Catholic education is in crisis—and renewal.
1965 was the high-water mark for Catholic education in the United States. 5.5 million K-12 students attended more than 12,000 Catholic schools. Since that peak, more than 100 Catholic schools have been closing annually due to declining enrollment. Today, 1.6 million students attend fewer than 6,000 Catholic schools. It has been a perfect storm of everything that could have possibly gone wrong: poor catechesis, fewer people entering religious life, Catholic schools mimicking public schools, finance challenges—to name just a few.
But there is hope. Dozens—possibly hundreds at this point—of Catholic schools have started to flourish. Many have full enrollment and some have waitlists of students eager to attend. They have learned how to not only survive in the 21st century—but to thrive.
Here are 21 ways that super successful Catholic schools do things differently.
1. They prioritize daily Mass.
Mass is the central act of worship for Catholics. Schools that prioritize daily Mass communicate the importance of the Mass and also allow students and teachers to receive special graces not available through other worship. One teacher explains:
There is no substitute for receiving the Eucharist and taking the time to sit in prayer and contemplation. It spiritually strengthens you for the job of teaching. It helps you be charitable with the different personalities of students and colleagues. It orients you towards Jesus, so you see Jesus in everyone around you, so you can care for them throughout the day.
2. They avoid education majors when hiring teachers.
Education degree programs at most colleges and universities are tainted by secular aims and methods. As a result, they tend to limit teacher training to the preparation of students for college and career readiness. Of course, education should prepare students to earn a living, but this narrow goal can eclipse the higher aim of Catholic education: the pursuit of Truth and human flourishing. Secular approaches have eliminated the cultivation of wonder, wisdom, and virtue in the classroom. An overemphasis on quantitative assessments can undermine the dignity owed to children, “whose hunger to know is ultimately a hunger for God,” according to Elisabeth Sullivan, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
Successful Catholic schools hire teachers who have the disposition and motivation to be great teachers. They are “intellectually curious, capable of experiencing wonder, and keenly aware of the dignity of the children in the classroom,” according to Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Great teachers are more likely to come from strong liberal arts colleges—including Thomas Aquinas College, Hillsdale College, and the University of Dallas—where they have been in a classroom with great teachers, than from education degree programs at most colleges and universities.
3. The #1 quality they look for in teachers is not how smart they are, or how experienced they are, or how many credentials they have... but whether they are passionate about growing in their faith. Are they on fire for Christ?
Catholic schools exist to serve the Catholic Church in the education and formation of young people. That means, first and foremost, teaching students to know who they are as Christians: children of God, made in the image and likeness of their Creator, for the purpose of knowing, loving, and obeying him and spending eternity with Him in Heaven.
Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know; they can’t pass on a passion for the Faith if they are lukewarm about navigating the path to their own salvation.
4. College and career readiness are not the primary goals. Holiness, wisdom, and a thriving sense of wonder are.
All successful Catholic schools prepare students for college and a career—but they do so as secondary goals, achieved through the authentically Catholic education of children growing in knowledge and virtue on their path to Heaven. Ironically, by focusing on the education and formation of the whole person, rather than college and career readiness, successful Catholic schools perform better on the very metrics held up as paramount by many modern schools.
5. They require Latin.
Half of English is derived from Latin, so learning Latin helps children understand English on a deeper level. But Latin is more than informational—it’s formational, according to Janice Martinez, principal of Holy Child Catholic School in Tijeras, New Mexico. Latin “forms a precise and orderly mind in the young person,” forming logical thinking, problem solving skills, and discipline. It also happens to be the language of the Church.
6. They focus on classic literature and generally avoid recent literature.
For generations, classic literature—by Homer, Dante, Virgil, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dostoyevski—has stirred the imaginations of young people by introducing them to gripping characters and worlds and revealing important truths about the human experience. There is an opportunity cost of exposing children to recent literature, which has not stood the test of time, at the expense of the most beautiful literature ever created.
7. Their anti-bullying program is virtuous parents and teachers.
Successful Catholic schools know that the best way to encourage children to treat others charitably is not by displaying posters during anti-bullying month—but by immersing students in healthy environments with adults who model virtuous behavior. Children are impressionable. They learn how to treat others by watching others—especially adults at home and school. It is critical that parents and teachers imitate God’s love when they interact with children—and never demean them. When adults entrusted with the care of children insult them, humiliate them, or otherwise violate their dignity, they bring disorder to a relationship intended to mimic God’s love for all His children; this is damaging on many levels and creates confusion about what is required to live a Christian life. Schools with parents and teachers who model virtuous behavior, have students who live Jesus’s words—"You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)—in their daily interactions with peers.
