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.
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!
Curriculum and Pedagogy
Michael Van Hecke is president of St. Augustine Academy, a K-12 independent school in Ventura, California, that “assists parents in their duty of fostering within their children growth in the theological, intellectual and moral virtues.” He is also president and founder of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and president and publisher of the Catholic Textbook Project, a company producing the first history textbooks specifically for Catholic Schools in nearly 50 years.
[E]verything we do—intellectually, socially, culturally, etc.—derives from our creation as a child of God destined to spend eternity with Him in Heaven. The Faith is the substratum of all, and actually is the biggest motivational factor to study all disciplines well, for in them is truth. The more we understand truth the more we understand Truth.
A deep appreciation for the truth that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God—and are not merely cosmic accidents—is what inspires the most successful Catholic schools to embrace the classical tradition of liberal education as developed by the Church for more than 2,000 years. This tradition includes the exploration of truth, goodness, and beauty—as originating from God and revealed through the study of the humanities, sciences, and mathematics—in a manner that cultivates wonder.
St. Augustine said:
People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the seas,
at the long course of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.
It is unnatural for children not to wonder about the mountains, the seas, and all of God’s created world, not to mention about themselves and God’s plan for their lives. Many teachers don’t know that. They may have gone into teaching with a burning desire to inspire their students, but all they’ve ever known in the classroom is the pressure of the next set of assessments. They believe education is supposed to be boring because their students have always been bored.
But—as teachers across the country who are being trained to cultivate wonder in their classrooms are discovering—children love to learn when their natural curiosity is respected and nurtured.
Sullivan shares the enthusiasm of teachers who are rediscovering the art of their craft:
Teachers are attending not just to what they teach, but also how they teach—in a way that restores wonder and inquiry to the classroom. In doing so, they respect the dignity of the children, whose hunger to know is ultimately a hunger for God. By contrast, the industrialized model of cram, test, and forget produces apathy and anxiety. It does not feed the soul.
The result, Sullivan says is a “palpable joy in learning.” She explains:
[L]earning becomes an adventure to discover wondrous connections and order in the world God made, and to understand our unique vocation in this particular time and place. Children are engaged by meaningful lessons, even in their youngest years. Students of all abilities and backgrounds thrive with a highly ordered introduction to reality; they learn how to learn in accord with their nature and development. It is natural, and it is fun.
The Discussion Method is a style of teaching that facilitates critical thinking and dialogue through the practice of asking questions. Many Catholic schools utilize the Discussion Method—especially in seminar-style classes—to cultivate wonder and engage students as active participants of their own education.
Peter Crawford is headmaster of St. Jerome Institute, an independent high school in Washington. DC, which “offers teenagers a formation of beauty within the heritage of the Catholic tradition, which speaks to their lived experience and frees them up to wrestle with the great truths and mysteries of the world.” St. Jerome Institute is known for “reinventing” education to “meet the challenges of our times.” A signature element of the school is the faculty’s use of the Discussion Method to situate students “within a community of learners, in a posture of wonder before the deep realities they are engaging.”
Crawford’s teachers take the craft of teaching—what he calls his faculty’s “communal work of art”—seriously. They are eager to help students “actively wrestle with their studies” by asking good questions.
“But what constitutes a good question?” Crawford asks. He reflects:
How can a question, or series of questions, directly lead students to engage with the reality they are studying? Are there ways of asking or types of questions that allow students of different levels and abilities to simultaneously engage subject matter? What are the risks of teaching through asking and how can these risks be mitigated?
In other words, what are the distinct strategies and tactics of our craft?
These are the sorts of considerations that the faculty of SJI take seriously. We ponder these matters as a group, lead each other in lessons, and are in a constant state of discussion about the craft of our art.
Integration of Disciplines
One of the most important curricular differences of renewed Catholic schools is the integration of disciplines—in Christ and with each other—to provide a cohesive learning experience.
Crawford uses imagery of a symphony, where “every class is in chordal harmony with every other,” to illustrate how St. Jerome Institute’s integrated curriculum helps students encounter “a meaningful whole”:
The classes are integrated with one another so that each school day acts like a progression of chords. Together, the entire school day becomes one single lesson, as does the school year and the entire four-year curriculum.
