Chapter 3


The Primary Educators of Children

A common theme among thriving Catholic schools is a deep respect for parents as the primary educators of their children. While many, perhaps all, Catholic schools include this Church teaching in their mission statement or school handbook, faithful schools pay more than lip service to this principle, establishing relationships with families that are true partnerships grounded in the Catholic faith. The result is a school community where the school serves parents, not the other way around, and teachers and families work together to form students in Christ. 




The Church’s teaching on the proper role of a school in relation to families and the Church—as set forth by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Divini Illius Magistra nearly 100 years ago—is a best practice of Catholic schools today. Pope Pius XI wrote:


[T]he school is by its very nature an institution subsidiary and complementary to the family and to the Church. It follows logically and necessarily that it must not be in opposition to, but in positive accord with those other two elements, and form with them a perfect moral union, constituting one sanctuary of education, as it were, with the family and the Church.   


What Pope Pius XI referred to as a “perfect moral union,” is what today’s school leaders and parents call a “partnership.” Woltering explains:


The mission of Holy Family Academy is: “To assist families by providing Catholic education that is faithful to the Magisterium of the Church through a classical curriculum in an environment that is thoroughly Catholic.” Every part of this mission statement is important, but the first part is often overlooked. We are serious about our partnership with parents. We welcome their participation at school, but more importantly, we want them to be active at home. We need parents to be thoughtful and intentional about the structure of their home life so that their children can thrive at school. 


Altman is “constantly seeking” ways to strengthen her partnership with parents. She explains:


I am finding that more and more parents truly need a partner that will teach them the beauty of our Faith and how to live it out in the domestic church (their homes). As a school, we are constantly seeking even more ways to provide support to parents and model to them how to raise their children counter-culturally and how to be strong in the truths of their faith. Strong families produce strong children, and strong children grow up to establish more strong families! 


Sandel credits her partnership with her school with helping to prepare her children for “a meaningful life.” She says:


I believe that St. Jerome's classical curriculum isn't just the best possible educational foundation for my children. It's also the best preparation for a meaningful life. I can't imagine raising my children without the support and partnership of the faculty at SJA and the community that surrounds it.


Effective school leaders know that the strength of a school community depends on the makeup of its families—and because new families join the school community every year, admissions and parental education and involvement must always be a top priority.




Most schools require the following basic steps in the admissions process:


  1. Application form

  2. Transcripts

  3. Referrals


Schools that take extra steps to collect more information about families are able to make better admissions decisions.


Family Interviews


School leaders who take a personal interest in getting to know families are in the best position to cultivate and protect a positive school culture. That’s why the most effective leaders prioritize face-to-face meetings as a critical part of the application process. There is simply no better way to draw out the values and priorities of families seeking to be a part of a school community than by spending time in conversation. Crawford explains:


Significant conversation is entailed in the application and enrollment of a new student. We are looking for families that earnestly care about their child’s character and want him or her to grow. We want the majority of our families to be practicing Catholics and to support and understand the traditional form of education we offer, which is gravitated by a pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. While there may be many differences between our families, we want all of them to be community minded, to understand education as a formation in reality and to support the meaningful challenges we offer their children and share in our final desire for their child: sanctity.


Interviewing is a skill that must be developed. The best interviewers are experienced listeners who pay attention to what parents say, how they say it, and what questions they ask; they are intentional about asking thoughtful questions designed to encourage parents to be candid about their values and culture at home.  


Cyril Cruz is principal of Holy Innocents Parish School, a TK-8 (transitional kindergarten) parochial school in Long Beach, California that offers families “an education rooted in the Catholic classical liberal arts tradition.” She has developed a list of four questions that she always asks while getting to know families during the interview process. They are:


  1. Why do you want your child to be formed at our school?

  2. How do you practice your faith?

  3. Describe your family life. (Probe about discipline, schedule, etc.)  

  4. What is your philosophy on technology? 


Malcolm finds it helpful to interview students and parents separately. He explains:


It is sometimes the case, that parents are the ones pushing a resistant kid into a Christian education, especially in high school. That isn’t necessarily a deal-killer, but it does need to be addressed. It is always the case that we want to hear what prospective students think about school. What is their attitude about learning? Are they able to verbalize an answer or are they used to having their parents speak for them? Leaning too much on mom and dad to answer those questions can sometimes deprive a young person of an age-appropriate independence. It’s ok, if the interview is the first time they have had to give an account of their position on school, but it does need to happen.


Likewise, we sometimes get a more clear picture from parents when it is just adults talking. We want to know what it is they want for their children. It may seem like an obvious question, but it is often the case that the interview process may be the first time a couple is invited to articulate their desires for their children. It is simple, but high impact.  


