Elements of a Successful Catholic School

Father James Chelich with David Faber – May 2009



The First Principle:
Cultivating Faith Comes First

There is a difference between teaching a body of religious truths and cultivating faith. We have discovered that simply instilling the truths, as unquestionably important as it is,is insufficient. The real task is to cultivate faith in the hearts of our students. What does this mean? Believing that Jesus died for us, has risen, and now lives for us as a Savior permeates the entire atmosphere of our school. Believing that any woman, man, young person or child can die with Jesus to what they were and rise with Jesus to be a new person, determines the way we structure learning environments, and approach each individual – teacher, student or aide – in them. Teaching students and their parents to recognize the presence of Jesus and how to call upon him is an explicit instructional objective. Faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church, we are neither apologetic for, nor reticent in, seeking to unfold the principles of Christian faith and the richness of the Church’s piety. It is from an active response to faith that all other aspects of our school flow.

The Second Principle:
Fostering a Perception of the School
as a Valued Ministry of the Parish Community

We have learned that the School needs to be perceived as a valued ministry of the parish and
an essential part of the parish’s mission. To this end the school needs to be carefully integrated into the broader life of the parish. This took thought and effort. First and foremost, it required
a change in the language we used. Our parish community is not “stuck with a school.”
Our school is not “a drain on our parish resources.” We stopped saying that our school is
a “sacrifice on the part of the parishioners.” This language indicates that something unhealthy is already in place and at work to defeat the success of the school.

We believe that a healthy Catholic school should not be drawing more than fifty percent of the parish’s annual income. With room for some flexibility (creative growth initiatives in either the parish or the school’s programming) the amount of income going to the school from the parish should grow in measure with the amount the total income of the parish grows. Increases in offertory giving should bless both. We found out that the knowledge that the school and other parish programs were growing together was essential to building a sense of united purpose in what we were about and fostering cooperation across the board.

There should be no “untouchable space” or equipment in the school that other ministries cannot use when the school is not in session. Resentment quickly builds for what the school “keeps for itself.” This is disastrous. The school apostolates, just like other parish ministries, are ministries and programs of the parish. The school should be perceived by the members of the parish and those involved in other parish ministries, as warmly hosting their presence and supporting their activities. The school and the parish’s other programs should complement and reinforce each other as far as practical.

What the parish provides financially for the operation of a school is usually expressed as that part of full tuition that a member of the parish does not have to pay because they are a parishioner. Non-parishioners attending the school pay full tuition (i.e., the full cost of educating a child.) Many parishes have a written or unwritten policy that if you are a registered parishioner with a child in the school and you wish to receive the reduced Parishioner Tuition Rate, you are expected to give a certain amount weekly to the parish in the offertory collection. We have found that establishing this requirement is a big mistake. It delivers the wrong message. It says to parents: “What we are most concerned about are the dollars you bring to us.” At Saint Thomas we have no written or unwritten amount that we look for from parents of students who are registered in the parish. To receive the Parishioner Tuition Rate at Saint Thomas School, you need to be a registered member of our parish, and we need to see you and your children attending Mass weekly with our community, and investing yourself personally in our parish community life. This gives the right message: “If you are with us in worship and community we are committed to being there for you in helping provide a Catholic education for your child.” It also says that we do not want to be instructing your children in a faith that you are not teaching them at home and practicing with them. This reinforces the bond between school and parish, and fosters the same formation in the family that is taking place at school. Without apology, we do ask our parishioners with children attending our school to support the parish financially. The difference is that when we determine eligibility for the Parishioner Tuition Rate we never look at how much money they give.

The Third Principle:
A Catholic School is Driven by its Mission

A successful Catholic School is driven by its mission – and its mission needs to be something explicitly Christian and unapologetically Catholic. We have learned that “Excellence in Academics” and “Fostering Catholic Values” is insufficient for the mission of a Catholic school. For a Catholic school to pride itself and market itself as being academically better than the public schools is pretty sad. First of all, Catholic schools are not in competition with public schools. Successful Catholic schools are interested in the academic excellence of public schools and are, in any way their mission allows, willing to collaborate with public schools
for their success. Second, faith is not a value. Values are subjective. Faith is a virtue – one
of three fundamental virtues for authentic human life. Hope and Charity are the other two. Virtues are objective. Here is the Mission Statement for Saint Thomas the Apostle School:

Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic School
provides a dynamic education centered in Christ.

