How Two Headmasters are Cultivating a Culture of Virtue in Their School Communities—and Avoiding a Common Problem
“The true, the good, and the beautiful” is a phrase that is increasingly familiar to families seeking an alternative to progressive education. While it is used by some secular schools, it takes on special meaning at Catholic schools. That’s because Catholics believe that truth, goodness, and beauty reflect the “infinite perfection” of God, who is the Creator and Lord of our lives. Catholic schools that take formation seriously are intentional about offering a culture, curriculum, and campus rooted in “the true, the good, and the beautiful,” aimed at drawing students closer to God. The goal is to train the hearts and minds of children to love what God loves and to want to imitate His infinite perfection in their love for others.
At Catholic schools across the country, educators are taking a hard look at the academic programs they are offering to parents. Sometimes gradually, other times all at once, many schools are freeing themselves from secular materials and methods and reclaiming the intellectual and sacramental traditions of the Church. Parents who want to protect their children from harmful societal influences have flocked to these schools—and not just because they lack better options, but also because they are excited to give their children the authentic Catholic education that they wish they had received.
Thanks to the Catholic education renewal movement, parents today are more knowledgeable than they were a decade ago about what they should expect from an authentically Catholic school. They embrace their role as the primary educators of their children and are intentional about partnering with secondary educators who are passionate about cultivating faith, virtue, and wisdom in the children entrusted to their care. As a result, they are deeply disappointed when a school fails to live up to its Catholic rhetoric, especially when it involves a lack of Christlike behavior of students or teachers directed at their child.
School leaders admit that one of the biggest challenges of operating a school inspired by “the true, the good, and the beautiful” is maintaining a culture that surrounds students with “the good.”
“This is a problem at our school,” admits the headmaster of one faithfully Catholic school with full enrollment and a waitlist. “We lose about a family a year because of it.”
Kids feeling unloved by their classmates and teachers is not a trend unique to Catholic schools. National statistics show that 20% of students aged 12-18 experience bullying at school and 13.8% of children aged 3-17 years suffer from anxiety or depression (pre-COVID numbers). The definition of bullying includes gossiping, spreading rumors, and mean-spirited exclusion from a group—all of which violates the dignity of a child made in God’s image and likeness.
Every parent knows that children need guidance in cultivating virtue. Many parents prioritize the cultivation of virtue at home—for example, by modeling virtuous behavior and seizing opportunities to encourage good habits and correct harmful behavior. Children get their moral compass from their parents, so if they witness a lack of charity in their home on a regular basis, their development of virtue will become stunted as they mature; they will feel justified in disparaging, ridiculing, or ostracizing other children and this will introduce a lack of Christian charity to the school culture. This does not mean that every incidence of unkind behavior at school is evidence of a disordered home life. Children are born with different temperaments, their brains are not fully developed, and they experience drastic hormone fluctuations causing abrupt physical and emotional changes, especially during middle school. Furthermore, they spend a lot of time at school, away from the direct supervision of their parents.
Virtue must be cultivated at home and in school. This is important because, while good parenting is paramount, studies show that peer influence is one of the most robust predictors of adolescent behavior. Many parents who choose to pay tuition at a Catholic school instead of sending their children to the “free” government school down the street do so because they are seeking a Catholic partner in their children’s formation. Motivated by their duty to their families, they expect their schools to live up to their Catholic values.
Across the country, school leaders are grappling with elevated expectations of parents seeking an authentic Catholic education that includes virtue formation. Two headmasters who are leading the way in supporting parents in this important area are Dr. Mark Newcomb and Peter Crawford.
Dr. Mark Newcomb
Dr. Mark Newcomb is the headmaster of Holy Rosary Academy (HRA), a PK-12 independent school in Anchorage, Alaska that “assists parents, the primary educators, to form students in faith, reason, and virtue through a classical education in the Roman Catholic Tradition.” He previously served as principal of St. Theresa Catholic School, a PK-8 classical parochial school in Sugar Land, Texas for six years. Under his leadership, St. Theresa received the highest honor from Ruah Woods Institute as a Theology of the Body campus, won a 2020 National Blue Ribbon award, and celebrated record enrollment.