All school leaders have different styles, but they all share the same goal: to determine whether a family shares the values of the school community and will contribute positively to the overall culture of the school. “On a basic level,” Woltering explains, this means identifying families whose highest priority is “getting their kids to heaven and understanding that this requires opting out of mainstream culture to a large extent.”


Reading Assignments


The Catholic liberal education movement has gained considerable momentum in recent years. Even so, most parents today—including many who seek out faithfully Catholic schools—lack a concrete understanding of the philosophical and practical differences of schools steeped in the educational heritage of the Church.


An effective way to help familiarize prospective families on their approach is by assigning reading as they move through the application process. An ideal book for parents is Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision for a Secular Age by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. Other helpful books include An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents by Classical Academic Press and The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers.


Altman says giving parents books to read during the application process allows them to “all…begin speaking the same language.” She explains:


I have found that as long as we are truthful and clear in our conversations with parents about our mission, our model, and our expectations of students and families, then it is easy to determine whether or not parents are the right “fit” for our school. Though I believe ALL families CAN be the right “fit,” I know that not every family is ready to engage fully in the model of education that we offer.


Altman says another benefit of discussing assigned reading is that it gives her a head start in knowing how best to serve families; having substantive conversations helps her know where parents will need support if their children are admitted to, and enroll in, her school.


Shadow Day


Shadow Days are an increasingly popular part of the application process for many Catholic schools because they give schools and families the opportunity to evaluate each other in a natural setting.


Shadow Days are days set aside by schools during which prospective students “shadow” current students during a normal school day. Over the course of several hours, prospective students participate in classes and interact with students and teachers. The experience allows prospective students to make observations about the school and envision themselves as a member of the student body. It also allows teachers to observe prospective students and provide feedback to administrators making admissions decisions. Malcolm explains why he makes Shadow Days the first step in his school’s application process:


Students immediately recognize that our classrooms are different. They see that everything about the classroom experience communicates that students are worthy of respect. Teachers treat students as young people on their way to adulthood. Students discuss their work together during and in between classes; they are interested in the material and in each other’s ideas and contributions to the academic life of the school. How prospective students respond to that experience tells us a lot about whether or not they are ready and a good fit for the school.




Recruiting—the process of finding new families to join a school community—is critical to the continued operation of a school. Schools that fail to recruit suffer decreased enrollment, decreased tuition revenue, budget cuts, and, ultimately, closure. Schools with happy families—especially those with an established track record of excellence—rely on word of mouth more than any other form of recruiting. Van Hecke explains:


For 15 years we have not recruited. We built a strong, mission-imbued school, especially through our admissions and hiring, and word of mouth has kept it full. This is so strong that, on average, every year we have one family move from across or out of state in order to be near to our school so they can become part of it.


But no school starts with full enrollment. Start-up and transitioning schools need to recruit—quickly and efficiently—to bring in tuition revenue to pay teachers and cover other costs.


Pareto Principle

The most successful schools are those that apply the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, to recruiting efforts. The 80/20 rule states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the action. Assuming that approximately 20% of Catholics take their faith seriously (recent polls support this), Catholic schools should focus recruiting efforts on this 20%, rather than allocating equal resources on lukewarm Catholics. It is critical that new and transitioning schools get the right kind of families—those who will support and strengthen the culture the school is trying to develop—in the door first.


In practice, this means:


  • Identifying the more devout Catholic parishes, publications, homeschool and other groups, and schools (K-8 schools are excellent resources for high schools);


  • Developing relationships with pastors, religious education directors, reporters and editors, heads of schools, and other influential members of the community;


  • Speaking after Mass, publishing notices in church bulletins, posting information on listservs and in social media groups, advertising in Catholic publications and on social media, and having articles written about the school in Catholic publications, with the goal of having families visit the school, which, Crawford emphasizes, is “more convincing than any article or talk.”


  • Hosting events at the school, at the homes of faithful Catholics in the community, and at the meeting places of well-respected Catholic groups.


It also means enlisting the help of the 20% of current families who are most enthusiastic about their school, and who have strong relationships with other local Catholic families in the community.


Enrichment Classes for Homeschool Families

Fr. Sirico notes that some pastors see homeschooling families as competition for Catholic schools. When he became pastor of his parish, he rejected this approach as unpastoral and unwise. In keeping with his vision of the school as an apostolate of the parish, he offered enrichment classes for homeschoolers in Latin, mathematics, and science, charging half the full-time tuition. The classes were a huge success. They supported homeschooling parents, provided extra revenue for the school, and built relationships between homeschooling families and the school that resulted in many homeschooled children enrolling at the school. Because of the enrichment classes, homeschool families accounted for the largest growth in new student admissions.

Integrating Parents into the Life of the School


Integrating parents into the life of a school looks different for faithful Catholic schools than it does for secular and most Catholic schools. That’s because Catholic schools exist to serve families, not the other way around; they partner with families to prepare children for a life of faith and virtue, with the goal of fulfilling God’s plan to spend eternity with Him in Heaven. They understand that the most important formation happens at home under the guidance of well-formed parents.  


