Rosemary Vander Weele
Rosemary Vander Weele is principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School in Denver, Colorado.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
Our Lady of Lourdes is a parochial school. Our parish is Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Parish, located in the Archdiocese of Denver. We opened a second campus in 2018, located in the formerly vacant school building of St. Louis Parish, for K-2 students. The second campus allows us to serve more families by enrolling students who would otherwise be on our waitlist.
What grades does your school serve?
Our Montessori program serves pre-K students. Our classical program serves K-8 students.
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
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.
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
Our school is authentically Catholic with a classical curriculum. That—coupled with students’ joy of learning—is what differentiates our school from the other schools in the area. Our students want to learn for the sake of learning, not because there's a test. That's a gift to give a kindergartener all the way through graduate school.
There are some local Catholic schools that are striving to be more integrated and more classical. The majority of the Catholic schools are still trying to follow lockstep with the public schools and use the same textbooks and the same pedagogy. So the love of learning is not there.
How often do your students attend Mass?
Students attend Mass four days a week. 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!” So, it was well worth it. Even if those families hadn't joined, it was still worth it because I never felt like the Lord was calling me to create a huge school; He was calling me to create an authentically Catholic school. It was disappointing because our enrollment had been increasing up until that point, but it was also fine—because we got to go to Mass. Even when it was hard, it was okay. Because we were growing in our faith.
The whole culture of the school changed when we added daily Mass. 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.
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
The Catholic faith is the golden thread that weaves the whole curriculum together. You don't have to explicitly say two plus two is four, so now we know God exists, but I think the way the teachers teach leads students to discover the truth. It almost subconsciously reinforces the fact that capital “T” truth exists and that there once was chaos, but now there is order in the world.
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
The Catholic faith is the underpinning of the curriculum. With the humanities, students learn what the Church was doing in a particular time in history. Even in the math and sciences, it's very easy to bring the history of the church in when studying famous mathematicians and scientists because mostly all of them were Catholic.
There's so much to point to in the riches of the Church history, but even when teachers do that, I think it’s almost better to just have the class ordered in a way that points the kids to truth and reinforces that there is truth. That's what the teachers do daily.
The eighth graders do a wholesale trimester on debunking relativism. What they write on their final essay test is beautiful. I'm amazed what eighth-grade minds can come up with.
The self-contained teachers integrate subjects throughout the day because they get to be with the kids all day so they can very easily relate back.
One of the biggest other contents that integrates the curriculum is Latin. Teaching Latin helps kids make connections across all the disciplines of the English language, and also of the structure of words and grammar. Students start taking Latin in kindergarten.
What is your school’s enrollment?
Our enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year will be 351.
Has enrollment been steady in recent years?
When I came to Lourdes in 2011, enrollment was 90. We lost nearly all of those students over time, with only three families remaining after all of our changes were made. For the most part, enrollment increased steadily, although twice we lost a large group of students at once because families objected to changes we were making. The first exodus involved families who objected to eighth graders being exposed to violence in The Iliad. The second involved families who objected to children attending daily Mass. We recovered rather quickly both times. Today, enrollment is 351 with a waitlist.
What is your school’s tuition? Do you offer a sibling discount? If you offer financial aid, how many families receive it and what is the average grant?
We're committed to affordability. Tuition is $5,560 for practicing Catholics. We have a $1,490 gap between tuition and costs. Non-Catholic students pay the full amount, $7,050.
We're trying to list tuition closer to the actual cost, but we're doing it incrementally. The majority of our families are single income. 50% of our families are on pretty substantial financial aid.
We have a sibling discount. It's $300 for the first sibling, $500 for the second, and then $1,000 for three and on. Nobody comes for free.
I struggle with our low tuition because I don't want to undersell us. There's something to be said about parents embracing the fact that an authentically Catholic education is worth investing in. I think we’re growing our tuition rate properly, but we can never lose sight of the financial concerns of our families. It's a scary thing for a family who loves Lourdes and wonders whether they will be able to continue to afford tuition as they have more children. I really want to honor the domestic church and honor single-income families.
