Educator Tom Carroll’s Renaissance of Catholic Education

Boston Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools Tom Carroll addresses learning based on ‘foundational virtues’ in an interview with the Register.

Kindergarten students at St. Benedict Classical Academy in South Natick, Massachusetts, in the Archdiocese of Boston, learn the Sign of the Cross on the first day of school. The school educates students from preschool through sixth grade.
Kindergarten students at St. Benedict Classical Academy in South Natick, Massachusetts, in the Archdiocese of Boston, learn the Sign of the Cross on the first day of school. The school educates students from preschool through sixth grade. (photo: George Martell / Courtesy of the Boston Pilot)

BOSTON — Tom Carroll, the trail-blazing superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, helped local parochial schools survive and thrive during the pandemic, but he has also faced headwinds, including the recent closure of a new Catholic classical school that combined distance learning with in-classroom instruction. 

During a wide-ranging interview with the Register that touched on broad national trends, Carroll explains his reasons for shuttering Lumen Verum Academy, why he spends 70% of his time recruiting top educational talent, his initial thoughts regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the classroom, and his decision to step down at the end of the academic year. 

 

During your tenure, many Boston Catholic schools not only weathered the pandemic lockdown, they increased enrollment. Where do things stand now?

The decision by many public schools not to reopen in the fall of 2020, after the initial pandemic lockdown, was a tragic mistake. It will result in a generation of bad consequences for the children in those schools.

The decision by most Catholic schools to reopen more quickly not only prevented the same learning loss for their students, it also made them stronger. 

In Boston, virtually all the people that came into our schools during the lockdown ended up staying because they liked what they saw.

Large amounts of federal [pandemic aid also] helped.

School leaders who have taken advantage of this honeymoon period to get their act together will do well.

And in a competitive marketplace like Boston, Massachusetts, a state with the highest-rated public-school system in the country, a Catholic-school principal has to figure out how they stand out: What’s unique about the education that they’re offering children?

 

While Catholic-school leaders navigate this competitive landscape, have major Supreme Court cases addressing religious freedom in education made a difference?

With the current Supreme Court justices, I can’t think of a major religious-liberty case that was decided contrary to the interests of religious freedom.

In 2020, the court’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru stipulated that civil authorities had no right under the U.S. Constitution to question a religious institution’s judgment on hiring people based on faith. 

That ruling has given us great flexibility to recruit principals and teachers who are in accord with the magisterium and the Catholic Church because it’s very clear: We’re allowed to apply a religious test in hiring and can ask almost any question that relates to religious belief or religious practice.

That paves the way for anyone who wants to make our schools authentically Catholic. And that’s also true for schools run by other religions and [Christian] denominations.

 

Advances in Artificial Intelligence, like ChatGPT-4, pose a fresh challenge to Catholic educators. AI could help individualize student learning, but it could also weaken intellectual formation, in part, by facilitating cheating and by replacing the hard work of researching and drafting papers with an AI-generated product. What are your initial thoughts on AI?

This issue has not yet come up in our schools.

But looking at the broader challenge AI poses, it will be more important than ever for our schools to do a really good job sharing Church teaching on creation: that God created man and woman; that we are all created in his likeness; and that we are not a bunch of robots.

I am not opposed to technology. But the danger here is that the new “god” becomes technology and AI. So the Catholic Church has to do a really good job reminding people of first principles. 

And that underscores the need to double down on a liberal arts education from the start of school all the way through college.

AI is expected to provide lots of new jobs. But we will also need people who are intellectually well prepared and can exercise human judgment that will place limits on AI [advances and related] technologies that threaten human life. [Our capacity] to create advanced weapons or clone human beings will increase the need for religious judgment and for devout Catholics to be involved in bioethics and other areas, to create moral guardrails for what is about to unfold. 

 

Massachusetts has top-rated schools, but in the four years you have served as superintendent, parents across the country have become increasingly concerned about politicized instruction. How is that issue playing out in Boston? 

Even now, with the COVID pandemic fading into the rearview mirror, parents are switching their kids to our schools to escape intense politicization. This has nothing to do with whether somebody is conservative or liberal, a Democrat or Republican. It has to do with parents wanting to extend the innocence of their children as long as humanly possible.

