The Heart and Soul of a School
Mission is the heart and soul of a school. It inspires its culture and curriculum, forms its students and teachers, and bonds its school families to one another.
Most modern educators understand mission in utilitarian terms: the aim of learning is not the pursuit of truth and human flourishing, but socialization and preparation for college and the workforce.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to prepare students for college and a career. In fact, all schools highlighted in this Playbook share these goals—but they do so as secondary goals, achieved through the authentically Catholic education of children made in the image and likeness of God. Ironically, by focusing on the education and formation of the whole person, rather than college and career readiness, the schools highlighted in this Playbook perform better on the very metrics held up as paramount by many modern schools. This may seem counterintuitive. But it is only because it is countercultural.
For decades, school curricula and methods have evolved to reflect an increasingly secular worldview—one that sees the world through the distorted lens of materialism, progressivism, and the rejection of God and tradition.
As a result, classroom dynamics have changed dramatically over the years. Instead of encouraging students to grapple with the great ideas, events, and works of Western civilization, modern teachers build lessons around upcoming quantitative assessments. To some extent, this is an exercise in prudence. Teachers know they are evaluated—not on students’ understanding of the world and their place in it, or their growth in faith and virtue—but on the compiled standardized test results for the class.
The utilitarianism of modern education is incompatible with the salvific goal of the Catholic Church. And yet, many Catholic schools today are indistinguishable from their secular counterparts; they’ve abandoned the rich intellectual tradition and sacramental life of the Church, replacing morality with relativism, wonder with pragmatism, and exploration with test preparation.
The gutting of the Catholicity of Catholic schools is the root cause of today’s Catholic education crisis. The problem is serious but reversible—as shown by school leaders across the country who have resisted outside pressures and even reversed damage inflicted on their school communities.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of strong leadership in Catholic education. The best schools have passionate, virtuous leaders—principals and headmasters, pastors, board members, and superintendents—who shape the mission, culture, operations, and community makeup of schools and enable them to thrive.
Great leaders are, first and foremost, servant leaders modeled after Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love in service of God’s children. Jesus said to his disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:27). He washed the feet of his disciples and told them they ought to wash each other’s feet, explaining:
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:14-15)
Servant leaders of a Catholic school must not serve selfish interests—for example, a prideful desire for power or praise. Rather, they must obey God and His Church in service of the school community and in accordance with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
Unlike Jesus Christ, the school leaders highlighted in this Playbook are not perfect. They make mistakes, as all humans do. But they strive to be faithful, virtuous servants of God, are eager to learn how to better serve their school communities, and are unafraid to make changes—even when doing so invites the anger and ridicule of others—to advance a bold mission in cooperation with the universal Church.
Heidi Altman is principal of St. Mary’s Catholic School, a PK-11 (soon-to-be PK-12) parochial school in Taylor, Texas, founded in 1876 by Dominican Sisters, that launched a high school with the help of the Chesterton School Network in 2020. When she became principal in the summer of 2016, she was handed an enrollment roster of 50 students and a decree by the bishop that the school would be closing after that year if enrollment didn’t improve. Altman got to work reclaiming St. Mary’s strong Catholic identity. After seven straight years of declining enrollment before she became principal, St. Mary’s surpassed its 20-year enrollment high by her fourth year (2019-2020). Enrollment is now 268 students with a waitlist and newfound classroom space—an old convent on campus that Altman renovated in 2021. “God brings forth miracles when you trust Him and center all your efforts on His will!” she exclaims. She has advice for Catholic schools that have been influenced by modern education trends:
Sadly, I have noticed that many struggling schools are trying hard to keep up with the local public schools by following their programs and curriculum and then just adding Mass and a crucifix on the walls….
St. Mary's is different because we are not afraid to be who God calls us to be—an authentically, unabashedly CATHOLIC school immersed in the (classical) intellectual tradition of the Church!
