Chapter 4

Building Community

A Living Encounter with a Cultural Inheritance

Van Hecke was a pioneer in the movement to renew Catholic education. Having served as a Catholic educator and headmaster, he helped organize the first gatherings of independent Catholic schools beginning in 1993 and helped found St. Augustine Academy in 1994. To answer the growing need for sound curricular materials and genuine teacher formation based on a proper Christian anthropology (an understanding of humanity from a Christian perspective), he founded the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in 1999. He has been inspiring and training Catholic school leaders and educators to transform their school communities ever since.


Van Hecke is one of a handful of experienced Catholic educators featured in the compelling book, Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age. He shares a profound insight about school communities: 


[W]e need to think of schools less as institutions, and more as communities. For a community is communal, human, a place where culture exists and formation occurs. As the Church teaches, a school is “a privileged place in which, through a living encounter with a cultural inheritance, cultural formation occurs.”


Effective school leaders build community by fostering friendships among faculty, families, and students, reinforcing shared values through regular school communications, and establishing customs that bond members of the community to each other.


Fostering Friendships


One of the most important ways Van Hecke builds community at his school is by “intentionally working on becoming friends to all.” His school is intentional about “communicating and being present,” especially at social events and everyday activities, including carpool line.


Being present to foster friendships is an approach that resonates with Crawford. He says a school leader “should be superabundantly present” to faculty, students, and parents because “a school is fundamentally a community before it is a model or a curriculum.” He explains:


The health and sense of community of the school flows from the faculty… A good headmaster makes time every day to be a presence in the faculty office, to share a sense of humor with the teachers and to be available to their cares and concerns. School community entails a shared vision, so it is important that all the teachers are actively and consistently informed by the SJI vision in their interactions with students, parents, and each other. This sort of unity requires headmaster presence.

Likewise, a headmaster must be present to the students… I make it a point to greet every student every day, and I regularly meet with students during the school day, often as mentor but just as likely in a friendly and casual manner… Important formative moments include our occasional assemblies, when I speak to students in a more formal and elevated capacity.


Parents are most difficult to interact with personally on a regular basis because they do not attend school. It is a good practice, therefore, for a headmaster to be present during drop-off and pick-up as this is, sadly enough, the significant firsthand experience parents have of the school. Aside from this time, a headmaster should be present at events and make it a point to interact with parents.


Communications with School Families


Altman is mindful that many of her school families live too far away to spend a considerable amount of time on school grounds. “Therefore, we do intentionally build and strengthen our school community in order to ensure that the family who travels 45 miles to school is just as connected as the family who walks their child across the street to our campus,” she says.


One of the most effective ways to build community—even with families who do not spend a considerable amount of time on campus—is by coordinating a weekly communication that families look forward to reading. Altman’s weekly communication, which she sends to current school families, as well as faculty, alumni, and donors, is called the Ram Report, after its school mascot. 

Van Hecke’s weekly communication is called The Blue Letter. He shares how being intentional with his weekly messaging has strengthened his school community and enculturated new families for more than 30 years:


One of the most effective communication tools I have used for over 30 years is a weekly letter. Early on, that letter was sent on blue paper to make it distinguishable from the school announcements. 30 years later, it is still called “The Blue Letter.”


Generally the front of the letter is from the headmaster (or a guest “column” by a teacher) and the back side is announcements, calendar events, and the like. The front side may contain a teaching, an article excerpt, a poem or quote, or even a recounting of something from the school Mass or a class.


Over many years, with 30 or more of these letters each year, we start to convey a vocabulary, e.g., truth, beauty and goodness, a culture, a conversation, and a philosophy which undergirds the nature of our school community. It provides a base for us all to think about and discuss. This, in turn, helps enculturate new families into the life of the school and the long-developed intellectual traditions of the school.


Flynn communicates with families through a weekly newsletter called The Vox. Once a month, The Vox features a monthly bulletin—called the Domestic Church Bulletin—that is created by parents and reviewed by the school administration. The Domestic Church Bulletin includes devotions, prayers, traditions, a Saints study, recipes, and opportunities for pilgrimages. Flynn describes it as “a wonderful resource for families to be able to celebrate the liturgical calendar with various traditions right in their own home,” thus bonding school families to one another through participation in shared experiences.   


Woltering sends a weekly email to share important messages and upcoming events with his school community. The highlight every week is Woltering’s opening commentary, which school parent Holly Smith describes as “always relevant, whether addressing current events, Church matters, or raising faithful families.” Smith says Woltering’s insights are “so on point” that she often sends them to likeminded friends.


Malcolm includes links to articles exploring Catholicism, education, and parenting in his weekly email. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education is a favorite source for articles aimed at assisting parents in their capacity as primary educators of their children. When Malcolm had an article, titled “Forming Resilient Teenagers” published in an online magazine for Catholic Psychology, he used his weekly newsletter to share it with families, and to build consensus around the school’s educational philosophy.


In addition to sharing weekly newsletters, many Catholic schools use Facebook to share school news and build community. Some also use Instagram and YouTube.

The headmaster of Sacred Heart Academy holds a weekly video conference open to all school families and staff to provide an update on school activities and priorities.

Establishing Unique Customs


One of the most energizing ways effective school leaders build community is by creating customs unique to their school that reinforce the culture of their school. Customs give a school community the opportunity to anticipate and appreciate a particular activity or practice—for example, a special prayer or seasonal event—that distinguishes the school and bonds members of the community to one another.


Consider the unique customs of some of the schools highlighted in this Playbook:


  • Martin Saints Classical High School holds Frassati Fridays, where students alternate between an outdoor adventure (hiking, canoeing), cultural excursions (art museum, ballet, orchestra, opera), or a corporal work of mercy (serving meals and praying with the homeless, visiting an old folks home). 


  • St. Augustine Academy hosts an annual Classics Day, a day-long celebration of speeches, banquets and competitions—identified with different countries, clans, or groups from Ancient, Medieval, or American history—involving all K-12 students and faculty.


  • St. Jerome Institute hosts a monthly liturgical feast celebration with competitive “games of renown”, live music, and feasting.


  • St. John the Beloved Academy hosts House Festival Days, where students, faculty and staff attend Mass, enjoy a dress down day, a special school-wide lunch, and partake in games and poetry recitation competitions amongst the school’s four houses.


  • Holy Child Catholic School hosts a Fairy Tale Friday every fall, where students translate parts of a Grimms’ Fairy Tale or other story and act it out.


  • St. Jerome Academy hosts a Carpe Noctem Christmas craft fair and Christmas concert with a living nativity.


  • The Summit Academy holds two overnight outdoor retreats where students have the opportunity to gain new experiences and develop skills in a safe but challenging environment.


  • Holy Family Academy focuses on the dignity of the human person and the right to life every January by praying for an end to legalized abortion at Mass, holding a pro-life essay contest where winners read their reports in front of the whole school, and creating posters to carry at the annual March for Life in Washington, DC.