Newcomb is a servant leader who aspires to pass on a spirit of servant leadership to his students. He explains:
We become free and full human persons only when we recognize the needs of others and serve them in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, as informed by our authentic encounters with the Risen Christ in scripture and the sacraments.
He has a deep respect for parents as the primary educators of their children. He understands his vocation as an educator as assisting parents in their vocation as parents—and he knows that parenting has become increasingly complicated in recent years. He cites the use of screens as “a digital security blanket” and a chief cause of “the American breakdown in expectations and norms for young people today.” He says the internet and social media “lower impulse control in children, addict them to peer validation as their primary way of determining what to do or not do, and serves to make them facile, in that all things and actions either get a thumbs up or a thumbs down.”
He notes that sometimes it is the parents themselves who need to be educated about how to live a Christian life. Throughout his time in Catholic education, he has observed that “even believing Christian families often do not connect care for others with their faith, but rather hold to a vague sense of civic responsibility or character, without reference to the love and salvific mission of Jesus Christ.”
When Newcomb arrived in Anchorage in 2021, one of his goals was to get ahead of problems that have plagued other schools by assisting parents in forming kind, charitable, and virtuous children. He notes that his school already had a culture rooted in truth, goodness, and beauty that predated him, and his efforts have only deepened his school community’s commitment to supporting each other in the cultivation of students’ virtue.
To encourage students, teachers, and parents to personalize the teachings of Jesus Christ, Newcomb introduced the “Knight’s Code,” a character charter of 12 virtues “drawn from the treasury of the wisdom of Christendom.” Named for the school’s mascot—because Knights are “supposed to come to the rescue of those who are being mistreated”—the code not only sets expectations for behavior at school, but also shapes the way students understand their duty to God and each other. The virtues, as enumerated for student expectations at HRA, are:
Fidelity—exhibits a love of God and His Church
Charity—is kind and helpful with others; courteous in speech, word, and deed
Justice—willingly meets duties and follows all school rules, seeks the common good
Sagacity—uses time, resources, and talents wisely
Prudence—exercises good judgment in managing and organizing own affairs
Temperance—maintains good impulse control, is punctual and responsible
Resolution—is determined and resilient in the face of challenges
Truthfulness—is rigorously honest and honorable in all academic and personal matters
Liberality—is self-sacrificing and generous in the service of others
Diligence—seeks to do the right thing at the right time; attentive and studious
Hope—has a positive outlook about self and encouraging attitude towards others
Valor—is courageous in promoting and protecting the interests of others
Newcomb integrated the Code into the school’s discipline system that had previously focused on demerits. HRA still gives demerits for inappropriate behavior at school, especially when that behavior violates the dignity of another child. For example, teachers “intercede the moment that it appears that a student is not being treated with dignity and respect as made in the image and likeness of God, by his or her peers.” But now, in addition to giving demerits, teachers award students “acts of valor” for conspicuously virtuous deeds. Every month, HRA uses this system to recognize students for their goodness at an assembly attended by all teachers and students.
Newcomb reports that parents and teachers have been “VERY” enthusiastic about the Knight’s Code because it connects home and school life and reinforces a culture that “celebrates the good, rather than merely castigating the bad.”
He, too, is enthusiastic about the approach because he knows better formation of students requires better formation of teachers and parents. He explains:
Our goal is to form students who think first of others and who are here to serve one another. This requires each of us—faculty, staff, and parents included—to be willing to become better people, so that we can in time be a blessing to ourselves and those around us. None of this happens through stasis and low standards.
He concludes, “As Epictetus, the ancient Stoic philosopher, warns: ‘the punishment of those who refuse to change, is to remain exactly as they are.’”