Crawford shares an example of how students’ classes are “regularly in dialogue” with each other:
Students start their ratio units in the Mathematics Seminar and promptly enter the music classroom to explore the circle of fifths. As students explore the navigational challenge of ascertaining longitude in Philosophy of Nature, they travel with Odysseus across the sea back to Ithaca in Humanities. As they contemplate the restless heart that longs for God in the beginning of the Confessions, they consider Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Conversion of St. Paul.”
Students learn better—and with greater joy—when they understand how subjects relate to each other and how, together as a whole, they reveal the order and beauty of the human experience.
The Building Blocks of an Integrated Curriculum
In 2009, under the leadership of then-Principal Mary Pat Donoghue, St. Jerome Academy abandoned its disconnected curriculum, creating and implementing its own plan known as the Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy. The school is not proprietary about its curriculum. On the contrary, it shares its plan freely and broadly, encouraging other schools to adopt it wholly or use it for inspiration. For years, St. Jerome Academy’s leadership and staff have made themselves available to answer questions and provide guidance to Catholic educators interested in transitioning or renewing their schools. Donoghue has been a particularly important resource for school leaders. After leaving St. Jerome Academy, she served as director of school services for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. She is now executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Building on the experiences of school leaders and teachers with a passion for Catholic liberal education, and incorporating the ideas of great thinkers including Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Dawson, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, and others, the Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy provides for the integrated teaching of the following eight core subjects:
Language Arts: Literature, Grammar, Composition, Logic, Latin, and Drama
Nature Studies (includes philosophy and theology)
The teaching of these core subjects to form a child’s mind and character “in such a way that he can live his whole life, so far as possible, in a way that is consistent with the truth about himself as a human being created in the image and likeness of God” is a hallmark of renewed Catholic schools, whether they have adopted the Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy or created their own curriculum inspired by the principles of Catholic liberal education.
Andrew Zwerneman, president of Cana Academy and author of History Forgotten and Remembered, calls attention to a significant problem in our society that has been created by modern education’s lack of context and cohesiveness in the teaching of history. He reveals:
As a society, we are increasingly divided from our past, which is a significant part of why we are increasingly divided from one another. To put it another way: There is a real sense in which history has been forgotten; and having forgotten our past, we have forgotten ourselves.
Zwerneman recommends that Catholic schools confront this problem head on by teaching students to see the past “in its pastness” and seek the truth of historical events as they occurred and not through a lens that either reduces the past to less than what it is or imposes meaning on history from beyond history. On this last point, Zwerneman says we can speak only of meaning in history since history is not yet complete. His approach to the study of history requires two essential habits. One, the study should be observational, where observation leads to understanding. The method is basically inductive. Students should especially work through the eruptive events that break into the ordinary flow of time and that have become the principal events we remember. Two, the study of history should be sympathetic: students should “suffer with” those who came before us, who shaped our world, and passed on our culture to us. Together, observation and sympathy form what Zwerneman calls a liberal approach to history, where liberal is understood in its classical meaning, to be free—to know the truth, to live by noble purpose, and to give generously of one’s life to others as our forebears gave us the world we inhabit. The study of history cultivates classical freedom by focusing on the limited but glorious features of the human condition, the mysterious unity of the dead, the living, and those yet to come, and the power of human memory to collect what we know and love, as St. Augustine, the Church’s greatest philosopher of history, so beautifully taught us.
An approach that is growing in popularity is teaching history chronologically and fully, without removing the consequential events of Christianity that have been filtered out of most modern education—most significantly, the incarnation. Many K-8 schools cycle students twice through the history of ancient civilizations, the Modern Age, and America, beginning in kindergarten to 5th grade, and again in 6th to 8th grade, all the while calling students to:
See all of history and all cultures as expressions of the human desire for God and
Learn the stories of Western Civilization and Christianity, which are intertwined and cannot be understood apart from each other.
Early on in the Catholic liberal education movement, educators had few resources to help them teach history free from secular distortions. Thanks to enterprising writers and publishers who have helped compile the good work of teachers and historians in recent years, that is no longer the case. Today, materials from trusted sources—including the Catholic Textbook Project’s history books and TAN’s The Story of Western Civilization—allow teachers to develop courses that are engaging, historically accurate, and oriented to truth.
A cornerstone of all thriving Catholic schools is the teaching of religion as “not just one subject within the curriculum, but the key to its unity and integration.”
A Christ-centered curriculum nurtures in children a deep love of the Faith; it also helps them find order and meaning across all disciplines and experiences. Sullivan explains:
Integration of knowledge, culture, faith, reason, and virtue are the essence of authentic Catholic education because we know that—though it is a mystery—all things are one in Christ. This is what feeds the soul. This is what helps us grow into integrated human beings. This is what helps us discover meaning in the things around us.
