How one school partners with parents to build Catholic identity
By Michele Faehnle
Catholic grade schools are in a unique position not only to teach our young people the faith in religion class, but also to infuse the rest of the school day with examples of applied discipleship. Canadian archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, emphasized in a 2005 keynote address at the Catholic University of America that the Holy See teaches that one of the “marks” of a Catholic school is that “Catholicism should permeate not just the classroom period of catechism or religious education, or the school’s pastoral activities, but the entire curriculum.” todayct.us/2HIuD9h
Several years ago, St. Agatha School in Upper Arlington, Ohio, implemented a five-year strategic plan to increase enrollment and provide programming meant to strengthen their school’s Catholic identity and promote the visible presence of Jesus Christ in every aspect of the learning environment. The goal was to promote a renewed focus on incorporating the Catholic faith into every element of the school, from the classroom to the playground, even into sports and other extracurricular activities.
In an effort to encourage collaboration between the school staff, parish staff, parishioners, and parents, a Catholic Identity Committee was formed. The priorities were twofold:
- To help the children enter into prayer and meaningful participation in the sacraments in order to develop a personal relationship with God, and
- To strengthen and extend that personal relationship with God into the way the students treat each other, their families, and their community members on a daily basis.
As the parent co-chair of this committee, I understood the heavy demand on teachers’ time and the benefit of a strong parent-teacher bridge in successfully implementing new ideas. We hoped to help create new programming that would enhance the school’s Catholic identity in every facet of daily operation while also increasing the visibility and frequency of its Catholic identity in the broader community. Urging parental involvement was key to recruiting the many hands needed to make the new programming successful (and not burdensome for the school staff). Involvement in these programs also benefited parents, who were afforded the opportunity to grow in their faith, as teaching is the best way to learn!
The Catholic Identity Committee instituted and developed several programs; my favorites are explained below:
Parents in Prayer. Before making changes and implementing new ideas, we began in prayer. Our committee invited all parents and staff to join us for the Rosary after weekly school Mass. We prayed for the five Ps each week:
the petitions of our school family,
the pastor, and
By joining us in prayer, elderly parishioners who attended daily Mass but no longer had an association with the school felt that they were part of our larger school-parish community.
Virtue Club. 2 Peter 1:5 reminds us to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.” We developed an after-school club to teach students how to incorporate the theological and cardinal virtues into their daily lives. The club met once a month, with each session focusing on a different virtue. Middle-school students served as mentors and met during their lunch hour to create and practice skits to perform for the younger students. During meetings, students were placed in groups of mixed ages with a middle-school student as the group leader. As in Vacation Bible School, the groups rotated through different stations featuring music, games, crafts, and a snack related to the theme.
In a typical session, we covered the virtue of gratitude. St. Mary Magdalene was the featured saint; while rotating through the stations, the students made a votive prayer candle, sang praise and worship songs, and enjoyed a sweet snack of M&Ms candies after they shared something for which they were thankful.
Virtue Club frequently hosts guest speakers, including local religious sisters and priests who share their vocation stories and give lessons on virtue. Each year, the group makes a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine.
Parents Raising Our Catholic Kids (ROCK) speaker series. The most frequent response parents gave to our initial survey asking what they wanted from the Catholic identity committee was events on the topic of helping raise their kids in the faith. Based on this information, we created Parents ROCK, a series of parent social and informational nights. Each year, a panel of parishioners, youth ministers, and priests presented a discussion of how they raised their children in the Catholic faith and gave suggestions for keeping the faith alive in the domestic church. This fun wine and cheese event for the parents also promoted community within the school. We even offered free babysitting!
Mass with Me. In an effort to encourage Mass attendance among school families, one class was highlighted each month, and invitations were sent to parents and grandparents to attend the “Mass with Me” during the all-school Mass. The featured class planned the Mass, proclaimed the readings and petitions, presented the gifts, and sang a special song after Communion. After Mass, relatives and friends were invited with the students to the parish hall for a small breakfast reception.
Saints in the Hall. We are all called to holiness, and what better way to grow in holiness than to learn about the lives of the saints? We wanted more than reports and videos to share with the children; we wanted the saints to come alive! For our Saints in the Hall program, committee members, parishioners, and even the pastor researched lives of the saints and came to the classrooms dressed as that saint to give a presentation. This was also another great way to connect our parish to our school through service projects. For example, after the president of our St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVdP) came dressed as that great saint and shared his story, the students collected food and clothing for SVdP as a work of mercy. The students always enjoyed these special visitors, especially when our pastor appeared as St. Nicholas!
Student Speaker Series. Each year, our committee invited a speaker to show the students that “It’s Cool to Be Catholic.” We’ve featured Fr. Leo Patalinghug, the cooking priest and martial arts master; Lisa M. Hendey, children’s author and founder of Catholicmom.com; and Rachel Muha, founder of The Brian Muha Foundation, which runs an after-school program for inner-city children. Parents are invited and encouraged to attend these educational and fun events along with their students.
Catholic Book Clubs. To help parents have good, faith-filled resources at home, in addition to our traditional book-order forms, we offer a Catholic Book Club. Order forms go out twice a year, providing parents an opportunity to order great Catholic books for their homes or to donate to the classroom for all the students to read. Book selections are also offered for adults, so parents can develop their faith and enjoy Catholic literature.
Service Day. Another top priority indicated by parents in our original Catholic Identity survey was the opportunity for student service projects. Each year, our school hosts Service Day, a full day of service projects for the students, both in the classroom and in a field-trip setting. This day requires the collaboration of many teachers and parents to make the event successful. First, the whole school gathers for an assembly, then the lower grades go to different stations to do a project based on the works of mercy. Stations can include making cards for elderly parishioners, creating fleece blankets and plastic bag sleeping mats for the homeless, and decorating bibs and onesies for a local crisis pregnancy center. The middle-school students are transported off-site to do in-person service such as serving with Meals on Wheels, working in a soup kitchen, reading and playing games with retired priests and sisters at the nursing home, and cleaning and manicuring yards for elderly parishioners.
Parents, students, and teachers have all been pleased with the outcomes of these programs. Each year in our annual reports, the school board president and other parents comment that their students especially benefit from the Catholic identity initiatives. Our committee has recognized that one of the key components to implementing these ideas into a school successfully is creating a culture where parents are willing to participate in the school community and work together with teachers to educate their children.
Building a strong Catholic identity is vital to the success of a Catholic school, and that is understood ever so clearly in the motto painted on the entrance of St. Agatha School: “Let it be known to all who enter here that Jesus Christ is the reason for this school, the unseen but ever-present teacher in all its classes, the model of its faculty, and the inspiration for its students.”
Michele Faehnle, RN, BSN, is the school nurse at St. Andrew School, Columbus, Ohio, and co-author of Divine Mercy for Moms and The Friendship Project.
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