On Catholic Education (Part 4)

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All of this raises another challenge with which Catholic schools struggle and for which there is little clarity. To what extent does a Catholic school have to model the values and attitudes found in the Gospels? The answer seems obvious. Catholic schools should be rooted in the Gospels and be the best example of Catholic social teaching, all of which are included in the content of the information presented to the students, in their learning experiences at the school and in the structure of the learning environment that the school provides. If you are an administrator, teacher or school board member, how do you do that?

Christ never gives up on anyone. The Gospels tell us to forgive seventy times seven. We are told to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile. Christ forgives Peter who betrays him and has him lead the Christian community after that betrayal and repentance. If this is a fundamental Christian value, how can the administrator at a Catholic school expel any student? Shouldn’t the administrator go the extra mile to help the student?

Catholic high schools have a deserved reputation as excellent college prep schools. Troublesome students pull down the academic average for the school and distract from the work of preparing the students for college. It is logical to cull them from the student body and focus on those who will benefit from the focus on preparation for college but is it right?

Is such culling consistent with the Gospels? Does it reflect the call of Pope Francis to go out to the margins of society to be of service, to be a field hospital for the needy, to have the smell of the sheep? The temptation is to see this as a task for missionaries and specialized ministries of charity, but aren’t Catholic schools called to ministry of service to the marginalized. This is a call to all Christians and all Christian institutions. How are students going to learn the practical reality of discipleship, if it is not modeled for them in their schools? How are students going to learn the practical reality of discipleship, if they don’t learn to practice it in their schools?  Should Catholic schools be redolent with the smell of the sheep or with Dior cologne?

There is a legend that as Nero was stoking the fires of persecution in Rome, members of the Christian community warned Peter that it was likely he would be arrested and killed in the current round of persecution. It seemed wise for him to leave Rome until things settled down. He got his walking stick and backpack, put on his walking shoes and headed for the outskirts of Rome. On the way out, he encountered Christ walking into the city. In shock, he asked Jesus, “Quo vadis, Domini?”, which means “Which way, Lord?”.  That is, he was asking Jesus where he was going?  Jesus explained to Peter that since Peter was leaving the city, Jesus was entering the city to take his place. At that, Peter realized what he had to do, turned around, and headed back into the city and to his death.

So, at this point in our reflection on Catholic education, the next question is “Quo vadis?” Again, this is a difficult question to answer, as there is little clarity and a variety of trends.

In the United States the basic theme for Catholic education at present is downsizing. Schools and parishes are being consolidated to keep people and resources in balance. Many Catholic schools have hired development specialists who attempt to enlist corporate sponsors and wealthy donors to keep schools operational as well as to obtain needed technology. As parish elementary schools have closed, Catholic high schools have added middle school level classes to make effective use of the high school resources and reduce the burden on consolidated elementary schools.

Some dioceses have taken the call to serve the marginalized seriously and have maintained some inner-city elementary schools for the poor. This relies on corporate sponsorship to cover most operational costs, with the Church providing the facilities. Tuition demands on the parents are minimal at most. The Diocese of Erie opened such a school about two years ago.

Home schooling is another option that has gained in popularity over the past decade. Home schooling is recognized by most public-school districts and various criteria and testing procedures are provided to ensure that the material is learned, and educational credit earned. The most common model for home schooling nowadays is “cyber-school”. The student is enrolled with a certified “cyber-school” that provides a laptop computer, a website, and on-line courses that the student works through. There are Facetime/Skype style class sessions to be attended and the student has access to human teachers via Facetime/Skype when needed. There are occasional field trips and class events for students to help build a sense of community and to maintain human interaction.  The religious education aspect of home schooling varies from diocese to diocese and will either rely on more computer assisted learning or on reading and doing exercises in approved workbooks. There are also attempts at community building with field trips and social events for students in an area.

This can be an effective way to provide course content of an informational nature. However, it can be weak in opportunities for discussion and practical experience, unless it is tightly integrated with parish or diocesan religious education programs. This approach is still relatively new, and many dioceses have yet to develop home schooling resources that provide the necessary human to human contact that can be provided in a traditional school setting.

Another challenge with home schooling is that at least one parent or responsible adult needs to serve as a mentor to the student, ensuring that they do their assigned work and helping them with the assignments. This assumes that the parent has the time, interest and educational level to do the job effectively. This is a challenge for even the most motivated parent.

All of that said, I confess that I am a serious technophile and consider computer technology to be an important educational resource. I’ve taught college for many years and for at least the past ten years have made extensive use of computer technology in the courses I teach.  Nowadays, my lectures are set up as PowerPoint slide shows with narration, which students are expected to watch prior to class.  I also post any side readings on line, so that they can be read ahead of time.  Class time is spent primarily in discussions over the material presented in the lectures and readings. This approach takes advantage of the on-line resources to present the basic factual material and allows our class time to be used for considering how to apply the information they have learned on line. It is this hybrid type of schooling that I see as playing an increasingly important role in education.

What does all this have to do with Catholic education in the islands? Perhaps, not much? Though I don’t think so. Many of the same pressures that are forcing changes in Catholic education on the mainland are at work in the Mariana Islands as well.

It is increasingly expensive to operate a school and increased tuition costs only eat away at the number of families who can afford to send their children to Catholic schools. Further, there is competition in the Marianas for the limited number of students available. Parents are going to send their children where they can get the best quality for the most reasonable price. Catholic schools must provide the best quality for the lowest price.

Further, Catholic schools must wrestle with the challenge of forming their students as disciples of Christ, while providing a quality education that meets the practical needs of life in the Marianas. This may imply college prep but changing needs may suggest that there are other practical educational needs t be met. Further, an integral Catholic education can not limit itself to just information about Catholic social teaching but must teach Catholic social teaching through direct service to the people of God and especially to the marginalized. For all its faults and failings, Catholic education is still the best option for those who can afford it. As a Catholic community, we must work toward expanding its availability, rather than looking for ways to downsize the population it serves.

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