Peter Crawford is the founding headmaster of St. Jerome Institute (SJI), an independent high school in Washington, DC that has “reinvented traditional education to meet the challenges of our time.” Since its founding in 2019, SJI has developed a national reputation as a school for teachers who love to teach—and who understand that the cultivation of virtue in students is an important aspect of the profession.
SJI designed its curriculum and culture with parents in mind. Informed by the Catholic principle that parents, not the government, are the primary educators of their children, Crawford created a school that personalizes the teachings of Jesus Christ to each child. He has a special appreciation for the freedom to help children make connections between their behavior and their responsibilities to God. Before becoming the headmaster of SJI, he taught at three classical charter schools, two of which he founded. At those schools, he was prohibited by law from using sacred scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Saints’ writings, and other Christian sources to teach virtue.
At SJI, Crawford uses his freedom to give parents what they want and deserve: a partner in forming children who imitate Christ in their interactions with others. Under the light of Truth, he prioritizes the cultivation of virtue in four essential ways. He:
Hires, trains, and coaches teachers to model virtue and provide personalized mentorship to students.
Sets a single, unified expectation for student action and behavior that applies in all classrooms and all situations schoolwide.
Speaks to students and parents at the beginning of every school year about the school's philosophy regarding student action and behavior.
Finds opportunities to have conversations with students and parents, individually and in groups, to reinforce expectations throughout the year.
Crawford notes that all actions directed at a child must be motivated by love—the Christian duty to will the good of another. “It is not enough for parents and teachers to know that the reason we hold children accountable is because we love them,” he says. “Children need to be explicitly told this.” For love of the child, it is critical that parents and teachers demand good behavior to help establish habits of goodness. He explains:
Most people think that the way to derive a certain outcome from children is to win them over so they will start acting in the way that you want. Unfortunately, this is not how human behavior works. As Aristotle and modern psychology both agree, if you want to impact the interior life, you need to begin by making certain demands on human action. A requirement for consistent right action leads to right habits.
Crawford explains that virtue is traditionally understood to mean habits of excellence. The key to obtaining virtuous behavior in children is having clear expectations and consistent accountability rooted in the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love.
A Plan for Cultivating Virtue = Fewer Problems
Leading a community of people is hard work. Managing the actions, expectations, and emotions of imperfect humans can be challenging, even when the basis for the community is a strong commitment to shared Catholic values.
Newcomb and Crawford love their work. They believe they are doing what God has called them to do in the world, and they are doing it with His help and for His glory. They see the fruits of their work in the families they serve who grow closer to Christ every day. “It’s an immense privilege to serve our school families in this deeply personal way,” Newcomb says.
They have an important insight for school leaders who are being pressed by parents to be more proactive in cultivating virtue among students: the truth, goodness, and beauty of this world reflect and originate from our Creator in Whom all things cohere. A strong leader who is committed to Truth must also be committed to Goodness and Beauty because Truth is Good and Beautiful, just as Goodness is True and Beautiful and Beauty is True and Good. While no school is perfect—because no institution comprised of flawed human beings could ever be so—a Catholic school that truly aims to assist parents in the formation of faithful Catholics runs better.
Newcomb and Crawford are careful not to claim that their schools are perfect. Students make mistakes, as do parents and teachers—and headmasters. Yet they are confident in asserting that they have done the work upfront and have therefore avoided problems plaguing other schools. For example, they don’t have a “mean kids” problem or persistent issues with aggressive parents justifying uncharitable behavior. On the contrary, they have built school communities where students, parents, and teachers strive to act virtuously in their interactions with one another—and most of the time, they succeed.
Crawford explains that making a priority of the cultivation of virtue assists in the operation of all areas of his school. He boldly asserts that the “vast majority” of behavioral issues are avoidable. “If a school has an intentional and orderly culture and teachers act with authority,” he says, “most problems simply do not arise.”
Kimberly Begg is editor of Catholic School Playbook and director of programs and general counsel of the Ortner Family Foundation.