In a successful Catholic school, its mission actually drives the decisions and choices that are made – long term and day to day. When people want to initiate new projects or we need to make important choices, the first question becomes: Is this in line with our mission? If it is tangential to our mission, we probably won’t do it. If it take us away from our mission,we certainly won’t do it. We learned that if a Catholic school is not Mission Driven, it doesn’t take long before it becomes Establishment Oriented. What this means is that decisions are made with a view to preserving “the way things have been done,” and the prerogatives and privileges of the ascendant groups in the faculty or among the families who have traditionally enrolled and continue to be associated with the school. After a certain point in an establishment oriented school, change and innovative progress completely shut down. So many people on the faculty, staff and in the parental body have acquired “untouchable status” that anything that threatens them or requires of them undo effort they veto or hold themselves exempt from having to comply with or participate in.

Finally, a Mission Statement not only says what you are about, it invites the kind of people you want to be a part of your school faculty and student body. At Saint Thomas the Apostle School we want to attract folks who are about: faith, a dynamic education, and a life centered in Christ. The people we attract to our school bring with them all sorts of new gifts, talents and energy, and are quite ready to use them to advance our mission. They find us receptive to what they bring and eager to put their energy and talents to use. This produces an ever more creative and attractive program – a successful school!

The Fourth Principle:
Keeping Clear and Distinct the Roles of the School’s Valued Partners

Each of the partners in a Catholic school has a role. While their roles are highly interdependent, those in one role must not cross boundaries to perform the responsibilities
of a role that is not theirs. By performing their own role well they contribute to the success of others, as well as the success of the whole. Who are the “Partners?”

The parishioners of Saint Thomas the Apostle Parish establish Saint Thomas School as an apostolate of the parish faith community. They provide not only the building in which the school is housed but an atmosphere and tangible context in which the Catholic faith is lived. They also provide substantial financial support for the school’s up keep as well as for the education programs that are conducted in it. For the school’s governance, they elect the members of the Education Commission to work with the pastor and principal. We have learned that it is essential that the members of the parish community continually be kept informed of the personnel working in the school, the kinds of programming it provides, and the innovations that take place as the school grows. They celebrate the school’s successes and are invited participants in its religious and academic events.

The Pastor is the spiritual leader of the School. This is a role that many pastors abdicate, and we believe that when they do so, they significantly weaken the chances of the school to succeed. Of all the functions a pastor can perform in this role, it is our experience that these are the most vital: 1) He celebrates the weekly school Mass. 2) He hears the confessions of the students individually during the year (and by so doing, he gains a unique perspective on the spiritual and moral development of the students). 3) In his homilies he addresses not only the spiritual themes of the liturgical seasons, but the moral concerns he has heard or that have been brought to his attention by the principal and faculty. 4) To this end he meets with the principal weekly and with the faculty twice a year to express his thoughts and to hear theirs. 5) He is frequent, public and warm in praise of the principal and faculty (for if he cannot be, then he has failed in his responsibility to engage and supervise a talented principal who is able to recruit and shape a gifted faculty).
6) He is available to visit classrooms upon request and 7) mingles informally with the students at lunch, recess or dismissal – as his time permits.

The pastor is superintendent of the school. He hires, supervises and, in collaboration with
the Education Commission evaluates the principal. He is an ex-officio member of the Education Commission, which recommends policy to him for the school’s governance and operation. While the Pastor can exercise a veto over any Commission action, in a successful Catholic School he seldom, if ever, does. He speaks with the principal weekly, and any items being considered by the Education Commission are brought to this attention at the first stage of their proposal. This allows the pastor, in the earliest stages of the Commission’s work, to address the Commission on the parameters of Diocesan policy, and with his substantive concerns about the shape or impact of a proposal. People working in collaboration toward a goal, usually welcome direction at the outset of their work, especially if it is personally voiced and reasonably explained. People who have worked long and with much personal investment on a proposal only to have the fruits of their labor rejected or substantively altered at the last moment, will probably not work on anything for you again. The pastor can unilaterally establish policy for the school, but he should deliberately avoid doing so. Instead he should ask the Education Commission to research and help formulate policy
on issues of his concern. This process helps them understand and share his concern, take ownership of the solution, and ambassador the result to the other partners.