Moreover, a key measure of the mind’s power is the ability to make connections across disciplines and experience. An intellect that has been trained to detect pattern and order has an advantage in almost any career, including medicine, law, engineering, sports, carpentry, music, etc. And, these discoveries are delightful!
Today, many of the most successful Catholic schools are ones that only recently reoriented their schools with Christ at the center; they quickly discovered that unifying and integrating their curriculum around “the Way and the Truth and the Life” changed everything.
G.K. Chesterton observed that humans, who are made in the image and likeness of God, are creators by nature because God is the Creator. By creating art that reflects the goodness, truth, and beauty of God’s created world, man acts in accordance with his purpose of loving, serving, and worshipping Him.
Secular society understands art, not as worship, but as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” Notice the breadth of this Merriam-Webster definition. “Aesthetic objects” need not be good, true, or beautiful to qualify as art. They need not even be interesting. They merely must be the result of “skill” and “creative imagination” that is “conscious.” Thus, most “art” programs for children are exercises in aimless self-expression, with no regard for the transcendentals or the pursuit of human flourishing.
The study of art at renewed schools, on the other hand, cultivates “an appreciation of beauty, not merely as a subjective preference, as pretty or pleasant, but as an objective feature of reality that expresses the deep truth of what things are.” Creating beautiful art is deeply formative for children. It is also deeply satisfying for them because it is consistent with their nature.
The Gospel of John begins with these words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It proceeds to tell the story of Jesus:
And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
John testified to Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because He existed before me.’”
From His fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Language arts is the study of words and the art of communication. Until recently, all societies in all times placed great emphasis on the passing down of words and stories aimed at educating, training, and socializing young people. This was true even when most men and women were not taught how to read and write. In recent decades, however, many schools have reduced the teaching of language arts to the instruction of basic reading and writing skills, with little to no regard for the mastery of language, parables, fairy tales, historical texts, and great works of literature and poetry that once formed a common bond among people of all ages.
There is a growing movement to reclaim the lost teaching of Language Arts by immersing young people in the study of Grammar, Composition, Literature, Drama, Logic, and Latin. Janice Martinez, principal of Holy Child Catholic School, a PK-8 parochial school in Tijeras, New Mexico, explains:
I believe the classical education movement is going to save the Church and the nation, including non-Christians. It’s going to open up our imagination to what's good and beautiful. It’s going to make us human again.
Martinez revels in the teaching of language arts—especially in the telling of stories through literature and poetry, which begins at her school when a child enters preschool. She explains:
For over two thousand years, we have been teaching our young the meaning of life through the tales of heroes like Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas. The Christian world carried on this tradition adding the lives of saints and chivalric heroes like Beowulf and Arthur. These tales powerfully depict their quest for virtue with universal appeal.
Modern educators have vastly underestimated the benefit of introducing quality material to young children. In addition to enriching their minds with beautiful words and gripping themes, exposing young children to good works—including “good” books—prepares children’s minds for more challenging texts and the “great books” as they grow.
Children have great capacity to grasp patterns in language. That’s why it is considered a best practice to begin exposing children to Latin and other foreign languages at a young age—through instruction at school and home. Children who know English grammar—who can identify nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and other parts of speech—are well positioned to begin studying Latin as early as third grade; memorization of vocabulary and phrases can begin in kindergarten. Educators who wait to expose students to Latin until high school, instead of easing them into Latin grammar and vocabulary at a young age, put their students at a disadvantage; the same is true for other foreign languages, although, for spoken languages, the rule is to begin as early as possible, even in infancy. Studies show it is best for children to begin learning a foreign language by age 10 to achieve the fluency of a native speaker.
Martinez has been delighted to see her students respond enthusiastically to the teaching of Latin beginning in kindergarten. She explains why Latin makes up an important part of her school’s Language Arts curriculum:
There are many benefits to the study of Latin. Besides the fact that half of English is derived from Latin, it is also important that it forms a precise and orderly mind in the young person. It is formational, not just informational. Its orderly structure develops the mind in such a way that it promotes logical thinking, problem solving skills, discipline and general order. Indeed it is the missing component in modern education. Finally, it is the language of Western Civilization and the Roman Catholic Church. If we really want to be rooted in our history, reading from the original language brings an intimacy with the culture that a translation does not transmit.
