How Catholic Is Your Child’s School?

Catholic Education Foundation develops tool to help administrators, pastors and parents determine the 'Catholic' identity of their school.

(photo: Gary Paul Lewis / )

How Catholic is your child’s school?

There’s a new tool available to help parents answer that question.

The Catholic Identity Assessment program has been developed by the Rochester, N.Y.-based Catholic Education Foundation. Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the foundation, said that a school’s Catholic identity is not as assured as it was in an earlier time, when much of the faculty was composed of priests and religious. Father Stravinskas said that a number of individual schools and the Archdiocese of Denver and the Diocese of Gaylord in Michigan have adopted the Catholic Identity Assessment for all diocesan schools.

Charles Taylor, superintendent of Catholic schools in Gaylord, said that what attracted him to the assessment was that it has objective standards. “Somebody had finally sat down and formulated objective criteria for evaluating Catholic identity,” he said. The 2011-2012 school year was the first time schools in Taylor’s diocese used the assessment. They are awaiting the results. 

The Catholic Identity Assessment, originally developed for Catholic high schools, is now available for elementary schools.

The process starts with a questionnaire. “It’s designed as a self-assessment instrument, so that every member of the staff, from the principal to the custodial staff, participates in this survey,” said Father Stravinskas. The questions deal with such issues as how frequently the sacrament of reconciliation is offered, whether there are theology classes and the qualifications of those who teach these classes. There are also questions about how justice and charity are promoted.

There are three tiers: self-assessment, collated by the Catholic Education Foundation; self-assessment plus an on-site visit by a CEF team; and a second visit by the team.

One satisfied customer is Father Christopher Phillips, pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio. Father Phillips helped establish The Atonement Academy in 1994. The academy offers classes from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and promotes, according to its website, “spiritual virtues through a challenging course of classical and Catholic education.” 

“As a Catholic school, those of us in the administration found this project to be intriguing,” said Father Phillips. “The idea of describing our program, and then letting it be assessed for its catholicity and effectiveness by a neutral third party — experts in the field — was a challenge we were eager to accept.”

Father Phillips said he would recommend the program.

“There were things we were doing very well, and the assessment helped us see how we could strengthen what we do,” said Father Phillips. “When it comes to assessing a Catholic school, it’s always a good thing to look at every aspect of it, and that’s what the Catholic Identity Assessment did. Our original vision was affirmed, and we received suggestions which have given us guidance in making aspects of our program even better.”

Father Stravinskas, who has taught and served as an administrator in Catholic elementary, secondary and college-level institutions, is a well-known author and holds a number of advanced degrees, including a bachelor of arts degree in classical languages and French from Seton Hall University, a master of arts in school administration from Seton Hall University and a master of arts in biblical theology from Immaculate Conception Seminary (Darlington). He holds a licentiate of sacred theology from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

He said that the program will assist Catholic schools in developing a more unified method of teaching — a biology class dealing with genetic structure, for example, might be a proper place to discuss Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical upholding the Church’s teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception. Students must learn to “connect the dots” between various academic fields, Father Stravinskas said.

“The God question is never inappropriate in any class. Whenever the God question naturally surfaces, that is the place it needs to be dealt with, and not confined to a 30-minute religion course,” said Father Stravinskas.   

A strong academic course of studies is essential, Father Stravinskas said.

“When we talk about Catholic schools,” the priest said, “the noun is school and the adjective is Catholic. It’s got to be a first-rate institution. It’s got to be as strong as any other academic school or we are doing a disservice to the students.”


Not Just Academics

But academics are not the sole consideration. A teacher might be asked, for example, if class is stopped so that students can offer a prayer when they hear the siren of an ambulance passing. The priest said that Catholic educators unfamiliar with the practice often say something like “Gee, that’s beautiful. We’ve got to start doing that.”

Father Stravinskas also said that Catholic schools should promote “a culture of vocations.” Students should find it normal to say to a teacher, “I think Joe may have a vocation to the priesthood.”

Noting that Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke to several U.S. bishops about the importance of Catholic colleges and universities having a strong Catholic identity, Father Stravinskas said that this program tries to do the same thing for high schools and elementary schools. 

Father Phillips concurred: “It is an effective tool to help us accomplish what the Church wants us to be doing in the way of educating our young people: giving them an authentically Catholic education, which is to form them spiritually, intellectually and physically, helping them to become virtuous and moral individuals.”

Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.