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
Our goal is to encourage families to live liturgically at home—to celebrate feast days at home and talk about what kids are learning at school. That's really my first point of attack as far as involving parents. 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.
One of the best ways to involve families is through liturgical celebrations. We have a big celebration for the Feast of St. Joseph and the Feast for All Saints Day. Having parents see the value of liturgical celebrations in their own home life is much more beneficial to the school than having them be here for lunch duty every day.
That being said, parents are always welcome at the school and we appreciate having them here. They can come in and lead reading groups and help with lunch duty and other activities. A lot of parents helped run the gala and that was a huge help.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
Yes, our teachers are amazing. They are instilling in our students a love of learning, love of God, and love of the Catholic faith. We see the fruits of their work in the joyful culture of our school community.
When I first came to Lourdes, the teachers resisted change. We experienced 100% turnover of the original teaching faculty by the end of the third year. Of the original teachers, approximately 40% chose not to return on their own and I did not renew the other approximately 60%. Letting teachers go was and remains one of the hardest parts of the job—one that requires a lot of prayer.
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
Yes, enrollment is steady with a waitlist.
What are you doing to intentionally build and strengthen your school community? How do you communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of your community connect with each other?
We work very hard at forming parents and giving them a community of likeminded parents resisting the pressures of the modern world. One way we intentionally strengthen our school community is by organizing book studies. A couple years ago, I bought a copy of The Collapse of Parenting by Dr. Leonard Sacks for every family. Reading it really opened my eyes and hopefully the eyes of our parents here. 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. So that's where I need them to be involved. I don't need them to serve pumpkin pie on grandparents’ day. I need them to really understand what they're doing in forming their kids.
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
The Augustine Institute’s Formed is a resource we recommend for families. We also recommend:
The Collapse of Parenting by Dr. Leonard Sax
Glow Kids by Dr. Kardaras
The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse
Out of the Ashes by Dr. Anthony Esolen
Only the Lover Sings by Joseph Pieper
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
Technopoly by Neil Postman
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
Our strong Catholic identity is the initial attractor to Lourdes. It’s what parents value the most. The classical movement is just getting traction and people are just starting to notice it. It takes a little bit of time to explain classical education in a way that is understood by parents, but, once they understand, they are usually on board. I think they love what their kids are learning.
I think the kind of dissonance that happens is when parents use benchmarks of secular, non-classical education to assess their children’s progress, without regard for the higher value of learning that takes place at Lourdes. A good example of this is the expected reading level for K-2nd graders. At Lourdes, we teach children how to read by developing in them an understanding of phonics. Students learn to read, not by memorizing a bunch of sight words they’ll be tested on, but by understanding how to decode words. Our goal is to provide the foundation for future learning, not to facilitate the memorization of a list of site words that will show up on a test. When we walk through our reasons for rejecting modern, secular benchmarks, they understand and appreciate our approach.
How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to tell your school’s story and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what your school offers that others don’t?
Early on, when I needed to recruit, I did it by speaking—to groups of moms, at parishes at the end of Mass, anywhere I was asked to share our story. We don’t need to recruit now because we’re out of space. Really, the best recruiting is happy families.
What marketing efforts (events, social media, print advertising, digital advertising, etc.) have you found most effective in sharing your school’s story with the local community?
Early on, we put together a nice print piece highlighting the basics of classical education. We did mailing campaigns. But now I'm very careful not to boil it down too much. This is why we don’t really use social media anymore. Everyone wants a sound bite, but humans aren't made for sound bites. We need to stop and recover the human element of what education is and what it’s for. I can't explain that in 30 seconds and now I know I don’t need to try. Once we got the name out there and people began to trust us, the school began to market itself.
How much have you needed to sell your community of parents on the value of the education and formation your school offers? How many parents seek out what your school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
Even though we’ve developed trust in the community, we always have new parents coming in, so this is an ongoing discussion. I encourage parents to ask questions. I tell them that what we're doing looks vastly different, but their kids will come out incredibly prepared.