Modern educators often assume that because children are bored and perform poorly at modern schools, they would be more bored and perform even worse at schools that challenge them. Great Catholic schools show that nothing could be further from the truth—especially regarding a traditional Language Arts curriculum—as long as the education works in harmony with, and not against, a child’s good and curious nature.
Nature Studies: Science, Philosophy, and Theology
An area of significant curricular departure for renewed Catholic schools is the teaching of nature studies—an integrated exploration of science, philosophy, and theology—that fosters in students an understanding of the created world and their place in it. Nature studies are the study of a “comprehensive vision of reality as God’s creation.”
Children are fascinated by the natural world. They enjoy observing insects, birds, and other animals. They like gazing at the night’s sky. What they don’t particularly enjoy—and what most modern schools require of them in science class—is memorizing terms and facts from a textbook, with no opportunity to observe the subject matter up close.
A common practice is granting children the freedom to explore the natural world—to walk in the woods, scoop up living creatures in a creek, and observe animals in their natural habitat. A favorite activity for many children is recording observations of plants and animals in a nature journal. Children enjoy drawing pictures and jotting down descriptions of what they see; they also enjoy looking back on what they had observed in previous weeks and seasons throughout the year. The more hands-on and personalized the studying of science can be—especially for young children, who have a natural curiosity about the natural world—the greater it will cultivate wonder and lead to mastery of the material.
Most modern teachers lack the freedom to tap into a child’s natural curiosity because they are told their primary goal is to prepare students for quantitative assessments. Guided by considerations of efficiency, they use textbooks that cover the material students “need to know” and they test students on a multitude of terms and facts to “get them ready” for the final test. The textbooks contain no information connecting scientific facts with the vast body of knowledge outside of modern scientific methods; teachers neglect to make these connections on their own because they lack the education, will, or time to do so. As a result, students develop an incomplete understanding of the world and of science, which they fail to recognize as the joyful discovery of God’s created world.
Catholic schools are finding that a combination of science, philosophy, and theology provides a better framework than science alone for the serious consideration of the study of nature. While some schools teach these subjects as distinct though integrated classes, others cover these topics together within a nature studies class, humane letters sequence, or great books seminar.
Children don’t like math—at least they don’t like the way most modern schools teach math. A 2018 Texas Instruments Education Technology survey found that 24 percent of American children “hate” or “dislike” math and another 30 percent are “indifferent” to math. With a majority of young people lacking a positive attitude towards math, it’s no surprise that the United States ranks 37th in the world in math literacy. A 2018 Stanford study confirms what math teachers at Catholic schools have observed for years: students with a positive attitude towards math perform better at math. The study found that a positive attitude boosts the brain’s memory center and predicts math performance independent of IQ.
Mathematician Paul Lockhart wrote a groundbreaking essay in 2002—A Mathematician’s Lament—describing mathematics as the “purest of the arts, as well as the most misunderstood.” He criticized the standard teaching of math as “formulaic,” “senseless,” “soul-crushing,” and “boring.” He explains:
Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you. Emphasis is placed on sitting still, filling out worksheets, and following directions. Children are expected to master a complex set of algorithms…unrelated to any real desire or curiosity on their part.
Lockart said that bad teaching is due, in part, to the problem that educators don’t know what mathematics is. He explains:
Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity—to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs—you deny them mathematics itself. So no, I’m not complaining about the presence of facts and formulas in our mathematics classes, I’m complaining about the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes.
Catholic schools are at the forefront of an exciting movement bringing the art of mathematics back to the classroom to “instill in students an ever-increasing sense of wonder and awe at the profound way in which the world displays order, pattern and relation.” They teach mathematics “not because it is first useful and then beautiful, but because it reveals the beautiful order inherent in the cosmos.”
St. Jerome Institute is a school on the cutting edge of the teaching of mathematics that offers students unique opportunities to appreciate the beauty and structure of numbers and patterns. Crawford shares his school’s innovative, integrated approach to the teaching of this often-misunderstood subject:
Each topic in the Mathematics curriculum begins with a tangible observation of the natural world, a question arising from Natural Philosophy, or mathematical speculation itself, and uses these explorations to discover skills and techniques. Following the theme set in the Humanities, mathematics considers the fundamentals of numeracy, analysis, geometry, and logic in increasing complexity throughout its four years.