Elisabeth Sullivan is executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and renewing K-12 Catholic schools. ICLE helps teachers, school leaders, and superintendents reclaim the Church’s long tradition in the liberal arts and sciences, transforming parochial, diocesan, and independent schools around the country. Sullivan explains that an authentic, “unabashed” Catholic identity is what makes schools like St. Mary’s thrive:
Thriving Catholic schools understand that their mission is, first and foremost, an extension of the mission of the universal Church: to lead all to know, to love, and to live joyfully in the Truth of Jesus Christ in this world and the next. In support of parents as the primary educators, these schools hope to help form disciples whose faith, wisdom, and virtue will frame lives of happiness and holiness, who will be a leaven in the Church and the wider culture.
What Sullivan describes is an approach to education that is novel to most educators and families today. It represents a true embrace of the Catholic Church. Respect for parents as the primary educators of their children is essential to this vision.
Julian Malcolm is headmaster of The Summit Academy, an independent high school in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that also offers a hybrid (3 days a week) program for middle school students. Malcolm understands the mission of his school as “support[ing] parents in their vocation as parents.” He explains:
We operate the school, but we’re not the ones with the vocation to raise their children. That’s the parents’ job and we are here to support them.
It turns out that support for parents as primary educators is what many conscientious Catholic parents are seeking in their children’s education. And they’re willing to pay extra for it.
Abby Sandel has been a parent at St. Jerome Academy, a parochial school in Hyattsville, Maryland, since 2009. She was present at St. Jerome Catholic Church when her pastor announced after Mass that their school would be closing if enrollment did not improve. She attended a meeting about the effort to save the school and was inspired by then-principal Mary Pat Donoghue’s “reimagining” of the mission to embrace the longstanding educational tradition of the church. She now enthusiastically recommends St. Jerome Academy to other families. When asked why it is worth paying tuition at her Catholic school when public schools are free, Sandel explains:
Faith is not an extracurricular activity… I can’t imagine putting our children’s faith formation on our family calendar as if it’s just another soccer practice. Growing in faith, especially for children, means spending days in an environment where faith is practiced and modeled consistently.
It’s simply not possible to have a full education without a faith perspective embedded in everything that is taught. That’s especially true with history and literature, but SJA faculty in science and art and every discipline have shaped our children’s love of God and sense that they have a responsibility to something greater than themselves.
A major point of departure for faithful Catholic schools is their understanding of vocation as, not just a career path, but in the words of St. Frances de Sales, a belief that “God has placed us in this life to fill a special need that no one else can accomplish.”
Catholic education should, as Malcolm offers, “be a hub for forming Catholic evangelists who have a real sense of vocation.” He explains:
We aim to form free, joyful young men and women whose recognition of Christ as the Logos—the divine reason that calls creation into being, giving the world order, form, and meaning, and orienting it from and towards love—informs their understanding of what they're called to do in the world.
Building An Apostolate
Fr. Robert Sirico became pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a parish with a K-8 school, in 2012. The school had been in existence for 107 years—it opened in 1905 through the efforts of Polish immigrants seeking a Catholic education for their children—but it was struggling. Enrollment had plummeted to 68 students and leadership had dwindled to the smallest it had ever been. The Bishop gave Fr. Sirico permission to close the school if he wanted to. Fr. Sirico declined the offer and instead decided to observe the school and make changes consistent with his vision for the parish. Today, Sacred Heart Academy is a thriving K-12 parochial school that serves 380 students.
Fr. Sirico is quick to give credit to the headmaster, staff, and teachers for turning the school around. But he acknowledges the important role he played early on in articulating a clear vision that inspired key people to offer their help. The most important part of that vision was recasting the school as an apostolate of the parish—not, as some parishioners and members of the school community believed it to be, a mostly-separate entity that relied on the parish for some financial assistance. He explains:
A school is an apostolate—the largest of a parish. If you view it that way, a school does not compete with a parish, it assists the parish. The formation of souls is the Church’s mission and how it’s done is a tactical decision.