The pastor and principal meet weekly in an informal setting to “get on the same page” with each other, discussing what is at work in both the parish and the school. At Saint Thomas Parish we meet for tea and conversation on Friday afternoons for about an hour or so. (At the end of some weeks, it’s Bourbon!) The fact that we meet weekly and have this open discussion is well known among the faculty, staff and parents. It reinforces the understanding that the parish and the school are in mutual support of one another. It also defeats the notion that you can get around the principal by going to the pastor first. Upon reasonable request by a parent, the pastor will always give a “second look” at something that has already been engaged by the principal and faculty. Afterwards, he shares his thoughts – with the principal first, and then with the parents.

The Principal is a member of the Parish Pastoral Staff, and meets with them weekly.
As such he has a first-hand awareness of what is happening in the larger parish community and the opportunity to interact directly with the Pastor and the other pastoral ministers. In this way he has a role in developing the faith life of the parish.

The principal is the administrator of the school and is responsible for the daily operation of the school program including: 1) the spiritual leadership of the school, 2) the employment, supervision and evaluation of the school faculty and staff, 3) the establishment and review of educational programs, and 4) the guidance and management of student behavior. The Principal drafts the annual school budget with the Education Commission and sees that the approved budget is adhered to. After recourse to the teacher (if applicable), the Principal receives the unresolved concerns of parents and moderates their resolution. These responsibilities are carried out in accordance with Diocesan and Parish policies. We have found that if the principal keeps the other partners (especially the pastor, Education Commission, and where appropriate the faculty and parents) well informed, even in situations where he doesn’t really have to, he will find that he will not be standing alone if the situation turns problematic or difficult to manage or resolve.

The Education Commission is a policy-recommending body to the pastor as superintendent of the school. It is responsible for governance oversight of all aspects of the School. Its responsibilities include: 1) Long Range Planning for the school and overseeing the plan’s implementation, 2) recommending and drafting policy to the pastor under which the administrator operates the school, and seeing that approved policies are implemented, 3) serving as a body of consultation for the pastor and principal in major decisions of administration, 4) annually evaluating the administrators, 5) recommending an annual budget to the Parish Finance Council and seeing that it is adhered to, 6) fostering better understanding and support for Catholic education in the parish community.

Each member of our Education Commission is the chair of a committee charged with implementing one aspect of the school’s Long Range Plan (e.g. Curriculum Development, Multiculturalism, Building and Maintenance, etc.) They recruit others in the school’s parental pool to work with them. No one is aboard for just their opinion. Everyone has their sleeves rolled up and is actively engaged in the enterprise. This marvelously aids in staying focused and building consensus when decisions need to be made.

The faculty, under the direction of the principal, organizes and manages the learning environments of the school. Theirs is a highly specialized art requiring a significant degree of advanced education. This needs to be understood and appreciated. Their work is shaped in accordance with the principles of Catholic faith, accepted professional standards of educational practice, and policies implemented by the Diocese and the Education Commission.

Parents, according to the doctrine of the Church, are the first educators of their children. This means that they have authority over what their children are exposed to. A Catholic school has an obligation to honor their judgment of what materials or experiences their child is exposed to. This, however, does not mean that they have license to interfere with classroom organization and management, or the content of the curriculum. The organization and management of learning environments is the province of the principal and faculty. Parents have a right to regular reports about the progress of their children and to be alerted to concerns about the behavior and social development of their children. They are encouraged and always welcomed to ask questions about the purpose and intent of instructional materials and procedures, and must be provided reasoned and thoughtful explanations. The concerns of parents are to be responded to with the utmost courtesy and in a timely fashion.

We have found that interested parents can very effectively be brought into curriculum planning and the selection of instructional materials. A team of teachers working with interested parents is formed to research and rank the value of possible choices. This process builds an enormous amount of good will, allows parents to see how curriculum is built, and gives them a firsthand understanding of why choices were made – an understanding they
can ambassador to other parents.

