Shortly after Padre Pio Academy opened in Shawnee, Kan., Co-founder and President of the Board Joanne Hanson found herself doubting the independent Catholic K-12 school would survive.
The launch had gone off well enough. Hanson’s band of home-schooling mothers had bought the books, hired the teachers and enrolled some 50 students. But, Hanson now had to admit, “We thought we knew what we were doing.”
Chaos erupted over the first few months, she recalls. By the second year, the student body had dropped to just 21.
“We had lost the families and thought the school would close,” she says. Prompted by her husband, Scott, she turned for help to the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools.
“I went to the 2001 Napcis conference as a last-ditch effort,” Hanson says. She came back armed with information, direction and a vision on how to make the school succeed.
The association accredited the Padre Pio Academy in January 2002. This year it’s 58 students strong — and getting ready to educate at least 80 who’ve already enrolled for next year.
“Padre Pio Academy would not be here with out Napcis,” says Hanson. “Eileen is our lifeline.”
She’s referring to Eileen Cubanski, the organization’s executive director and cofounder.
Cubanski explains the overall goal of her organization in a nutshell: “For all of us involved, it’s all about the salvation of souls and academic excellence.”
Strength in Numbers
The National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools serves 57 member schools in 28 states. Its stated objective is to promote “the solidarity, strength and security of small schools teaching the Catholic faith.” It accredits schools, certifies teachers and provides resources to start-up schools. And it helps administrators and teachers meld sound academic principles with the teachings of the Catholic faith.
The association, which is based in Sacramento, Calif., claims St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke as its ecclesiastical advisor, and counts among its council members Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, Franciscan Father Michael Scanlan and Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.
One measure of Napcis’ success came last November when the Acton Institute named five of its accredited schools among the top 50 Catholic high schools in America.
Remarkably, Napcis arrived on the scene only 10 years ago, when four independent Catholic schools in California and Nevada joined forces. “We sensed the Holy Spirit really had quite a plan going on between home schooling and these small schools,” Cubanski says.
The founding schools saw two major needs: accreditation and teacher certification. While accreditation isn’t a matter of life or death, Cubanski points out, it allows schools to qualify for foundation grants and matching corporate funds. Then, too, many parents considering small schools ask about accreditation and teacher certification.
“Accreditation was a way to show we weren’t some crackpot out there; we were professional,” says Cubanski.
Meanwhile, she points out, professionalism in a spiritual vacuum can chip away a school’s Catholic identity: In seeking accreditation from secular and governmental accrediting agencies, many Catholic schools have ended up diluting their Catholicity.
“We saw the need to have an accrediting agency specifically designed to protect the Catholic identity of these [small Catholic] schools,” says Cubanski.
Napcis accreditation can be a godsend for schools that, like Padre Pio Academy, don’t want to submit to secular standards but do want to seek gifts and grants from individual and corporate contributors.
And then there’s teacher certification. Cubanski says Napcis schools look for teachers knowledgeable in, and dedicated to, their faith. The idea, she says, is to provide not just instructors who have mastered the subjects they teach, but also leaders to whom students can look as role models.
To earn certification, teachers learn the best practices of Catholic education going back to the proven pedagogies of the Dominicans, Jesuits, Christian Brothers and Ursulines. They also study encyclicals and Church documents on Catholic education.
At the same time, the association tells schools that, to protect their Catholic identity, the board and teaching staff must all be practicing Catholics. The association also recommends an annual profession of faith and oath of fidelity to the Holy Father and magisterium.
“We think it’s essential that this be a part of the life of our secondary and elementary schools,” says Cubanski. Teachers from all 57 Napcis schools have applied for the certification.
At Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, Alaska, one of the oldest private independent Catholic schools in America, Executive Director Ed Wassell has found Napcis a boon in yet another way.
“The networking is tremendous,” he says. “They can provide you immediate access to the other schools,” which can advise on hiring problems, start-up challenges and student-discipline issues. “That’s intensely invaluable, to be able to draw on the strength of others.”
Wassell says he gets at least one e-mail a week from a school asking how Holy Rosary solved a particular problem. (The organization also helps more than 120 non-member schools.)
Father of Mercy Christopher Crotty has watched with interest for years as Napcis has established itself and extended its reach. Ordained in 2001 and chaplain for their conferences, he’s a graduate of Kolbe Academy in Napa, Calif., one of the association’s founding schools. He’s also proof the schools become fertile ground for vocations.
“I was the first graduate of Kolbe and the first priest ordained from the various classes,” he says, noting another graduate of the school is a Norbertine brother. “The school produced vocations and good families.”
Cubanski reflects on Napcis’ role in yet another light:
“If our schools are temporary in the sense monasteries were centuries ago — if our role in the Church is to preserve and protect the truths of the faith until we have the fullness of the new springtime the Pope speaks about, and we have an explosion of vocations to the religious life and priesthood so once again our schools are staffed with holy religious — then we’ve done our job.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from