Faith and Fundamentals Are Key to ‘Blue Ribbon’ Catholic Schools

Awarded for academic performance, they teach learners at all levels, educators say.

George Prelock, director of Notre Dame Preparatory High School's Academic Resource Center, provides individualized instruction to students.
George Prelock, director of Notre Dame Preparatory High School's Academic Resource Center, provides individualized instruction to students. (photo: Courtesy of Notre Dame Preparatory High School )

When a Catholic-school teacher noticed that a new boy in her second grade class was struggling to adjust, her idea to connect him with Jake Anstock, another student in the class, not only helped the boy succeed at Mother of Divine Providence (now Mother Teresa Regional Catholic School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania), but the two boys formed a lasting friendship as a result.

Anstock, now 19 and a sophomore at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, said he appreciates the friendships he made at the school as well as preparation received to attend a rigorous college-preparatory high school.

“None of us went to the same high school or college, but being in a small Catholic school with not a lot of people in my class, I was able to become close with two or three of my buddies,” he said. 

Mother Teresa Regional Catholic School is one of 22 U.S. Catholic grade schools and high schools named “Blue Ribbon Schools” in September by the U.S. Department of Education for their outstanding academic performance. But good test scores reflect just one measure of success at these and other Catholic schools, which seek to educate and care for the whole child, regardless of their academic level.  

For Catholic schools, “academic excellence is an outcome of wanting to be that well-prepared servant leader and not just an end in itself,” said Lincoln Snyder, executive director/CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and also a board member of the Council for American Private Education, which manages and nominates “Blue Ribbon School” applications for private schools.

Leaders of several of this year’s Catholic “Blue Ribbon Schools” shared what receiving the award has meant to their school and how they motivated students to score in the top 15% on state-assessment tests of reading (English language arts) and mathematics, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They and others also talked about knowing students well, and nurturing them spiritually and emotionally, contributes to helping them succeed academically in both good and challenging times. 

Catholic grade schools and high schools made up 22 of the 24 private schools recognized in 2022, of the 297 total elementary, middle- and high-school awardees that include traditional, charter, magnet, parochial and independent schools. Non-private schools were awarded either for overall academic excellence or for their progress in closing achievement gaps between student subgroups, while private schools were recognized for academic excellence. 

The Catholic schools awarded include both diocesan and religious-order-run school. 

“There are a lot of different models for excellence for us within the Catholic school system,” Snyder said. “This is a very diverse list, geographically and by types of schools. We’re just proud to see our schools from across the country represented.”

During the 2021-22 school year, 1,688,417 students were enrolled at 5,938 U.S. Catholic elementary and secondary schools, according to NCEA data.

The more than 350 elementary-age students at Christ the King School in Chicago were working together to become a “Blue Ribbon School” as they went through COVID lockdown and restrictions, and they’re excited about reaching that goal, said Principal Ann Marie Riordan. 

“I think it’s just a true genuine pride they have of our school, and that makes me so happy,” she said, adding that the students never “backslid” academically during the pandemic. 

The award also impacts the parish and neighborhood community, she said. “I think that will keep us stable and definitely keep us on the map for years to come, and that’s important to us because it’s not just about the physical school.”

Christ the King School in Chicago
The Christ the King School community in Chicago celebrates Sept. 16 and Nov. 8 being named a ‘Blue Ribbon School.’ | Courtesy of Christ the King School

To ensure students stayed on track during the pandemic, teachers developed individualized plans for every grade, Riordan said. “We don’t want to just cross our fingers and hope they catch up,” she said. “We know that COVID was real, and there’s no playbook.”

Private and Catholic schools performed well academically during COVID compared to public schools, Snyder said. “We know that the fact that Catholic schools came back and offered in-person instruction throughout the COVID pandemic did result in our kids being ahead academically.” 

About 20% of Christ the King students have non-standard learning needs, prompting the school to expand its special-education resource staff, Riordan said. As a Catholic school, there is less red tape, and teachers can better focus on what works for student success, she said.

Developing ways to help students who aren’t learning has been a priority for Notre Dame Preparatory High School, said Gene Sweeney, principal of the Scottsdale, Arizona, school that was named a “Blue Ribbon School” this year. Addressing this question has helped the school, with its 927 students coming from 56 feeder schools, achieve the award.  

“We just need to keep setting a higher bar, a higher expectation here for ourselves, and continue to focus on learning collaboration and results,” Sweeney said. 

School leaders developed three programs to bridge the performance gap: for advanced students and those with preparatory and remedial needs. Relationship building is essential in the programs, said George Prelock, director of the school’s exceptional-learner program. “Especially being a Catholic school, to let these students know that you do care for them, that you are their biggest cheerleader, biggest support — and sometimes it’s more than academics.” 

The achievement gap widened during the pandemic, and communities of color have been disproportionately affected by learning loss, Snyder said. During the 2021-22 school year, more than 21% of U.S. Catholic-school students were racial minorities, and almost 19% were Hispanic/Latino. More than 20% were not Catholic. 

Educators need to ensure that all children are being served and be deliberate about mitigating losses suffered during COVID, Snyder said. 

Leaders of high schools in the Cristo Rey Network don’t yet know how they’ve emerged from the pandemic academically because internal and external measures of achievement have changed, said Elizabeth Goettl, president and CEO of the Chicago-based network consisting of 38 schools in 24 states. 

Cristo Rey schools stayed in-person to the extent they could during COVID, she said. “Certainly the personal face-to-face is the most powerful experience,” Goettl said. “Catholic schools are privileged, and we’re all privileged every day, to make our practice of our faith public. We don’t need to hide it and go to work and leave it at home.”

About 98% of the network’s 12,441 pupils are students of color, she said. On average, half are working to improve in a designated academic area, she said. Students also spend part of their school day getting job experience in offices. Amid COVID, the schools worked with the employers to move as much work to remote as they could, so the students kept working. Of the network’s class of 2016, 39% graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years — more than two times higher than their demographic peers, Goettl said.   

Even when Catholic-school students have similar test scores or academic outcomes to their public-school counterparts, they’re more likely to stay in college or engage in civic life, Snyder said. 

Mother Teresa Regional Catholic School’s smaller size enables it to better identify students’ learning needs early and provide them the help they need, even if they’re coming from failing schools, said Principal Christine Pagan. The school has started STEM, special education and reading/math intervention programs for the 200 K-8 students, 10% of whom are English learners, she said.

In 2021, Mother Teresa Regional Catholic School became the regionalized school for Mother of Divine Providence parish in King of Prussia and St. Teresa of Avila parish in Audubon, Pennsylvania. Keeping the schools’ doors open for anyone who wants a Catholic education is a priority the school backs up with scholarships, Pagan said. 

“We want the people who want to be in our school for what we teach, as far as our faith goes,” she said. “And a lot of people for a long time didn’t go to Catholic schools because of the money because they didn’t have the programs that maybe their child needs, and that has been our goal: to make it available to those people who really want it.”