The Renewal of Catholic Education is Fueled by Families—Not Institutions
Surrounded by institutional failure in education, families joining faithfully Catholic school communities are discovering the benefits of being part of "a family of families."
A grass roots movement to transform American education is booming. As recently discussed in an article at Catholic School Playbook, a movement begun by parents unhappy with the quality of diocesan Catholic schools and the increased secularization of government schools has given rebirth to the Church’s ancient tradition of liberal arts education. That movement has caught fire.
Beginning around 50 years ago, the movement is now blossoming in both church affiliated and secular schools. The Association of Classical Christian Schools, a member organization that represents Protestant schools, boasts over 400 members. In the Catholic world, where education has traditionally been provided in parish schools, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education claims 175 member schools. Responding to increasing demand, the ICLE now has an area of practice devoted to training teachers and assisting dioceses across the country that are in the process of transforming their diocesan schools into classical liberal arts schools.
Secular charter schools have also jumped onboard and have launched networks of classical schools. Among them is the Great Hearts Academies, located mainly in Arizona and Texas, and soon Louisiana and Florida. Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative is growing rapidly with 22 member schools and several other schools using their curriculum from Oregon to Florida. The wiser leaders of American government schools are realizing that the status quo is being tested by these schools and coming up short. At his request, Hillsdale has recently promised the governor of Tennessee that they will open 50 schools in his state over the next few years.
Our own network of independent Catholic classical schools in the Philadelphia area, the Regina Academies, has grown from one school founded in 2003, to four schools with a total current enrollment of just over 600 students. With the COVID pandemic, critical race theory, and gender ideologies overtaking many schools in our area, we are experiencing unprecedented growth from families pulling out of these schools and seeking a safer alternative for their children.
The growth of the classical school movement is the direct result of parents looking for superior educational alternatives for their children. What they discover in Catholic liberal arts schools is not just a superior education for their children, but a community of support for the whole family.
It is true that our academic preparation outpaces other schools, and the religious formation of students results in schools that are truly faithful, friendly, and joyful places. But Catholic classical schools are about forming children in the entirety of their being with faith at the forefront of all that they do. At the Reginas we have identified nine hallmarks that articulate the formational program we offer our students, but I often think we need to add a tenth—one that would speak to the formative effect our schools have on entire families.
Parents commonly refer to our schools as a “family of families.” Our schools are smaller than many so there are opportunities for families to get to know one another, but families are more than a gathering of people. They are an intimate communion of love and support. The transformational effect our schools have on marriages, renewed or newfound commitment to the Faith, and family life is the result of much more than small size.
In the spectrum of schools within the classical school movement, religiously affiliated schools have an advantage over secular liberal arts schools, and that is the centrality of faith. The Catholic liberal arts tradition acknowledges the Incarnation as the loadstar of history toward which, and from which all our formative efforts—intellectual and spiritual—draw their purpose, depth, and orientation. The effect of centering our school communities around Jesus Christ and being open to the work of the Holy Spirit is profound because we acknowledge that ultimately our mission is a spiritual one.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate #11:
In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfillment of humanity's right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone.
Perhaps the reason families have looked for alternatives to the parish school is because, for many years, many of these schools placed too much confidence that the institution alone would succeed in forming children. Institutional failure in education surrounds us. Children need to be formed in true communities that work together in solidarity to grow in faith. Community, as our families have found, is the ultimate gift of our schools.
As one parent recently expressed to me in an email, at our school, the “focus is on the well-being of the children over the institution…. Many institutions in the area make decisions that protect the teachers, the school, the administration first rather than the children.” He continued to say that our “Community is really a community… From changing flat tires for those in need to renting one’s home out to others, the outreach is not something seen today and is a breath of fresh air in today’s cold, lonely society.”
I'll share two recent examples from our school community.
First, this past year a family came to Philadelphia from another state for the father to receive experimental medical treatment for an advanced form of cancer. The family had several children and wondered how they could keep their large family together. As it turned out, a family in one of our schools had recently purchased a new home they had not yet moved into, so they made the house available to them. All four of our schools came together to support them in some way. Some donated furniture from their own homes and coordinated trucks and manpower to make the home comfortable for them. They provided babysitting and playmates for the children, brought toys and meals, and offered nonstop prayers for the family and the success of the treatment. The outpouring of love and concern for this family was transformative for the community and a testimony to the meaning of the solidarity Pope Benedict XVI wrote about, the binding force of Christian charity.
Second, I was speaking with a parent recently whose father-in-law had died. I knew about this family’s journey closer to the faith after coming to our school (a typical situation), and when I expressed my condolences, she told me that since they have been at our school they had come to a deeper relationship with Christ, and their understanding of death had changed. Rather than be overwhelmed with sorrow, they were filled with hope and peace. Seeing this woman’s husband a few days later he expressed the same sentiment. For this family, our school had helped them find a community of faith that led to a deeper practice of their faith. In their time of loss, death had lost its sting and the grave its victory. The community of faith that now surrounds them had drawn them in to a deeper relationship with their Savior had given them perspective on the meaning of life and death.
As the world becomes ever more challenging, many families have found strength and support in our family of families. One mom recently told of having four children ages one through five and of the derogatory looks and comments she would receive at the grocery store. Encouraged by the large families at school events, she and her husband opened their hearts and welcomed baby number five into their family. In her words:
The Regina community into which we have chosen to immerse our family has drowned out the messages of our world. The message that can be felt at the Academy is that bringing new life to the world is simple and beautiful, not complicated and burdensome as the world would like one to think. In our school, God and faith and family is what my children see and learn and what inspired me to continue to grow our family.
So, perhaps Hallmark #10 for the Regina Academies should be: A Family of Families.
In closing, in a survey one family wrote a comment that very well summarizes what Catholic classical schools like the Regina Academies offer:
The students see other families, children, teachers, and staff who believe in the faith and teach it. We are not our own island but are part of a community that is growing and learning together to love and serve our Lord and neighbor. I believe this is very powerful witness (it's not just mom/dad) and is a great foundation for our children to live in the world but not of it.
What more could schools hope for?
Mark Bradford is executive director of the Regina Academies in the Philadelphia area. Founded in faith, inspired by hope, and lived in love, the Regina Academies aim to challenge students and their families in a communal and academic setting to be joyful saints through Catholic faith formation, classical wisdom, and virtue in action.