Sometimes parents ask about STEM education because it is being pushed in other schools. I tell them there are incredible amounts of data showing that our kids who are formed in a classical education are more prepared to handle STEM because they are able to think logically. I used to kind of side-step around that and say we offer technology in the middle school, but we really don't and the kids don't want it. They go on to high school and they say they miss writing. They don't want to be able to Google everything. I think more parents are waking up to that. So at first I had to tiptoe around the issue and now parents thank us for not using STEM. Our kids are prepared in math. They're prepared in science. But we don't have them in front of an iPad every day.
How do you determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your application process? What shared values do current families expect you to protect as you add new families to your school community?
Parents fill out an online application, which asks them pretty direct questions as far as how they see themselves as the primary educator of their children and what attracts them to Lourdes. We're really trying to ascertain how they understand their role as educator.
Once we receive the online application, we call them and set up a tour. I like doing the tour because I like to know the families coming in, but I also trust our staff completely to vet the families this way. We spend about an hour with each family. We don't have a rubric. We don't take notes. I just ask about their family and why they are desiring this education. From there I can gauge whether it will be a good fit. I can dig where I need to dig. The most important part of these discussions is making sure they understand that faith formation is an integral part of the education. We do have non-Catholic families and this kind of education will not work if the faith is undermined at home.
At this point, we know a lot of the families coming in. They have been waiting to send their children here. I'm from Denver. My family has been here. Families are seeking us out because of the authentic Catholic classical education we are offering.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
I look for people with a passion for teaching, love for children, and humility to want to continue to learn. I look for professionalism too. I don't look for teaching degrees. I tend to steer away from those. As far as their education, applicants with degrees from Hillsdale or the University of Dallas tend to get an interview even if I'm not hiring at the moment. I like to know who the options are out there.
How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to tell your school’s story and connect with qualified teachers outside of your school community? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what your school offers that others don’t?
I don't have to recruit. I have a stack of resumes of excellent candidates I’d love to hire. I don't have much attrition.
How do you determine whether a teacher you are considering hiring will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect you to protect as you add new teachers to your school community?
First and foremost we look for teachers who are on fire for their faith and understand the vocation of teaching in relation to the faith. We typically look for teachers who have some classical education in their background, whether they attended a liberal arts college or had an experience of classical education in their younger years. We ask teachers whether they see teaching as a science or an art as well as what virtues a great teacher must strive to attain. These questions give us great insight as to how teachers look at education. Of course, we ask about classroom management, communicating with parents, and all of the other nitty gritty details of the job, but first and foremost we want teachers who are living witnesses of the faith. This process gives our community much peace and trust in the faculty we bring on board.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
I put a lot of effort—and a lot of the budget—into teacher training. I start every year by bringing us all together for the purpose of education. We have outside consultants come in. We work a lot with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. We work with the Circe Institute. We're blessed in Denver to have the Augustine Institute and the Denver Catholic Biblical School. We have some pretty renowned people who come in and do formation for us. I try to start with more theoretical training and then drill down to the practical. Most teachers want the practical of what they need to do in their classrooms. I understand. I'm a type A personality myself. But we never jump to practical training without first spending time considering the souls entrusted to us and the human and formative elements of what we're doing. Then we can talk about classroom management and all of the practicals.
We do professional development once a month, often bringing in someone from the outside to lead a training. Teachers aren’t robots. Their minds need to be cultivated and fed. Teachers who have come to us from other schools say this is the best professional development they’ve ever had because it restores the dignity and nobility of teaching.
I try to spoil the teachers during professional development with coffee, donuts, or lunch as much as I can. They don’t make much money, so if I can treat them, I do.
What percentage of your school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue?
How important is fundraising to the continued operation of your school? What works best to inspire families and community members to support your school? What doesn’t work? How have you created momentum in your fundraising efforts and what plans do you have to strengthen your fundraising program in the years ahead?