Once he made his vision known, Fr. Sirico began making changes at the school to better provide for the formation of souls. He replaced the leadership, hung beautiful art on the walls, and introduced a curriculum inspired by the great ideas and works of Western Civilization. But the most important change he made—what became the single most important transformer of the school culture—was introducing daily Mass into the school day. Fr. Sirico moved the 8:00 am Mass to 7:45 am so students and teachers could worship alongside parishioners at the same quiet, contemplative service.
Rosemary Vander Weele is principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School, a once-struggling PK-8 parochial school in Denver, Colorado. Vander Weele increased enrollment from 90 to 351 students with a waitlist, adding a new campus to keep up with increased demand from families eager to be a part of a faithful Catholic community. She explains:
My vision when I first became principal in 2011 was to reclaim the Catholic identity of the school. I had been teaching in Catholic schools for seven years and I was wrestling with why my students came back after they graduated embracing the same worldview as their public school counterparts.
I was in graduate school at the Augustine Institute, writing my thesis on why Catholic education is failing. I became good friends with Bishop James Conley and was inspired by his conversion story. He became Catholic when he was introduced to truth, goodness, and beauty through Kansas University’s Integrated Humanities Program in the 1970s.
This is when I discovered how Catholicism is beautifully wed to classical education. But when I first started down this road, my biggest push was to do what we needed to do to get kids to live their faith post-graduation and want to continue to be Catholic. That’s what set our school on this path, and it remains the most important aspect of what I want to accomplish to this day.
Students at Our Lady of Lourdes attend Mass four days a week. Vander Weele shares:
When I first came to Lourdes, it was once a week. Five years in, we made the announcement that students would attend daily Mass and 38 students left. That was tough because we were just getting our footing with enrollment. But by January of that school year, 50 new students enrolled because families said, ‘Finally, here’s a school that takes Mass seriously and makes it a priority!’
Vander Weele says the whole culture of her school changed when she made the change to daily Mass. She explains:
The sacramental grace of receiving communion every day is real; students are less inclined to not be virtuous. Now, we still have knucklehead kids, but, overall, our students are obedient and joyful. Kids like to pray. Our students actually say that Mass is their favorite part of the day. So, it’s the direct opposite of what the families who left said would happen—that their kids would feel like they were going to Mass way too much. It's the exact opposite. They love going to Mass every day. In fact, the kids who graduate and come back after going to public high school say that’s what they miss the most.
Starting the day with Mass becomes a habit. It becomes hard to miss it because you need it. The fruits have been incredible. It has confirmed our identity with families. They know our school is Catholic. This isn't a school that just teaches religion class for 35 minutes a day. This is the air we breathe. It's part of who we are. And it’s why we are attracting students from much further away than other schools. We have families from 50 zip codes at our school and they probably pass three other Catholic schools on their way here.
Daily Mass is a draw for Catholic families across the country who are focused on their children’s sanctity.
Daniel Ethridge is headmaster of Ville de Marie Academy, an independent K-12 school in Scottsdale, Arizona that has full enrollment and a waitlist for every class. The main vision for his school “is for all students to develop a relationship with Christ that will last a lifetime—formed in Catholic tradition and informed in the teachings of the Church.” Daily Mass is an essential part of how Ville de Marie fulfills that vision—and it is what Ethridge says parents value most about his school.
Participation in the Liturgical Life of the Church
The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of celebrating seasons, feasts, and saints throughout the year—to enhance the worship of Christ and bring deeper meaning and purpose to everyday experiences. Living liturgically in harmony with the universal Church has become a hallmark of many faithful Catholic schools. Here are some of the most beloved liturgical celebrations embraced by school communities throughout the school year:
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Therese of the Child Jesus
Holy Guardian Angels
Our Lady of the Rosary
All Saints' Day
All Souls’ Day
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Christmas (no school—family time)
Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children
February to March
St. Joseph Day
The Annunciation of the Lord
Stations of the Cross
Easter (no school—family time)
Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Catholic Formation in a Secular World
The Catholic worldview—rooted in the understanding that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God for the purpose of loving, obeying, and spending eternity with Him in Heaven—is diametrically opposed to the version of reality endorsed by secular society. An authentic Catholic education, therefore, must not only pass on the truth of the Faith; it must also keep the distortions of secularism out.
