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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Begg

The 'So Hard' Part of This Journey

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

— Winnie the Pooh


Dear Reader:

 

Oh, how I’ve loved being a part of Catholic School Playbook.

 

I’m writing to express my gratitude to you and everyone who has been a part of this wonderful journey with me.

 

It was about three years ago that I began the fascinating work of interviewing leaders of the renewal of Catholic education for the purpose of sharing best practices to improve all Catholic schools.

 

The idea for the project came from Mike Ortner, president of the Ortner Family Foundation. I’ve always admired how he draws on his success as a tech entrepreneur to inform his innovative approach to philanthropy.

 

He noticed that there were two trends in Catholic education happening at the same time.

 

One was the national crisis in Catholic education signaled by steadily declining enrollment (a 70% decrease since 1965) and the closure of about 100 schools a year. These were the schools that came to mind when most people thought about Catholic schools: they were part of a parish but run almost entirely independently of the parish; they mostly mimicked the secular goals, materials, and methods of government schools, while retaining some Catholic customs.

 

The other was the renewal of Catholic education led by a small but mighty network of thriving schools. These schools seemed like a different animal than their counterparts. Not only did they offer a thoroughly, unapologetically, Catholic experience drawing on the Church’s longstanding intellectual tradition, but they also seemed immune to the national crisis.

 

They had satisfied parents, full enrollment, and even waitlists.    

 

In fact, there was such high demand for these schools that some families were uprooting their lives to move a considerable distance to be a part of them.

 

We set out to document what these schools were doing differently.

 

Our goal was to share information, to make it as easy as possible for the leaders of struggling schools to learn how to save their schools or take them from good to great.  

 

So, we started talking to veteran leaders of the renewal—including Elisabeth Sullivan, Mike Van Hecke, Mary Pat Donoghue, and Andrew Zwerneman—and asked them to put us in touch with heads of parochial and independent schools who were reclaiming the Catholic Church’s longstanding education tradition and living the renewal in real time with their school families.

 

When all was said and done, we had gathered valuable insights from 17 men and women with firsthand knowledge of what had gone very wrong in Catholic education, and what a growing network of educators was starting to get spectacularly right.

 

In November of 2021, we launched Catholic School Playbook as a free website featuring an actual playbook that could be read, beginning to end, in one hour, accompanied by a blog that would delve deeper into important topics.

 

We knew we’d stumbled on something important when our first blog article—The 21 Things Super Successful Catholic Schools Do Differently—ended up being viewed nearly 10,000 times.

 

Readers found some of the “21 things” surprising, especially:

 

#8 - “They largely keep screens out of the classroom.”

#5 - “They require Latin.”

#2 - “They avoid education majors when hiring teachers.”

#4 - “College and career readiness are not the primary goals. Holiness, wisdom, and a thriving sense of wonder are.”

#1 - “They prioritize daily Mass.”

 

Our early success helped us become acquainted with more leaders of the renewal. Our audience grew as we shared inspiring stories and best practices intended to help educators better serve their school communities. Here’s a sample of the unique mix of practical and philosophical insights that our readers came to expect from Catholic School Playbook:

 

  1. Truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be understood and realized without each other. Schools that prioritize truth while neglecting goodness and beauty fail to pass on an appreciation for all three.

  2. The admissions process is one of the most important culture-shaping activities that many schools get wrong.

  3. Professional development and teacher training are not the same thing. Many schools offer the former but not the latter, neglecting year-round opportunities that would benefit teachers and students alike.   

  4. Welcoming children with Down Syndrome and other special needs into Catholic classrooms improves the intellectual and moral formation of all students.

  5. Most schools are not doing the one, easy thing that would help them improve in all areas and increase student retention.

 

About a year into the project, we started sending a free weekly email digest, called The Light, to help our readers stay on top of the ideas, events, and trends shaping the world of education and the future of the Church. The Light quickly became a core part of our work. Today, it has a loyal reader base of nearly 1,300 people and an average open rate of 60% (which is 20% higher than the industry average).

 

Every week seemed to bring more good news from parents and educators reporting the life-changing experience of being a part of a faithfully Catholic school community. I remember being at an event with a veteran educator, marveling over the growth in the number of parish schools and dioceses that were beginning to introduce higher goals and richer content to their school families. “It’s really happening!” we exclaimed, almost overcome with glee.

 

Soon enough, it became clear that the renewal of Catholic education was about more than saving Catholic education: it was about saving the American Catholic Church.

 

Catholic writers outside our circles noticed, too, and they helped us reach new audiences with this crucial message. Noelle Mering of Theology of Home and Tito Edwards of the National Catholic Register have been especially helpful in promoting our articles to their readers. Andrea Picciotti-Bayer wrote a wonderful article published in the National Catholic Register encouraging parents to use Catholic School Playbook to help them “identify the best places to send their children” to school.

 

The most rewarding moments over the last three years have been the many times our readers have reached out to share thoughts about their education journey with me. Being a part of this project has put me in a position to connect with parents and teachers from across the country. I even had the opportunity to speak to the students and parents of a beautiful school in Middletown, New Jersey—St. Mary School—which is reinvigorating its school community by setting the hearts and minds of its teachers and families on fire for Christ.

 

I have learned so much.

 

It’s been an incredible honor helping to develop Catholic School Playbook and serving as editor since its launch. I will never stop being grateful to Mike and Liz Ortner for welcoming me into their family foundation and entrusting me to lead this important project.

 

Beginning this week, I am stepping away from my role as editor to jump into a new adventure that I feel called to pursue. I am very excited about this new opportunity. At the same time, I feel sad to leave this work that I have loved so much. It feels hard right now to say good-bye. But as A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh observed: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

 

If you would like to stay in touch, please don’t hesitate to contact me at kimberlybegg@gmail.com.

 

I am grateful that Catholic School Playbook will continue in my absence. I look forward to playing my part as an enthusiastic reader and parent of five children in excellent Catholic schools.  

 

Thank you and may God continue to bless you and all of our Catholic families and educators. You are in my prayers.

 

In Christ,

 

Kimberly Begg

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