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For Our Nation

Each day during Catholic Schools Week, we will post a reflection on the focus of the day centered around this year’s theme: Faith. Academics. Service. The following reflection looks at how the combination of these three values are important to the nation.

Several months ago, I came across a magazine article titled " 25 Things You Just Don't See Anymore." I'm sure we've all seen this sort of thing before. As you might expect, it listed items, ideas, and experiences that were – as recently as 10 years ago – considered everyday, but which seem to have disappeared. At the very least, they seem (according to the author) to be trending toward – or already at the point of – extinction. Lunch pails were one item. Drive-in movies were another. Vinyl LPs, soda jerks, and neighborhood-wide games of capture the flag were on the list. So were Catholic schools.

I sure hope that last one isn't true. That would be bad. Very, very bad.

It would be bad for everyone, regardless of their color or creed, regardless of whether they had ever stepped foot in a Catholic school or even had the slightest sense of what makes them distinct. Catholic schools matter a great deal.

They matter to our entire K-12 education sector, and they matter to the vibrancy of American civic life.

In a society that is now characterized more by what divides us than what unites us, there are few institutions left that serve as authentic instruments of hope, and I would argue that none do it more powerfully or more beautifully than our Catholic schools.

Perhaps no one else has more at stake regarding the truth of that author's claim than at-risk families. Research on the racial achievement gap is expansive, and the picture it paints is troubling. To put it mildly, low-income children are at an extraordinary disadvantage in comparison to their more affluent peers with regard to their ability to access high quality K-12 educational options.

And so we are now confronted with a situation in which one cannot have a conversation about Catholic schools without talking about whether or not their ending is both inevitable and imminent. For a moment, I would like to examine exactly what we should be doing when we think about how the story of Catholic schools might end.

The concept of ending is, of course, inextricably linked to that of beginning. Often times, we mistake an ending for a beginning, and vice versa. At the same time, there's a great deal to be learned about the "now" by pausing and considering where we began, as well as where it seems we will wind up. At TS Eliot once remarked:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We all know the story of the beginnings of K-12 Catholic schools in this country. It is a story filled with heroes and heroines (mostly heroines!) like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Katherine Drexel, and so many others, who braved extraordinary challenge to build this school system that is now the envy of the world.

But again, there are those who think that was a long time ago, that things have changed, that this story will end soon, and it will not end well. They believe that the era of the traditional Catholic school has passed us by; that while Catholic education will always be available to the more privileged members of society, the urban Catholic school serving scores of at-risk children will soon be extinct. As the author of that article remarked, they are just one of those things (like record players or VCRs) that we ponder wistfully and say, "you don't see those anymore."

These people believe that years of mounting costs, dwindling enrollments, and uncompetitive salaries ultimately spelled the end of the urban Catholic school. They essentially assert that it will be said of our generation that we oversaw the wholesale termination of the most important and effective resource for evangelization and urban education in the history of the country.

These people are wrong.

Consider the ending that these people foretell. Consider for a moment what the world that these people imagine would look like. Consider a United States without a thriving system of Catholic schools. This is not an ending worthy of our vocation. It is not an ending worthy of the legacy entrusted to us by our predecessors in this ministry. It is not an ending worthy of our children. No, there are far too many signs of hope to believe that ending.

This is not a question of capacity. It is a question of imagination and will.

We must have the courage to dream a new generation of K-12 Catholic education, a generation in which our schools proclaim the Gospel, share Christ's love, and prepare children for college and beyond while remaining accessible to those who most need them.

It will be said of our generation that we transformed this extraordinary apostolate in ways never before imagined. It will be said that we developed the most radiant constellation of faith-based schools the world had ever seen; that we showed just how much these institutions nurture the soul of our nation.

It will be said that against unimaginable odds, we literally changed the ending to this story.
And so as we reflect on how this might end, we return to where we began.

Our hearts must be quickened with the zeal that ultimately led St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her contemporaries to build this national treasure; this Catholic school system that continues to exceed expectations, as we develop something new, something accessible to those most at risk, something that prepares children for college and heaven.

An enterprise that can truly make God known, loved, and served.

And through this exploration, as TS Eliot noted, we will come to know such zeal – the zeal that was our beginning - for the very first time.

John Schoenig, JD, is the Director of the Program for K-12 Educational Access within the Alliance for Catholic Education.  After teaching in Shreveport, LA, and then returning to ACE to work on the team, John served as Director of Development for the Alliance for School Choice.  In addition to an M.Ed. earned through the ACE Teaching Fellows program, John also holds a law degree from Notre Dame.