Fundraising is very important to the continued operation of our school. We have a strong donor base and a very successful gala every year. This year, the gala was virtual. We netted $310,000. We had a $50,000 dollar match. Nearly all families participated, giving what they could. For some families that was $50 or $100. For others, it was a couple thousand.
I often speak with donors about how serving families by providing affordable Catholic education is our mission. We serve economically disadvantaged families from the inner city if they come to us and if they're a good mission fit. But really the majority of our need comes from families really wanting to live the gospel and still provide a good education. And unfortunately that has not been a reality. You couldn't do both. You couldn't be open to life and have an affordable school unless your husband was a doctor and then you were limited to expensive schools that weren't really Catholic. So I think we've struck gold as far as serving an underserved population.
Are you the primary fundraiser for your school? How many hours do you spend on fundraising every week? How many hours does other staff spend on fundraising?
We have a director of development. We received a grant to hire him a couple of years ago. He does the lion's share of the work to set up meetings. He meets with donors as much as possible, but anyone considering supporting the school always wants to meet with me.
Before coming to Our Lady of Lourdes, he was in commercial real estate. He is amazing. The Lord sent him. He's newly converted and has a beautiful story. He's on fire for the faith in a way that is very attractive to people. Most of our donors have personal relationships with students or teachers or they are community members who are interested in Catholic education. Some are invested in parish life and they have grandchildren coming up and they want them to attend Lourdes. It's a good mix. We also work with local Denver foundations. 2015 or 2016 is when the scales tipped for us for fundraising and that happened because people saw a Catholic school that was succeeding. People are tired of supporting failing schools that produce ex-Catholics. I accept invitations to speak whenever I’m asked so more people can learn about our success and know not everything is doom and gloom.
What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school? What are common challenges for schools operating under your model and what is your school doing well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
My relationship with Father is critical. We meet every week, even when there is nothing critical to discuss. It’s important for us to have that touch point. He's one priest of a huge parish so he can't be here all the time. He is present as much as possible, but, even more important than his presence, is his unspoken support. He and I are very much in lockstep. We had some pretty big things to work out initially, so we developed a relationship and established trust.
Our relationship with the diocese is also critical. The current superintendent is the third in that position since I’ve been at Lourdes. He is the first who fully supports what we’re doing. The first two took a hands-off approach. But now, the office of Catholic schools is incredibly supportive. They appreciate what we’re doing, have sought us out for advice and guidance, and have been accommodating about not imposing bureaucratic requirements that don’t work for us. For example, they know we don’t have devices for every student, so we take standardized tests manually. It’s been a big help having the freedom to satisfy the requirements of the diocese in a way that is consistent with our approach.
What is your school known for in your area?
Our school is known for being authentically Catholic and classical.
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
Our greatest challenge is fighting the perception that we’re only for the uber Catholic family—like, you have to teach at the Augustine Institute or be involved with FOCUS to be a part of our school community. We're constantly trying to make ourselves accessible to wherever families are on their faith journey. If they are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and desiring this education, then we will find a way to serve them.
Space is always a problem for us. We are bursting at the seams and within that problem comes the problem of maintaining our culture. We are a small school. All students are known and loved for who they are.
Maintaining our culture while growing and serving additional great Catholic families who are desiring this education is why we now have two campuses. We try to keep class sizes at 24 students so we can maintain our culture and still grow wisely.
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
We nurture a love of God and the Catholic faith.
What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of your school?
The importance of prayer. What kept me going during our transition—and what keeps me going now—is knowing this is the Lord’s school. I am a servant here. If I don't make the time for daily Mass and some time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, then it doesn't work. Unfortunately, this is the first thing that many people kick off their calendars when they're busy and that's the thing we need to hold on to.
I am very humbled because Lourdes is doing so well that I'm considered a good leader. But really, it's not me. It's the Holy Spirit working in me and it's only because I cling to the cross for dear life most days. I don't know what I'm doing. I mean that with all honesty. I need confidence and it doesn't come from my abilities. It comes from God.
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
Our strong Catholic identity.
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
Daily Mass and living liturgically.
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
Switching to FACTS tuition management.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.