Mo Woltering is headmaster of Holy Family Academy, a K-12 independent school in Manassas, Virginia, with full enrollment and a waitlist, that offers daily Mass as the “centerpiece” of its curriculum and formation. Founded in 1993, Holy Family Academy has established a reputation for being faithfully and thoroughly Catholic—which, in today’s world, is as much about keeping out the harmful aspects of the culture as it is about passing on truth and tradition. He explains:
While no other time in history exactly compares to our time now, there is no question that we are living through societal upheaval. In some ways it is similar to the time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. During that time, monasteries all across Europe helped to preserve the treasures of our Faith, intellectual heritage, and sacred liturgy.
Our vision is to help Catholic families become like the monasteries of the so-called Dark Ages where the cultural treasures of our Catholic beliefs were preserved and passed on to future generations….
Monasteries have walls that are meant to keep certain things out. At the same time, St. Benedict instructed that the monks had an obligation to welcome anyone sincerely seeking peace and the Good.
Even the “best” public schools and most private schools cannot offer an education comparable to what Holy Family Academy and other faithful Catholic schools offer. That’s because they do not teach the truth of Christianity. Rather, they teach a non-Christian worldview that distorts the teaching of all academic subjects, thus obscuring fundamental truths about the nature of man and all aspects of the human experience.
C.S. Lewis said:
Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
All public schools (including charter schools) and many private schools are prohibited from teaching the truth of Christianity: that Jesus Christ was the fully human, fully divine son of God whose life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the prophesies of the Old Testament and opened the Gates of Heaven to those who love God and follow His commandments. These schools are not neutral on Christianity. Rather, they teach values that are hostile to the faith—for example, that Christianity is anti-science and bigoted, that abortion is health care, that gender is independent of biological sex, and that promiscuity among all people, including children and young adults, should be encouraged.
Not all families seeking Catholic education are Catholic, but they all have an important distinction in common: they have opted their children out of the “free” public schools in favor of paying for religious education. Catholic schools that teach Christianity is “of infinite importance” in confronting progressive cultural trends earn the confidence of these families; by passing on the timeless truths and traditions of the Catholic Church, they develop strong communities of families who grow together in faith and love for one another.
Catholic schools that are serious about forming disciples must be intentional about rejecting the most harmful aspects of the culture. No threat poses more danger to children today than the prevalence of smartphones and other technology in the daily lives of Americans.
Deacon Christopher Roberts is president of Martin Saints Classical High School, an independent high school in Oreland, Pennsylvania, that is a part of the Chesterton Schools Network. Martin Saints seeks to “pass the Catholic faith to students by rendering a portrait of the faith that is as plausible, compelling, and beautiful as possible.” Deacon Roberts does this by playing “offense and defense.” He says he spends most of his time on “offense,” which he describes as “cultivating our students’ imagination by running towards all that is good, true, and beautiful.” Protecting students from technology represents a major part of his “defense.” He explains:
Defense means rejecting the unwholesome influences of the culture. We caution our school families against being on autopilot with technology and media consumption. Nothing good comes from unsupervised internet access, especially alone in bedrooms at night. But perhaps less obviously, the risk with technology isn’t just wasting time, online bullying, or pornography. There’s also the issue of how it warps our capacity for attention and gets us addicted to constant stimulation. If we’re trying to cultivate students who can think as well as pray, we need students who have at least some familiarity with interior stillness and silence.