Edward Trudeau is the Director of Planning and Institutional Research at Catholic University of America. He was a member of the original St. Jerome Academy curriculum committee and currently serves as vice chair of the St. Jerome Institute board. He has taught mathematics, logic, and philosophy to middle school, high school, and college students. He is delighted by St. Jerome Institute’s breakthrough success in forming high-achieving high school students who love and appreciate the art of mathematics. While he does not expect a complete overhaul of teaching methods by the educational establishment any time soon, he is encouraged by the interest of educators—especially Catholic school leaders—who seek SJI out for advice about their mathematics programs. It is fitting that Catholic educators, who understand the beauty and order of God’s created world, are on the cutting edge of the movement to reclaim young people’s enthusiasm for this misunderstood art.
St. John Bosco said, “A school without music is like a body without a soul.” Renewed Catholic schools embrace the teaching of music as a core academic subject—to be studied on its own and integrated into the full curriculum and life of the school—and not as an extracurricular opportunity to be added when resources allow.
Consider how Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School describes its music program on its website:
As the trend in education seeks to cut Music Department funding, Lourdes Classical is going in the opposite direction. Our curriculum puts greater emphasis on music. Students learn not only music theory, the art of performance, and the history of the great composers, but also how to connect with the depths of order and objective beauty communicated by music.
Many Catholic schools require students to participate in a school choir, which is a wonderful way to enrich a student’s educational experience with music.
Not all musical instruction is conducive to group learning at school. Many families supplement music classes at school with instruction at home on the piano, violin, or other instrument. Online classes provide budget-friendly options.
There was a time when parents understood that it is natural and good for children to play—to run around outside, climb trees, and compete against each other in sports and other games. In recent decades, however, parents have become increasingly eager to prepare their children for high-level sports play, and this has influenced the way they think about physical activity. Beginning early in life, parents sign their children up for rigorous sports skills workshops, summer camps, and travel teams. The goal is not “play,” but enhanced performance. Competition is fierce. Only the most talented children are invited to play on elite travel teams; when they are in high school, only a select few are offered college scholarships. Children who spend evenings and weekends engaged in competitive sports have little time for other play at home—and they are increasingly being denied time for play at school.
Modern schools’ obsession with performance—measured by academic assessments and sports teams’ game records—causes administrators and teachers to neglect the importance of play for the sake of play. Today, many schools limit recess to 20 minutes a day and gym class to once or twice a week for young children, eliminating recess entirely by 6th grade. Sometimes gym class looks like every other class: instead of running around with classmates, students sit, listen, and fill out worksheets—for example, to learn parts and systems of the body.
Catholic schools that understand the need for children to move and play take a different approach. They give elementary school children two or three recesses, in addition to gym class, every day. The reduced time in the classroom does not hinder academic performance. On the contrary, students who have more time to move and play exhibit greater concentration in the classroom, which leads to increased academic performance.
Play is not the only goal of physical education. Consider the benefits to students of a physical education program that trains the “minds, hearts, and bodies” of students:
But physical education is vital to classical education in other ways as well. Physical education offers students an opportunity to train their minds, hearts, and bodies into unified expressions of gracefulness. Accordingly, the physical education program should strive to train the minds, hearts, and bodies of the students.
Students should develop concentration, self-discipline, and mental stamina through repetition, practice, and competitive play. They should come to recognize the excellence and gracefulness of beautiful physical achievements. They should also learn the rules as well as the proper techniques and strategies for playing all major sports.
Students should practice sportsmanship and fair play; they should learn to win and lose with grace. They should participate in games and sports in which they can both lead and be led, subordinating their own role to the good of the team. A spirit of healthy competition as well as an attitude of perseverance, commitment, and excellence should be the norm.
Students should participate in a variety of physical activities that promote strength, agility, coordination, speed, and endurance. They should be encouraged to form healthy living habits, which include getting the appropriate exercise, diet, and rest.
Crawford, of St. Jerome Institute, embraces physical education as an essential part of his high school’s approach of educating and forming the whole person. “Students are lovingly encouraged to be the best expressions of themselves in every aspect, including the body,” he says. That’s why not a day goes by at St. Jerome Institute without some sort of competition, often in association with Gymnasium class, Feast Day games, or Athletic Field Day competitions.
Schools focused on improving academic performance often make the mistake of assuming more time in the classroom (and more homework) will increase learning, even for young children. But joyful students are better students—and they make up a student body of happy, healthy learners.