8. They largely keep screens out of the classroom.
The drawbacks of screens are well established: they warp children’s capacity for attention, lull them into addiction to constant stimulation, and allow instant access to dangerous images and videos children cannot unsee. The most successful Catholic schools ban personal devices and have technology-free classrooms at least through eighth grade.
9. They embrace seminar style discussions, particularly in high school.
In seminars, teachers pose questions for discussion, which engages students as active participants of their own education. This method of teaching—as compared to lecturing—is more enjoyable for students and facilitates superior understanding of the material.
10. They are led by servants.
The most successful Catholic schools are led by men and women who 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).
Unlike Jesus, leaders of successful Catholic schools 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 Catholic Church.
11. They have multiple recesses per day in elementary school.
Whereas many modern schools limit recess to 20 minutes a day and gym class to once or twice a week for young children, the most successful Catholic schools 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.
12. They embrace music, art, and drama as part of their core curriculum.
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. Children thrive when given the opportunity to create according to their nature. That’s why the most successful Catholic schools integrate music, art, and drama into the full curriculum and life of the school—and not as extracurricular activities to be added when resources allow.
13. They teach mathematics as an art.
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 mathematics as “formulaic,” “senseless,” “soul-crushing,” and “boring.” He explained:
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.
The most successful Catholic schools reject the modern teaching of mathematics. Instead, they give students opportunities to—as Lockhart explained—“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”—and this cultivates a sense of awe and wonder.
14. Parents are extremely engaged. They have their own required reading. The culture at home attempts to mirror the culture at school.
Successful schools expect parents to embrace their role as primary educators of their children—and they clarify that expectation as early as possible. During the application process, many schools require parents to read a book—for example, Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision for a Secular Age by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education—to facilitate a better partnership with the school.
Once their children are enrolled, parents participate in seminars of great works with teachers and other parents, in addition to book studies led that are designed to help them flourish in their vocation as parents. At home, they model a love of learning by reading, initiating family discussions, and utilizing resources from trusted sources, including Augustine Institute, Word on Fire, TAN Books, and Sophia Institute Press.
15. The principal—along with master teachers—regularly shadows the other teachers in the classroom to give them coaching and feedback so that they may grow in the art of teaching.
Peter Crawford, headmaster of St. Jerome Institute, an independent high school in Washington. DC, explains:
The idea is to create a community of teachers who are all invested in growing and improving in the art of teaching. Regular observations and conversations about our classes help us to maintain that attitude of being lifelong students of the craft of teaching.
16. They recruit families who truly buy into the mission.
Student recruitment efforts of successful schools focus on the approximately 20-30% of Catholics who take their faith seriously, rather than allocating equal resources on lukewarm Catholics. This requires plugging into the more devout Catholic parishes, homeschool groups, and schools (K-8 schools are excellent resources for high schools). It also requires enlisting the help of the current families who are most enthusiastic about their school, and who have strong relationships with other local Catholic families in the community.
17. They let some—and sometimes many—teachers go.
Successful schools do not allow a lack of courage or prudence to prevent them from replacing weak or problematic teachers with great teachers.
18. They engage the greater community to promote lifelong learning.
The most successful Catholic schools take learning seriously. They expand their reach beyond current families by hosting appealing events for the broader community that highlight the intellectual and cultural underpinnings of the school—including lectures on important topics, seminars exploring great works, and fundraisers. This approach increases support for the school to include friends of current families, parishioners of local parishes, and parents and grandparents who hope to send children to the school someday.
19. They don’t sell wrapping paper.
Many modern schools sponsor a series of labor-intensive fundraisers—for example, wrapping paper and other “holiday” sales events—that overwork and overstimulate parents, without making much of a dent in overall fundraising goals. Successful schools take a more strategic approach. They meet small needs from the budget and allow the community to focus their energy on a few major events and initiatives.
20. They ask some parents to pay more.
Successful Catholic schools have effective fundraising programs that bridges the gap between tuition revenue and costs. They raise money from grandparents of current students, alumni families, and the wider community of the parish, diocese, and friends of the school. They also raise money from parents who pay full tuition. A parent explains:
Most parents paying full tuition are already doing substantial charitable giving. Many would gladly direct some of that giving to the school that is serving their own children.
21. Their top admissions priority is not identifying smart kids or affluent parents—but families focused on Heaven.
The most important admissions goal for successful Catholic schools is determining whether a family shares the values of the school community and will contribute positively to the overall culture of the school. Mo Woltering, headmaster of Holy Family Academy in Manassas, Virginia, explains:
On a basic level, 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.
For more information, please see Catholic School Playbook—an online resource that documents what successful schools are doing differently to cultivate strong communities of students, families, and educators; and reveals how Catholic schools can pull themselves out of the growing crisis and reverse current trends.