Best practices relating to technology use include:
Ban personal devices at school. Many schools forbid K-8 students from bringing devices to school at all and allow high school students to keep phones in their bags or lockers during the school day (but do not allow high school students to use personal laptops, tablets, or phones in class). The accommodation for phones is made for older students to coordinate rides and for other responsible purposes.
Keep computers out of the classroom (or wait until high school to introduce limited computer instruction). Many schools have technology-free classrooms through eighth grade and offer limited exposure in high school consistent with liberal education—for example, offering computer science, but only for older students after they have been exposed to Latin and Logic, which cultivates ordered thinking in young people better than premature computer training.
Educate parents about the dangers posed by technological devices. Leaders are in constant communication with parents about this important topic.
Woltering recently advised his school parents to read a book on this topic—Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. He offered three warnings to parents: (1) Devices are designed to be addictive. For young people especially, their relationship with devices and social media become like going back to the slot machine to see if one more pull will win the jackpot. Young people need parents to set boundaries to identify and prevent future harm caused by this addiction. (2) Texting is not conversation. Young people who communicate exclusively through technology become uncomfortable with in-person social situations; they lack the refined skills to communicate effectively in person. (3) Interacting with a screen is a passive activity. It saps energy, while real leisure is invigorating. Young people who spend time on devices are being robbed of the opportunity to develop habits of pursuing healthy, leisurely activities.
A “secret” of successful Catholic schools is that they reject modern cultural trends that are boring and harmful, opting instead to engage young people on an educational journey that is good, true, beautiful—as well as contemplative and invigorating!
Dr. Mark Newcomb is the headmaster of Holy Rosary Academy, a PK-12 independent school in Anchorage, Alaska that “assists parents, the primary educators, to form students in faith, reason, and virtue through a classical education in the Roman Catholic Tradition.” He previously served as principal of St. Theresa Catholic School, a PK-8 classical parochial school in Sugar Land, Texas for six years. Under his leadership, St. Theresa received the highest honor from Ruah Woods Institute as a Theology of the Body campus, won a 2020 National Blue Ribbon award, and celebrated record enrollment.
Newcomb is a servant leader who aspires to pass on a spirit of servant leadership to his students. He explains:
We become free and full human persons only when we recognize the needs of others and serve them in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, as informed by our authentic encounters with the Risen Christ in scripture and the sacraments.
He has a deep respect for parents as the primary educators of their children. He understands his vocation as an educator as assisting parents in their vocation as parents—and he knows that parenting has become increasingly complicated in recent years. He cites the use of screens as “a digital security blanket” and a chief cause of “the American breakdown in expectations and norms for young people today.” He says the internet and social media “lower impulse control in children, addict them to peer validation as their primary way of determining what to do or not do, and serves to make them facile, in that all things and actions either get a thumbs up or a thumbs down.”
He notes that sometimes it is the parents themselves who need to be educated about how to live a Christian life. Throughout his time in Catholic education, he has observed that “even believing Christian families often do not connect care for others with their faith, but rather hold to a vague sense of civic responsibility or character, without reference to the love and salvific mission of Jesus Christ.”
When Newcomb arrived in Anchorage in 2021, one of his goals was to get ahead of problems that have plagued other schools by assisting parents in forming kind, charitable, and virtuous children. He notes that his school already had a culture rooted in truth, goodness, and beauty that predated him, and his efforts have only deepened his school community’s commitment to supporting each other in the cultivation of students’ virtue.
