Catholic Schools: From Good to Great
Once-failing schools that are now thriving show the path forward for good schools to become great. Here are five steps to help principals of good schools join the rank of leaders of America's best Catholic schools.
Have you ever met someone who was so out of shape that it led to a major health scare, and then they completely turned around their lifestyle—their diet, their sleep habits and their exercise routine—to become amazingly healthy and fit? They had sunk so low that it became imperative for them to embrace radical change in order to survive. Then they over-performed and are now healthier and more fit than their peers who had always been in decent shape. In the world of Catholic education, we have seen this phenomena play out in schools across the country. While many Catholic schools have closed over the last 50 years, dozens—maybe now hundreds—have come to the brink of failure, narrowly escaped closure by radically altering their program, and are now thriving beyond what most schools ever experience with long wait lists, parents who are ecstatic about their schools, and a school that is now highly differentiated from the nearby competing schools.
It leaves us wondering: how can those healthier peers—the Catholic schools that have always had solid enrollment and generally satisfied parents—learn from these once-dead but now thriving Catholic schools that have since surpassed them?
In order to answer that question, we first must ask, what did all these failing Catholic schools actually change? The short answer... they became even more Catholic! That's right. In a world where faith is on the decline, these now thriving schools put their Catholic faith front and center, tapped into the incredibly rich intellectual tradition that they had unknowingly abandoned, and then made sure they hired and formed the teachers who could lovingly guide their students to grow in wonder, wisdom, and a joy for learning.
Here are five straightforward steps that a Catholic school principal can implement to place their school on a similar pathway from good to great:
1) Hire teachers who are on fire for both growing in their faith and in their intellectual life. They are the role models for your students and they need to be a steady example for growth in both the moral and intellectual virtues. They pray daily, attend Mass every Sunday, go to regular confession, read lots of books, and have an active intellectual life. Where do you find them?! Try liberal arts colleges like Thomas Aquinas College, University of Dallas, and other faithfully Catholic colleges found in the Newman Guide. Also look for the faithfully Catholic groups (such as FOCUS missionaries) at more secular universities. Avoid education majors and find students who majored in broad subjects that they loved such as math, philosophy, physics, theology, history, and literature. Seek faithful Catholic adults who love to learn and want to share that love with younger people.
2) Support these teachers with a vibrant faculty culture that invests in their growth. Good teachers are a constant work-in-progress and want to actively grow in their craft. As the principal, you need to invest in their growth. That begins with making sure that each teacher—especially in their first year but even throughout their career—has a Master Teacher who will guide them, regularly shadow them in the classroom, and give them coaching and feedback. This can be you as the principal or an experienced teacher on your team. Conduct regular faculty seminars led by master teachers to create a cohesive team and model what great teaching looks like. Further invest in your teachers by taking advantage of outside professional development resources such as the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, Cana Academy, and the Augustine Institute.
3) Invest in the faith life of the school. This includes regular daily Mass—at least weekly but know that many schools have incorporated Mass into their daily routine. Integrate the Liturgical Calendar into the regular activities of the school. Encourage your pastor and other religious to regularly visit your students. Be very intentional about the crucifixes, art, and other materials you display on the walls. Make your school beautiful!
4) Raise the bar for what your students are reading. Select books that have withstood the test of time and have become classics (such as The Chronicles of Narnia), and let the students save the candy (think Harry Potter) for reading on their own time. At the K-8 level, kids should be reading the “Good Books”, which include fairy tales, myths, fables, and beautifully written fiction that helps them grow in wonder and imagination. This continues at the high school level, but now they become ready to start tackling the greatest works by the greatest minds who have ever lived. For example, when they study American history, they should not only read the Constitution but also some of the more important Federalist Papers. They should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. They should read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, select dialogues by Plato, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Augustine’s Confessions, selections by Aquinas, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, etc. Every student must read these books in order to ever be considered well educated. Ideally, they will read them again in college, but unfortunately most will not.
5) Bring clarity of your mission to the families you are serving. Embrace being counter-cultural and help them to see this as a more beautiful way to form their children in a society that has largely gone off the deep end. Provide clear guidelines for limiting technology use (no smartphones until they get a driver license!), more modest dress, sportsmanship on the athletic fields, and overall virtuous behavior. Make it clear to everyone both by your example and your consistent messaging that our lives are not all about us, that they are about knowing, loving, and serving God. Most parents (including me) did not attend a school like the one being described here and unknowingly suffer from low expectations. You can reach these parents and help them to set higher standards for their children—and maybe even themselves and their families.
Being a great Catholic school leader is certainly hard but rewarding work. It requires being extremely intentional about mission and a deep understanding that your work is impacting the very souls of all of the teachers and students you are serving. It also requires great humility accompanied by a disposition toward growth: growth in your school culture, growth in the craft of teaching, and growth in the virtues of your faculty, students, and families. Do you want to exponentially increase the impact you are having on your school community? Great Catholic school leaders do!
Mike Ortner is president of the Ortner Family Foundation.