Why National Catholic Schools Week Matters More than Ever

This week, Catholics and non-Catholics across the U.S. celebrate National Catholic Schools Week commemorating the tremendous gift the private, parochial institutions are to our country and to the students whose lives they change.

Though I graduated high school 11 years ago, my heart still swells with pride as it always has when I recount how fortunate I am to be a graduate of parochial schools that educated the entire person I was and loved me completely, too.

When I was in third grade, there was a poetry contest at my Catholic school for students to express our gratitude for the extraordinary opportunity to receive a religious education. In my National Catholic Schools Week entry, I detailed how kind my teachers were, how much I loved my classmates and how my education helped my nascent faith flourish within me. I won first place.

It is often said that writers are at their best when they are expressing the things that truly matter to them, which probably explains my 8-year-old poetry prowess. Even as a little girl, my parents always impressed upon me that other children deserved the same chance at a solid education that I enjoyed, no matter their families’ ability to pay. I would write them letters thanking them for my Catholic education, and I beamed with pride when I was chosen to represent my school at various academic competitions or when a government agency would come to judge our school for a Blue Ribbon designation.

Even as a little girl, my parents always impressed upon me that other children deserved the same chance at a solid education that I enjoyed, no matter their families’ ability to pay.

A Catholic curriculum is typically pretty challenging. My all-girls Catholic school was one of the first in the nation to require all students use laptops in the classroom. As such, we were learning at collegiate levels. And although it has been more than a decade since I received my diploma from St. Joseph’s Academy, I still remember fighting a geometry program that was trying to animate a rhombus against my wishes or inserting slide transitions into my millionth presentation on the elements of the periodic table. After 12 years of Catholic education, college seemed easy.

I also remember how unconditionally our teachers and administrators loved us. We were allowed to be exactly who we were. At this school of 800 young women, none of us were told that the deck was stacked against us as females. Instead, it was routinely reinforced that we could achieve whatever we wanted because we worked hard and used our God-given gifts.

We were allowed to be exactly who we were.

They didn’t lie, and we didn’t disappoint. At the age of 27, I had already served in senior positions on a presidential campaign and on Capitol Hill before starting my own company. My classmates became surgeons, lawyers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, financial advisers, architects and mothers. They are succeeding in their careers, raising beautiful families and living their dreams.

My classmate Lindsay Key agrees that our shared experience at a girls’ Catholic school helped shape our lives beyond a classroom. It informed who we were, what we believed and how we behaved.

“My experience during 13 years of Catholic schools is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Having the opportunity to receive an excellent education while being surrounded by my faith community is absolutely the foundation of who I am today,” she said. “Faith-based education is a pillar of our society that offers kids more than just academic knowledge. It also infuses them with a sense of morality.”

They didn’t lie, and we didn’t disappoint.

I imagine all of us would attribute our individual version of achievement to our Catholic education. We were pushed, not coddled. We were instructed, not babysat. We were taught to be free thinkers who earnestly considered the opinions of others but looked to our moral foundation for strength. We were treated like adults — my senior physics teacher, Mrs. Morello, and I had a running debate on the merits of the Iraq War that exasperated my classmates but kept me enthralled — but received discipline when our skirts betrayed modesty, our homework wasn’t submitted on time or we got in trouble outside of school.

More than anything, my Catholic school educators cared about what happened to me. I wasn’t just a number shuffling through a system that assumed a significant swath of my classmates would drop out. I was a tenacious, enthusiastic young woman who they believed, like so many of my fellow students, could do so much with her life.

More than anything, my Catholic school educators cared about what happened to me.

I could tell you about the incredible statistical proof that Catholic schools are, at present date, vastly superior to their public counterparts. I could detail how they over-perform national averages in reading, math and science. I could explain how nearly all Catholic school students graduate from high school, and the majority go on to graduate from college. I could show you the millions of service hours performed annually by Catholic school students at hospitals, Habitat for Humanity builds, soup kitchens and battered women’s shelters.

But, perhaps most compelling are the lives changed at parochial schools. There are children raised in far less privileged circumstances than I whose futures are a lot brighter because they received a Catholic education. They needed it more than I did.

In my home state of Louisiana, most of the public schools in big cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge are — to put it kindly — inadequate. While there are a few decent public high schools, most parents would readily elect to scrape together whatever funds they could find so their children could attend a Catholic school, even if they weren’t Catholic.

Since creating a school choice scholarship program, thousands of Louisiana children have benefitted from private, charter and parochial alternatives to the failing public systems. Catholic options offer superior academics, loving discipline and adulthood preparedness that open doors for careers and citizenship for children who are raised in underprivileged neighborhoods.

There are children who raised in far less privileged circumstances than I whose futures are a lot brighter because they received a Catholic education. They needed it more than I did.

My college roommate Kacie Hoerner is a Catholic girls’ school graduate who recently taught elementary school students, many of whom were school choice scholarship recipients. Her passion for these students is apparent, as she understands Catholic schools are often a way out of poverty or otherwise adverse circumstances.

“Through state-sponsored and private scholarship programs, Catholic schools are providing an education to students from low-income families that is truly transformative,” she explained to me recently. “Catholic schools lay a foundation for success for these students. Not only do the students receive a quality education that will prepare them for the workforce, but they also receive a formation that enables them to be charitable, merciful and respectful members of society.”

This is because, Hoerner says, the educators in parochial schools are deeply dedicated to the formation of the whole person, believing that an education should extend beyond books and tests to include the development of a good citizen concerned about the needs of those around her. That begins with teachers taking an active role in the growth of students, especially those whose upbringings create social and economic obstacles for them to overcome.

“Many of these students need adults willing to invest in them, and Catholic school educators do just that,” she said. “It can truly change a child’s life.”

“Many of these students need adults willing to invest in them, and Catholic school educators do just that. It can truly change a child’s life.”

As a conservative, I believe in a competition of options for parents. I know that it is fundamentally unfair that the government pays for an unaccountable system that isn’t generating results that would warrant a monopoly on taxpayer funds. I feel strongly that educational dollars should follow children to the schools of their choosing, instead of being funneled solely into public institutions with no regard as to how those dollars are spent.

But it is because I’m a Catholic school alumna that I understand the human rewards of a parochial education. While I am living, breathing proof of the good they do, so, too, are people like Jalen, a young girl who was told by her public school that she’d have to go to special education classes and is now a the top of her class at her Catholic school. So is Kodie Treaudo, who is finally receiving personalized attention at Our Lady of Prompt Succor after years of being lost in the chaos of his public school.

If, as a nation, we believe in educational justice, we have an obligation to support, both in word and deed, parochial alternatives to public education. As parents will tearfully recount time and time again in Louisiana, it is finally giving their children hope after years of fear and despair. No longer can politicians turn a deaf ear to their cries.

As U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) often says, “If you’re looking for the closest thing to magic in America, it’s education.”

For me, it opened up the entire world. For hundreds of thousands impoverished children, it can, too. The time for education reform is now. As we celebrate Catholic schools this week, we must remember those who have been left behind — not because parochial institutions refused to educate them, but because the government wouldn’t empower them to do so.

It’s time to demand that our government, who should be acting in the best interests of children and not the political interest of adults, give them that chance to make some magic.  

Ellen Carmichael is a senior writer for Opportunity Lives. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.