Our teachers are not allowed to share their political preferences or how they’re going to vote with their students.

I’ve hired almost 50 new principals since I started in 2019, and one part of the interview [process secures] their commitment to create schools that are “politics-free.”

 

Does this help put the focus back on religious mission?

We can offer STEM programs and robotics labs and 3D printers, but that’s not the basis for competing against public schools that have unlimited amounts of money to buy all those things.

With the culture in the state that it’s in, parents are looking to go back to foundational virtues and for their children to believe in something bigger than themselves.

So our schools are keeping it simple. We evangelize our faith. We create a sense of community. We treat each child as a unique creation of God. 

 

Just two years ago, you launched Lumen Verum Academy, a hybrid classical Catholic school with a distance-learning component. Now the school is closed. What happened?

In the wake of COVID, there just wasn’t the appetite for a school that was partly in person and partly online.

We fulfilled our promise to parents that this school would be in complete fidelity with the magisterium, academically rigorous with a classical [framework] and offer a joyful presentation of Catholicism.

In frequent surveys, all the parents that signed up believed that we fulfilled our promises. 

And when it closed, and I spoke with every single parent, they all believed that it was the most transformational school that their child had attended. 

But because of the virtual piece, we never got enough people who were willing to go to the school and make it viable.

I’ve founded over a dozen schools over time, so it’s not the first time I’ve tried something different and novel. 

I hope it doesn’t lead people to the “wrong” lesson from this — the conclusion that we shouldn’t take risks. I think the Catholic Church has been too cautious in how it runs its schools. 

They should try lots of different things to see what works and what doesn’t work.

And people shouldn’t interpret the fate of this particular school as evidence of a lack of interest in classical education.

In Boston, St. Benedict’s Classical Academy has been doing well and has a waiting list.

 

Is it getting tougher to find great Catholic-school leaders and teachers?

This is a time in which Catholic schools have to really hustle to get the word out to parents and students. But we also have to hustle to find teachers and quality principals.

In the four and a half years I’ve been doing this, it has become dramatically more difficult to find talent, and that’s partly because the public schools have a lot of people leaving, and so they keep trying to poach our teachers.

I spend probably 70% of my time trying to acquire talent either at the leadership level or in and within classrooms. 

If you are trying to build a really strong school system, you have to seek talent wherever it is.

I have one principal from New Zealand, a teacher from Albania and another from Mexico.

I’ve been crisscrossing the archdiocese and the country to find people who are faithful, smart and intellectually curious, with a strong work ethic.

I’m hiring people straight out of mostly liberal arts schools, a lot of which are schools recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society [and also in the Register’s annual “Catholic Identity College Guide”].

But I also have recruited at some of the most competitive secular schools in the country, including Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and Duke. 

I found candidates through Catholic apostolates on these campuses, or through individual professors who connected me with kids that they thought would make great teachers.

Our St. Thomas More Teaching Fellows program prepares these first-time teachers to go into our classrooms.

People who are older, including myself, have to remember that our job is to make sure the Church and its schools survive until the younger generation takes over. 

And though there is a lot of despair in the Church, regarding the decline in church attendance and growing disaffiliation [from organized religion], the young adults and seminarians I’ve met are truly inspiring. 

Their evangelizing spirit, IQ, work ethic and intellectual curiosity are absolutely stunning.

Most of the people that I’ve recruited for our Teaching Fellows program never planned on being teachers, so I first have to convince them on why they should become a teacher.

More than my generation, a lot of young people I talk to are looking for community and they’re looking specifically for Catholic community.

School leaders who can offer Catholic community and a sense of hope about the future of the Catholic Church will attract shockingly talented people.


You just announced that you will step down at the end of the 2023-24 school year. What legacy do you hope to leave behind?

I hope my legacy is cause for optimism. I have shown that Catholic schools aren’t destined for the dustbin of history.

Also, I’ve shown that the generation graduating right now from college is chockfull of smart and faithful Catholics who are willing to help us inspire and convert children in our schools. 

We have much work to do, but there is a path forward. And if we could do this in Boston, we could do it anywhere.

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