The Students in a successful Catholic school are not only instructed, they are formed
to be leaders – both in and outside of school. In other words, they are trained to lead in a constructive way with what they learn. With each year of advancement, they are introduced to more leadership responsibility, a process which culminates in the 7th grade.* Throughout their journey through out school, the students are trained to examine their words and actions, and the impact these have on the lives of those around them – and to do this in the light of their Catholic faith. They are taught to contribute to what they are involved in and not to just “go along for the ride.” They are equipped to be active “partners” in the school’s mission.

* We know that the younger children in the school will follow the example that is set by our oldest students, and as a result, we make the 8th grade class full partners in the leadership of the school through a carefully planned training process. This training begins in the 7th grade. The members
of the 7th grade class are asked to provide specific feedback about the school through a survey instrument that asks what they like best, what they would change, and what concerns they may have. Their unedited and unnamed responses are provided to the teachers, the Education Commission, and often to the pastoral staff of the parish for consideration in future planning decisions. Following the survey each 7th grader meets individually with the principal and/or assistant principal for an interview. The interview has three parts: 1) a conversation about the collected results of the survey, 2) a plea for his/her willingness to prepare for leadership, and 3) a shared moment of prayer in which we ask God to help the student recognize the gifts he or she has that will help build up our school. We contract with Edgeline Services, a local Christian organization that specializes in team building, to work with the class on three separate occasions. The objective is to help the class understand the concept of the Body of Christ (Romans 12). The first two sessions take place at school and the final session happens during an end-of-the-year retreat we plan for the class at an off campus site where high and low ropes elements can be utilized. This two day retreat is planned and directed by the principal and assistant principal and its two themes are Leadership and Unity (in the Body of Christ). The retreat has become a treasured time of connection to be forged between our school adult leaders and the young people. At the last School Mass at which the members of the outgoing 8th grade class are present, they are called forward to the sanctuary, where thanksgiving is made to God for the leadership they provided to the school in their tenure as the school’s leaders. The 7th grade students are then called forward to join them in the sanctuary. The members of the outgoing 8th grade class anoint the hands of the 7th graders with blessed oil. During this moving sign of the mantle of leadership passing from one class to another, the pastor offers a prayer calling down the strength of the Holy Spirit on the 7th grade students, who now take up the mantle of leadership in the school. When they return in the Fall as the 8th grade leaders of the school, they are reminded at every opportunity of their role as leaders and that they are a vital part of the school’s administrative team. Each student receives an engraved name badge that they wear at all school-wide events. The 8th grade class performs many services for the rest of the student body. Among these are: collecting attendance, picking up elementary lunch bags, working with 3rd grade science buddies, attending Mass with the 2nd graders, maintaining an athletic bulletin board, and they are each assigned a group of younger students to pray for and communicate with on occasion. Building character in young people requires this large investment in time and energy, but it pays dividends for a life-time.

The Home and School Association exists to 1) enhance communication between and bring into closer relationship parents/guardians, faculty and administrators, 2) promote an interest in educational matters and an understanding of the mutual responsibilities of parents and teachers in education, 3) encourage quality family life, 4) benefit the school through fund raising for special projects, 5) sponsor special events and activities for the school community.

The Fifth Principle:
Pastor, Principal and Faculty as a Fellowship of Enthusiastic Catholics

With the exception of shared time public school instructors. we consider it vital that all faculty members are practicing Catholics who like being Catholic and are enthusiastic about sharing their faith with each other, their students and parents. As pastor, I ask all prospective faculty members this question: Is there anything in Catholicism toward which you are angry or bitter? If they acknowledge that there is, I share with them my sincere conviction that they have a right to their feelings and that I respect them; but I also tell them honestly that I don’t want to work with them in this mission. The pastor, principal and faculty need to genuinely like being Catholic, and like it enough to want to convey, in an enthusiastic way, the strength and beauty that Catholic faith and life offer. It is not enough that a potential administrator or faculty member happen to be a baptized Catholic, or even have been raised as a Catholic. If there is an edge of resentment toward an element of Catholic faith or life, it will inevitably rise to the surface, and dampen the esprit-de-corps of the faculty and affect the manner in which the Faith is taught and witnessed. This is not to say that someone cannot be a good Catholic and at the same time have angry issues with the Church. It is only to say that it simply won’t work to have their issues and their anger “work itself out” in the administration or on the faculty of a Catholic school. The team has to love what they are doing and understand in a lived way what they are trying to convey. Neither am I saying that an administrator or a faculty member cannot have questions about Catholic faith and life. Genuine and heart-felt questions (Faith seeking understanding) play themselves out very differently than antipathy and resentment.