Effective school leaders involve parents in school activities in a way that does not interfere with family life. They also support them in their vocation as parents in three important ways: (1) by helping parents grow in their faith, (2) by helping parents become lifelong learners, and (3) by helping parents navigate the challenges of raising faithful children in our modern, secular society.


Parental Involvement in School Activities


Families form bonds that strengthen the whole school community when they spend time together in a social or volunteer capacity. Effective school leaders welcome parental involvement and express their gratitude for volunteers, without placing an undue burden on family life. Vander Weele shares her approach:


We do ask that every family does 25 volunteer hours, but we don’t track it closely. If the reality of a family’s situation is that lunch is right in the middle of naptime, I'm not going to force a mother to bring her three little ones in during naptime and then have them suffer or get a babysitter.


Many schools—especially small schools and schools with low tuition revenue—rely heavily on volunteers to carry out day-to-day operations, including overseeing lunch and recess, assisting teachers with administrative tasks, and coaching sports teams. Many also use parent volunteers to help with special projects—for example, painting classroom walls, building a playground, or planting flowers—and special events, including field trips and fundraisers (see Chapter 5 for more information about fundraising). 


Maintaining a well-run volunteer program takes planning and effort. Cultivating strong relationships with parent volunteers is key—as is choosing the right parents to fill certain roles. Parents who are notably positive, friendly, and thoughtful should be sought out for roles involving significant interaction with other members of the school community. Parents who are susceptible to negativity and complaining are better suited for behind-the-scenes roles. 


Helping Parents Grow in Faith


Robin Fisher is principal of St. Regis Academy, a once-struggling PK-8 parochial school in Kansas City, Missouri. She renewed her school by embracing Catholic liberal education in 2018. From the start, she has been intentional about supporting parents in their faith formation. “[P]arents must have a relationship with Christ and must be models of this for their children,” she explains. That’s why, to support parents in strengthening their faith, she recommends parents take advantage of the Mass above all else.


The Mass is the central act of worship for Catholics. It is where one encounters the Eucharist—the source and summit of the Christian life—and receives special graces. As St. Padre Pio explained:


Every holy Mass, heard with devotion, produces in our souls marvelous effects, abundant spiritual and material graces which we, ourselves, do not know.


A beautiful tradition among many Catholic schools is allowing parents to sit with their children at school Masses. Children feel special when their parents spend time with them during the school day, and there is no better activity around which to strengthen family bonds and model devotion to Christ than the holy Mass. 


In addition to promoting the Mass, many Catholic schools encourage parents to utilize a multitude of popular resources to cultivate faith formation at home, including:



In addition, schools encourage parents to take advantage of resources at their parish, including youth ministry, Amazing Parish, ENDOW for women, and That Man Is You! for men.


Helping Parents Become Lifelong Learners


Chapter Two explores the importance of teachers modeling a love of learning in order to inspire wonder in their students. As Sullivan explains, “Teachers cannot give what they do not have.” The same is true—and to a greater extent—for parents, who are the primary educators of their children.


Roberts shares an analogy explaining why it’s important for a child’s intellectual and spiritual life to be cultivated at home:


[I]f you eat three nutritious meals a day and then go down to the kitchen every night and eat junk food, your diet will not be successful. Similarly, if parents send children to a classical school for eight hours a day, but their home life is dominated by technology and media, with no prayer, the classical education will not be successful. 


In addition to encouraging parents to learn what their children are learning at home (Flynn tells parents that homework is “a game the whole family can play”), effective school leaders are proactive about hosting special educational events for parents. Many schools give parents the opportunity to gather to hear from guest speakers and participate in seminars on select works, for example, “The Gettysburg Address” or the fairy tale “Cinderella.” St. Jerome Institute has hosted events exploring topics including “Liberal Education and Social Crisis” and “Tradition and Religious Art.”


Helping Parents Navigate the Challenges of Modern Secular Society


Harmful societal influences can sabotage the efforts of well-meaning parents trying to raise virtuous children. Experienced school leaders often see a myriad of parenting approaches play out over the course of many years; they are in an ideal position to offer wisdom to parents who are encountering challenges for the first time. Effective school leaders embrace the opportunity to support parents in this critical way.


Vander Weele says she “works very hard” to alert parents to the dangers facing their children in the modern world. She speaks with parents and organizes book studies exploring timely topics. Recently, she felt so strongly about helping parents benefit from Dr. Leonard Sax’s The Collapse of Parenting that she bought a copy for every family at her school. She explains:  


Parenting is going down the gutter very quickly. We are over-diagnosing kids and allowing harm to happen to them because we aren't parenting well. I want parents to realize how critical their role is.


Other books recommended by Vander Weele and other leaders of Catholic schools include: