Catholic Schools: ‘Our best and greatest inheritance’

Students from St. Rose Grammar School, Belmar, participate in the 2017 Catholic Schools Mass held in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Catholic schools will continue to be our “best and greatest inheritance,” Bishop O’Connell says. Craig Pittelli photo

A message from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

There are many wonderful public and Catholic schools in New Jersey that do a great job educating our kids. Parents choose “Catholic” schools BECAUSE they are Catholic. With all due respect to public schools, there is and there should be a difference.        

In the Diocese of Trenton, there are 39 Catholic elementary schools and 11 Catholic secondary schools that provide an excellent education to their over 15,100 students. Parents opt for these Catholic schools often at great financial sacrifice. Enrollments, however, are declining and have been for some time now.

A recent article posted on NJ.com – “These Are All the NJ Catholic Schools Closing and Merging This Year,” June 11, 2019 – noted that declining enrollment and subsequent financial strain on their parish sponsors have resulted in decisions to close or merge Catholic schools. Here in our Diocese, one Catholic elementary school has closed this year, another two Catholic elementary schools have merged, and a third has transitioned from a diocesan regional to a parish-based Catholic school.  

The Diocese has studied the situation in all our Catholic elementary schools extensively and has produced two reports on Catholic school “sustainability” – one in 2013 and another in 2018 – with a goal to develop criteria and a plan to “sustain” and keep our Catholic schools open wherever possible rather than to close them. 

Given the steadily escalating costs of providing an education that is both faithfully Catholic and academically excellent, and the school and property tax burden that all New Jersey families face, the prospect of sending children to Catholic schools rather than tax-supported public schools has become problematic for our Catholic families. Another recent article posted on NJ.com – “The 30 NJ Towns Paying the Highest Schools Tax Bills,” August 3, 2019 – observed that New Jersey has the “highest-in-the nation property taxes” and that “school taxes account for 52 percent of that.” Non-public school vouchers (parental school choice) available and shown to be effective in other states and scholarship initiatives would certainly make a difference here, but unfortunately, they do not seem to be on the horizon for Catholic parents in the Garden State.

As a diocesan bishop who has spent virtually all of his priestly ministry in some form of Catholic education, current challenges to providing and sustaining our Catholic schools, despite the increasing financial burdens involved, weigh heavily upon me. And, yet, our Catholic families cannot lose hope.  Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton are an excellent choice and a tremendous investment in our future.

During the past summer, I spent a good deal of time researching the “Catholic school situation” in other arch/dioceses. The reasons supporting the choice for Catholic schools there and here in our own Diocese are quite compelling, among them:

1. Catholic schools (and Catholic religious education programs where they are not available) are the major daily way to teach and promote the Catholic faith, building upon the foundations set by Catholic parents and families; “Catholic school students are more likely to pray daily, attend Church more often, retain a Catholic identity as an adult … (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Our Greatest and Best Inheritance: Catholic Schools and Parental Choice”);

2. Catholic schools provide “strong moral values” modeled by Catholic school teachers (Georgetown University, CARA Institute);

3. Catholic schools create a Catholic community and common focus/purpose for families in parishes and regions;

4. Catholic schools offer an excellent, high-quality education demonstrated by outcomes: consistently high graduation rates (99 percent of Catholic school students graduate), performance on national and standardized tests when compared to public and some other private schools (ACT scores are in the top 25 percent), high rates of acceptance, and eventual graduation, at universities and colleges, success of minority students;

5. Catholic schools provide more personal attention to students and develop personal discipline.

These assertions and many others do not simply represent a “mere wish list” or “hopeful thinking.”  Available data compiled by national, state and regional studies support them. They are not presented here to demean or diminish the work of public schools, but simply, to affirm and demonstrate the difference that enrollment and attendance in a Catholic school can make.

Can these things be said of every individual Catholic school student and alumnus/a? Of course not. Do Catholic schools experience the issues and problems existing in other schools and contemporary society at large? For sure. And there are many reasons why. But success, when identified and established, speaks for itself. The fact of the matter is that CATHOLIC SCHOOLS HAVE MADE AND DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE in the lives of Catholic students, and their families, and have contributed historically and mightily to the Catholic Church in our country – “our best and greatest inheritance,” according to the United States Conference of Bishops – to American elementary and secondary education in general, and to American society at large. Catholic schools are worth the price and the sacrifice because our Catholic children and their present/future are.

Walk into a Catholic school. Sense and experience the atmosphere, the “feeling.” Observe the Catholic school students and their interactions with teachers and one another in and out of the classroom. Do they sense they are a part of something larger than themselves? Talk to Catholic school administrators, faculty and staff. Do they have that same sense? Ask them why they are there and not working in some other school where the salaries and benefits might be more lucrative. Do they have “job satisfaction?” Do they consider their work “just a job” or, rather, a “calling?”

Ask Catholic school teachers why they sign a “Christian Witness Statement” outlining terms of their employment – whether they teach religion or math/science or language arts or computer science or phys ed? Working in and for an institution of the Catholic Church, are they committed to witnessing and supporting the institutional Church’s teachings as the Catholic community of which the Catholic school is a part expects and to which they have signed their names, or do they expect the Catholic school to “look the other way” if they do not? Are their Catholic school students learning and being encouraged to pray, to live and love their Catholic faith, to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8)?” The substance of those questions and the answers in a Catholic school are what make a school truly Catholic.

Some Catholic schools may not survive in their present form, unfortunately. That is the sad reality. Enrollments may continue to decline, and revenues may diminish as a result. Costs may continue to escalate to the point where parishes or even the Diocese cannot afford to keep them open. Other burdens that families encounter may force them to make other, hard choices. Perhaps even – and this is the saddest admission – contemporary culture will render the Catholic faith less relevant and easily replaced by secular values and preferences. But, for those Catholics who do believe that Catholic education and Catholic schools do make a difference, who want Catholic education and Catholic schools to survive and thrive, who need Catholic education and Catholic schools to help strengthen, grow and hand on the Catholic faith, Catholic schools will continue to be our “best and greatest inheritance,” a treasure to be preserved and prized, a “beacon of faith and hope and love” in a world that seems to be losing its way. Catholic schools echo the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel to his Church: “Go and teach all nations (Matthew 28:19).” Let’s continue to do that through our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton.

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