The Sixth Principle:
Embracing the Faculty as Esteemed, Learned Professionals

In a successful Catholic school, the first thing the faculty has in common is that they are enthusiastic about their Catholic Faith and sharing it with others. The second follows close behind. It is that they are excellent in their field of competence and skilled at instructing young people. The third is that they are committed and motivated to move toward greater learning and instructional effectiveness. A good faculty is also constantly looking for ways to improve its communication and interaction with the parents of their students. The faculty is organized for the professional growth and success of its members. If you come to us a very good teacher, we want you to end up a great teacher. To this end, you will be stretched professionally and spiritually. No one has an exemption from learning more or learning how to do things better.

A good description for what we want in the faculty of our Catholic school is: Unity in faith, diversity in personality, approach and style. We actively search out individuals of different personality and style: the methodical, the artistic, the gentle mannered, the somewhat flamboyant, etc. We want different physical presences as well. As they pass through our program, we want each student to meet a teacher along the way who is similar in personality and style to themselves. In relating to that teacher we want them to recognize that someone like themselves can be successful and respected. We also want them to meet teachers different in personality and style than themselves and learn to work with them. We believe that this fosters respect for the differences our students notice among people and motivates them to acquire skills in dealing with them. The Catholic message is that everyone is invited to a respected place in the whole and everyone can be an effective part of the whole (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

The faculty in a successful Catholic school is held in high esteem and accorded the greatest respect. Much should be done to help parents understand their level of training, and to honor their learning and their art. Responsibility for this falls first to the pastor and then to the principal. How a pastor refers to the faculty or speaks of individual faculty members in public is a good indicator if this is actively being pursued.

The Seventh Principle:
The Goal of Discipline is the Acceptance of Responsibility

Strict discipline with swift punishment for misbehavior is not a hallmark of a successful Catholic school. Often it is the loudly touted hallmark of a school that has no real interest in forming the character of young people, only enforcing compliance. Discipline in a successful Catholic school leads students to carefully look at their words, actions and attitudes. It helps them to see how their words, actions and attitudes measure up to their religious faith and their commitment to follow Christ. Discipline in a successful Catholic school leads students to examine the effect that their words and actions have not only on others but on the whole atmosphere around them. Discipline in a successful Catholic school prompts students to take responsibility for what they have done and follow through with amendment to their behavior. A successful Catholic school prays with students and teaches them how to call upon Jesus to help in amending their thoughts, attitudes, words and actions with a view to doing what is right. With this in place, it becomes possible to build within the school a dynamic community of faith where the power of Jesus’ healing touch bonds the members together as one body. This healing touch is experienced regularly through the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist, and through prayer and the reading of Scriptures.

The pastor, administration, and faculty must commit to making the celebration of the School Mass a leading priority of the week. The reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation must be offered to each student in the entire student body at least twice during the school year. Prayer and the reading of Scriptures (together as a school, as a class, in small groups, one -on-one and individually) should be engaged in frequently in order to strengthen and nurture the student’s ability to know and do the good, accept responsibility for the wrong, ask forgiveness of the injured, and make take positive steps toward personal improvement. The goal is to build women and men who will allow themselves to be spoken to by others, who are willing to examine their words and actions and the effect these have on others, and who will, when warranted, make changes in their attitude and behavior in order to do what is just and good,and honor the dignity of others.

All of this takes a lot of time and focused attention on the part of the teachers, the principal and the pastor. But this is precisely what makes successful Catholic schools utterly unique, and well worth paying for. Successful Catholic schools form character and train moral leaders.

