed their sisters' and brothers' keepers.
Then our children went to an Ursuline high school whose motto is Serviam, which translates, "I will serve." I like that motto in an era when self-fulfillment and being happy are the current cultural infatuations of American society. Many schools, including public schools, are now requiring community service of some kind. That's great, but even better, I think, is when "I will serve" is your motto, your mission. I was proud when my son said yes to spending several months as an RCIA sponsor, faithfully attending a weekly meeting at our parish in support of a boy from a public school. And my daughter assumed leadership positions, sometimes sacrificing some of her want-to-have-fun desires to attend meetings and help respond to crises. Service is central to our faith-and probably much healthier for one's personal health than all the modern rhetoric about self-fulfillment.
Much of the promotional material I've seen from Catholic school leaders emphasizes academic achievement, a quality education, discipline, values, and a Christian community-based experience. Catholic parents, like all other parents, want the best for their children. Maybe that's why the appeals focus so much on the kinds of secular successes that win the admiration of our society.
So one challenge facing Catholic schools is not to market their achievements and accomplishments so much that they end up sounding elitist, arrogant, and exclusive. To be a leader in athletics and academics generates great pride. But in some communities, it has become a divisive source of bitterness.
Once when I was a small-town editor, a local public high school lost the state championship football game to a Catholic school. Upon the team's return to a hometown celebration, the coach proclaimed, "Well, I guess we're the public school champions of the state of Illinois!" To which the jubilant community simultaneously cheered for their own children and jeered the absent Catholic victors. Alas, this envy may emanate in part from a lingering anti-Catholic bigotry in American culture. How politically incorrect to suggest that! So, learning to respond to unfair jealousy with charity, dignity, and silence is also a way of life for Catholic schools.
The research also shows that sending children to Catholic schools is no longer a choice for some parents as the cost becomes prohibitive and the decreasing number of Catholic schools makes them less accessible.
A couple of years after our oldest child graduated from grade school, I ran into the mother of one of my daughter's classmates and asked how her girl was doing. OK, she said, but the child had wanted to go to a Catholic high school and they just couldn't afford it. She seemed sad as she said it, and no doubt she was.
It is ironic that one of our relatives had to quit teaching at a Catholic grade school because she needed the public school teacher's salary to afford the Catholic high school tuition for her own children. Catholic teachers' salaries are unjust, period. So we should be even more grateful than we are for the sacrifices made by our children's teachers and administrators. But I imagine I'm the first among many who never wanted the tuition to increase very much. Such is the dilemma of Catholic schools for which the answer is frightfully elusive: paying higher salaries while controlling costs and keeping tuition as low as possible.
Money. I cannot write about Catholic schools without talking about money. I used to tease other parents that one unwritten rule is that they could never enter a Catholic school unless they wrote a check for something. Sally and I observed with curiosity but without resentment as others we knew sent their children to public schools and were able to afford more things like better houses in nicer neighborhoods. But we know all about choices and trade-offs, and we don't regret being pro-choice about Catholic schools.
As I make the case for Catholic schools, I also think of one of the most faith-inspired Catholics I know. She just retired after years of teaching in a public school. I know she modeled solid values for her students, and she undoubtedly provided a quality education. I am thrilled that Catholics take their values and skills into the secular world and model the faith so fruitfully in public school settings. So I am not disparaging public schools or their teachers. Neither am I implying that children cannot receive a quality education in a public school. They can, and many do.
We do not yet know what values our children ultimately will accept for themselves and whether they will practice their faith as they move into adulthood. But we believe that their experiences of Christian community and service in Catholic schools were worth the sacrifices and numerous extra checks. The schools successfully handed down the faith to the next generation, and our children had as many faith-based experiences as possible in an increasingly secular society.
Given a choice to give them the same opportunity again, we would.
Q: The most important value that my kids and/or I have received from Catholic schools is…
For my kids, discipline in all phases of their lives. For me, a deep and abiding love for my faith.
Helen Phillips, Grants Pass, Ore.
A very solid education, a good moral foundation, and I was taught to think.
Name withheld, Upper Marlboro, Md.
Respect for self and others.
Francis A. Farrell, Jenkintown, Penn.
A good education about our faith. I have taught religious ed for years, and the students know so little! One hour a week doesn't do it.
Lila Brehm, Atascadero, Calif.
Communityºyet I think this same value comes in public schools.
Name withheld, Milwaukee, Wis.
I asked my children: The seventh grader said, "to respect other people and not to laugh at other kids." My fifth grader said, "learning."
Mary Lou Vainisi, Elmhurst, Ill.
The ability to talk about God in all aspects of life. (But just because God's name is not spoken in public schools doesn't mean He isn't there.)
Holly Wiegman, Schenectady, N.Y.
Although my daughter is only in pre-kindergarten, I can see what a positive effect it has on her. She is always reminding us to say our prayers!
Name withheld, Sterling, Ill.
Q: One of the biggest drawbacks my kids and/or I have experienced from Catholic schools is…
The constant asking for money.