To encourage students, teachers, and parents to personalize the teachings of Jesus Christ, Newcomb introduced the “Knight’s Code,” a character charter of 12 virtues “drawn from the treasury of the wisdom of Christendom.” Named for the school’s mascot—because Knights are “supposed to come to the rescue of those who are being mistreated”—the code not only sets expectations for behavior at school, but also shapes the way students understand their duty to God and each other. The virtues, as enumerated for student expectations at Holy Rosary Academy, are:
Fidelity—exhibits a love of God and His Church
Charity—is kind and helpful with others; courteous in speech, word, and deed
Justice—willingly meets duties and follows all school rules, seeks the common good
Sagacity—uses time, resources, and talents wisely
Prudence—exercises good judgment in managing and organizing own affairs
Temperance—maintains good impulse control, is punctual and responsible
Resolution—is determined and resilient in the face of challenges
Truthfulness—is rigorously honest and honorable in all academic and personal matters
Liberality—is self-sacrificing and generous in the service of others
Diligence—seeks to do the right thing at the right time; attentive and studious
Hope—has a positive outlook about self and encouraging attitude towards others
Valor—is courageous in promoting and protecting the interests of others
Newcomb integrated the Code into the school’s discipline system that had previously focused on demerits. Holy Rosary Academy still gives demerits for inappropriate behavior at school, especially when that behavior violates the dignity of another child. For example, teachers “intercede the moment that it appears that a student is not being treated with dignity and respect as made in the image and likeness of God, by his or her peers.” But now, in addition to giving demerits, teachers award students “acts of valor” for conspicuously virtuous deeds. Every month, HRA uses this system to recognize students for their goodness at an assembly attended by all teachers and students.
Newcomb reports that parents and teachers have been “VERY” enthusiastic about the Knight’s Code because it connects home and school life and reinforces a culture that “celebrates the good, rather than merely castigating the bad.”
He, too, is enthusiastic about the approach because he knows better formation of students requires better formation of teachers and parents. He explains:
Our goal is to form students who think first of others and who are here to serve one another. This requires each of us—faculty, staff, and parents included—to be willing to become better people, so that we can in time be a blessing to ourselves and those around us. None of this happens through stasis and low standards.
Peter Crawford is the founding headmaster of St. Jerome Institute (SJI), an independent high school in Washington, DC that has “reinvented traditional education to meet the challenges of our time.” Since its founding in 2019, SJI has developed a national reputation as a school for teachers who love to teach—and who understand that the cultivation of virtue in students is an important aspect of the profession.
St. Jerome Institute designed its curriculum and culture with parents in mind. Informed by the Catholic principle that parents, not the government, are the primary educators of their children, Crawford created a school that personalizes the teachings of Jesus Christ to each child. He has a special appreciation for the freedom to help children make connections between their behavior and their responsibilities to God. Before becoming the headmaster of SJI, he taught at three classical charter schools, two of which he founded. At those schools, he was prohibited by law from using sacred scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Saints’ writings, and other Christian sources to teach virtue.
At SJI, Crawford uses his freedom to give parents what they want and deserve: a partner in forming children who imitate Christ in their interactions with others. Under the light of Truth, he prioritizes the cultivation of virtue in four essential ways. He:
Hires, trains, and coaches teachers to model virtue and provide personalized mentorship to students.
Sets a single, unified expectation for student action and behavior that applies in all classrooms and all situations schoolwide.
Speaks to students and parents at the beginning of every school year about the school's philosophy regarding student action and behavior.
Finds opportunities to have conversations with students and parents, individually and in groups, to reinforce expectations throughout the year.
Crawford notes that all actions directed at a child must be motivated by love—the Christian duty to will the good of another. “It is not enough for parents and teachers to know that the reason we hold children accountable is because we love them,” he says. “Children need to be explicitly told this.” For love of the child, it is critical that parents and teachers demand good behavior to help establish habits of goodness. He explains:
Most people think that the way to derive a certain outcome from children is to win them over so they will start acting in the way that you want. Unfortunately, this is not how human behavior works. As Aristotle and modern psychology both agree, if you want to impact the interior life, you need to begin by making certain demands on human action. A requirement for consistent right action leads to right habits.
Crawford explains that virtue is traditionally understood to mean habits of excellence. The key to obtaining virtuous behavior in children is having clear expectations and consistent accountability rooted in the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love.