The Eighth Principle:
Parental Presence in the School
is Actively Encouraged and Warmly Welcomed

Parents who are present and involved in volunteer roles during the day and after school are
a huge asset to a Catholic school. We are convinced: the more, the better! Their presence supports a disciplined and orderly environment among the students. No parent, other than those trained and placed in a supervisory position, takes a direct role in disciplining a student (even their own child); yet the fact that students see their parent or the parents of their friends moving about the building during the day performing various tasks for the faculty and administration, reinforces an understanding on their part that school is not a place to escape observation by adults. In fact, just the opposite! What one parent sees going on might well be related to another parent in a phone call after school or the next time they bump into one another at a school event. The students come to assume that the parents are collectively “in the know” about what goes on at school. This is a big plus not only for order in the school but for the parents. It gives them not only a knowledge of what goes on in the environment in which their child spends their day, but also the opportunity to see teachers in action. This, in turn, reinforces their respect for teachers as professionals. The administrators must take care to articulate carefully the role of a volunteer in the school environment. This takes some effort and reinforcement, but the investment of time and effort pay big dividends in a parent volunteer’s growing understanding and confidence in what takes place in their child’s day at school, not to mention the whole host of tasks and services they perform.

The Ninth Principle:
A Style of Administration Open to Employing Talent

Among those in the large parent pool who we welcome to be present in the school and contribute to the multitude of tasks that need to be done during the day are individuals with professional expertise and particular gifts for organization. We are always on the look out to identify them and invite them into a more structured level of partnership in the administration of the school and its programming. We offer them a modest stipend of varying amounts to perform the following valued functions: Athletic Director, Volunteer Coordinator, Newsletter Coordinator, Recess Supervision Coordinator, Marketing Coordinator, Scrip Coordinator, Library Coordinator, Habitat Coordinator, Hot Lunch Coordinator, and Virtus Coordinator. Establishing this level of administrative support has dramatically increased what we have been able to do with our resources of people, material and funds. It has permitted us to move forward to advanced levels of programming and operational excellence.

The Tenth Principle:
Decisions Are Made in an Open Forum, with an Invitation for All to Contribute,
and in a Process of Careful Deliberation

Long Range (Five to Seven Years) Planning is essential. Fundamental to successful Long Range Planning is a well crafted and carefully conducted survey of perceptions and concerns
in which all the partners are surveyed: pastor, principal, faculty, staff, parents, students, and often other member s o f the parish community. If done right, this yields a List of Thematic Concerns (frequently mentioned or significant concerns expressed in the survey). The list should be of manageable length and should be carefully reviewed once a year by the administrators, the faculty, and the Education Commission. This keeps the school “tight” to the real concerns of its partners, garnered not from this or that person’s opinion, but through an orderly process of gathering constructive perceptions from everyone. This builds confidence in the partners that their needs and concerns are heard, noted in a public forum and, if merited, are appropriately addressed. It defeats the perception that only a few influential individuals or an “inside group” are listened to, or decide what gets done.

Decisions to undertake new initiatives or make changes in procedures are never simply announced. If new initiatives or substantive changes come into view, the faculty, parents,
and parishioners are informed of what is being considered, and provided a time and a place
to become more informed, ask questions and get involved. Once “What we are thinking about” becomes “what we propose to do,” the proposal is published for the faculty, parents and parishioners to see, and a time and place are provided for them to respond of ask questions. Only then is a final decision made and announced. Yes, this takes a lot of time and effort. Yes, it probably could be done in far less time by a small group of the “right” people working together. But people do not like surprise decisions that, to their perception, appear to “pop out of nowhere.” Such decisions reinforce in their mind that some people are “on the in” and some people are “on the out” when it comes to deciding what is done and how it is done. Suspicion is seeded and resentment spreads. What is also lost is the broad understanding and consensus that is built over a carefully managed process of open decision making. We have found that at the end of our process, almost everyone is “on board” with what needs to be done, and even with how to go about getting it done. Even those who in the end might not particularly like the way it’s going to get done, get behind it anyway because it is clearly seen that this is what needs to be done and what people want to do. There is no price you can put on the trust and good will you have gained.

We bless God for what we have learned on this amazing adventure called The Making of Saint Thomas School. At the same time, we have much yet to discover and learn. We will discover it and learn it together! – and this too will be an enduring blessing to us.