T. R. Gleissner, Brookfield, Wis.
My kids felt separated from the other kids in the neighborhood, since the Catholic school was about eight miles from our home.
Cecilia Monturo, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
I didn't have the opportunity to be with children from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Joann Poplar, Glenview, Ill.
As a female I was never encouraged to seek higher achievements or goals. A good Catholic housewife/mother was emphasized in the 1960s.
Name withheld, Darien, Conn.
Some of the teachers (not the majority, however) were weak in their field of teaching compared to the higher-paid teachers in the public schools.
Edward T. Brett, Pittsburgh, Penn.
Not having the freedom to explore issues that are contrary to church teaching.
Father Jerry Jacob, Mount Prospect, Ill.
Exposure to real life. My school was too affluent.
Name withheld, Minneapolis , Minn.
The financial situation is so tenuous that the schools are always in danger of closing (or have closed, leading to feelings of sadness and loss).
Nancy Lennon, Chicago, Ill.
Q: The most important challenge for the Catholic school system in the United States today is…
Finding a way to keep tuition levels manageable yet having salaries competitive with what our wonderful teachers could get elsewhere.
Jacky Walther, Chicago, Ill.
To give students the love of their faith so they will defend its values in the face of an often hostile secular culture.
Cynthia Haythe, Syracuse, N.Y.
To not price themselves out of business or become private schools for the "elite" who can afford the high tuition.
Name withheld, Houston, Texas
Losing the giving and caring aspect if forced to run like a business.
Name withheld, Pontiac, Ill.
Staying away from federal control.
Jim Peters, Three Rivers, Calif.
Not to dilute or de-emphasize the faith as they continue to improve academics, inclusiveness, and technology.
Father Herbert Weber, Mansfield, Ohio
To move from the religious community model to one where the people of the parish are committed to and willing to support a center for development of Christians for tomorrow.
Jane Carroll, Pawtucket, R.I.
To provide some sort of religious education for those who cannot afford to go to Catholic schools.
Name withheld, Denver, Colo.
Q: The time I first or best realized that Catholic schools are worth the investment was when…
I started college and found myself so well prepared, not only academically, but also on the level of making moral decisions in a more secular environment.
Patricia Houston, Jaffrey, N.H.
My dad, who was not Catholic, insisted on sending me to Catholic schools.
Carol Fueglein, St. Louis, Mo.
My sons remained faithful to our religious practices: sacraments and prayer.
Francis E. Abbey, Hyattsville, Md.
I was always convinced of the value of Catholic schools, but it was driven home when my parish went to tithing and a tuition-free parish school.
Carol Ann Black, Jacksonville, Fla.
I was old enough to understand the financial sacrifice my parents made for Catholic education and that its value to our family far exceeded the monetary cost.
David Michalak, Johnson City, N.Y.
I had my own children and knew I would have to "let go" of them in a school environment for the next 12 years.
Name withheld, Grosse Pointe, Mich.
My grown, married kids chose Catholic schools for my eight grandchildren.
Jeanette Mader Hall, Indianapolis, Ind.
I saw Catholic high school students giving time and energy to help people at an orphanage in Tijuana.
Father Robert Barbato, O.F.M. Cap., Solvang, Calif.
I met my future wife at a Catholic college and realized that our parents' investment in Catholic education for both of us had laid the groundwork for a strong commitment to the sacrament of marriage.
Patrick Deignan, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Many parents send their children to Catholic school because they don't like something about the public schools, not because of the religious education. Sometimes it's for academic reasons, but often it's to keep their kids away from the "riff raff" at public schools.
Name withheld, Peoria, Ill.
In this diocese, the quality of Catholic schools vary with the parish, the neighborhood, and the economic bracket. Some flounder; others thrive.
Theresa Skelley, North Braddock, Penn.
Catholic education is one of the finest gifts a parent can give to a childºa gift that costs, but one that keeps on giving. Better than new cars, clothes, big houses, and trips.
Ralph Schulte, Fort Dodge, Iowa
Yes, I believe Catholic schools are doing a better job than public schools, but why don't we see the graduates at Mass? Does the "good job" translate into lifetime commitment?
Name withheld, Seattle, Wash.
They were predicting doomsday for our Catholic school when our children went there 20 years ago. We have since moved into a better building and the school is still thriving. If people believe in Catholic schools, they will support them no matter what.
Gerry Beaudette, Lewiston, Maine
When I went to school, you were taught by nuns and priests and attended Mass every day. Some Catholic schools have teachers who are not even Catholic, and if they have Mass once a week, they are lucky. So is it really that different from a public school?
Name withheld, Brooklyn Park, Minn.
I sent my son to our parish school because I believed all the propaganda about Catholic schools. I was dismayed by the country club atmosphere and the money-grubbing. I was also displeased with the lack of diversity of the parish school.
Name withheld, Lynnwood, Wash.
I cannot imagine sending my children to a school that does not pray.
Name withheld, Redding, Calif.