Revitalizing Catholic Education?

On this feast day of Saint John Neuman, the great champion of Catholic education in America, I want to give a shout-out to St. Jerome’s Catholic Classical School in Hyattsville, Maryland. This school, like so many other modern Catholic parochial schools, was facing almost certain closing not long ago. A recent article from tells the story of what happened after the archdiocesan consultation at the parish in consideration of the school’s future:

Multiple parishioners approached [school principal] Donoghue and [pastor] Father Stack, arguing that what the parish needed was a more rigorous curriculum and authentic Catholic spirit. One of the loudest of these voices was that of Michael Hanby, a professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Hanby had lately been introduced to a local homeschooling community’s miniature school, known as the Crittenden Academy, which had inspired him to write an essay describing his philosophy on the subject. That November evening, attending the consultation and listening to the parish’s presentation, he recalls thinking, "I’m not sure that the school they just described is really worth saving."

Following the meeting, Hanby sent a letter saying as much to Father Stack, including a copy of his essay on education and emphasizing that "a wonderful birthright [was] being denied" the children of the community. Students needed, he argued, "to love thinking and to have something noble to think about," but Catholic schools had instead "drifted toward a public school model." His essay, Donoghue recalls, presented "a good analysis of where Catholic education had gotten off track," and she was impressed with its proposed remedies.

The parish had the sense to abandon the sterile and futile public school framework for their school, and go back to the future to adopt a classical model of education for K-8. The apparent result has been a vibrant, successful school which incorporates the reality of God in Christ into the fabric of life, overcoming the bizarre dissociation modernity imposes between creation and Creator by treating “religion” as if it were one among several more interesting “subjects” occupying compartments in the life of the analyzed self.

Truth be told, I’ve been disappointed with my experience with my local parochial school, Saint Paul’s in Wellesley, because it has long struck me as being not a whole lot more than a public school with a Catholic veneer – such as First Friday Masses, and “religion” classes daily, instead of weekly CCD fiascos – errr, classes. I know there are other important differences – mostly things that one happily won’t find at Saint Paul’s, plus an overall vastly higher level of behavior from the children – but there’s still so many arrows left in the quiver. What Saint Jerome’s is doing, I truly hope represents the beginnings of a broad revitalization of Catholic education in the US:

The curriculum emphasizes the conviction that human culture expresses the natural desire for God, and that Christianity is therefore historically and culturally decisive. Curriculum committee member Rebecca Teti says, "Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and God is the author of truth, beauty, and goodness. We wanted kids to see their unity, their connectedness to all people, and the goodness [Catholic] culture has brought to history."

Hanby adds, "Christ cannot ultimately be the center of students’ lives if He is not at the center of history and existence and if He does not satisfy the longings implanted in them. The public-school-education-plus-religion-class model ends up reinforcing the impression that religion has little to do with real life. We wanted to overcome the separation of faith and life by showing how profoundly Christ and the Church have affected history and culture — and by giving students something better to love."