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“Start Out Right”: A celebration of National Catholic Schools Week

By Sister Rosemarie Nassif, SSND, Ph.D., February 2, 2016

In observance of National Catholic Schools Week, Sister Rosemarie Nassif, Director of the Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative, discusses the three “w’s” that are essential in delivering the promise of Catholic education and the current defining moment of Catholic Schools.

Conrad Hilton’s mother, a devout Catholic, wanted her son to “start out right” and so she insisted that he attend a Catholic school for religious instruction in nearby Socorro, New Mexico, where he was taught by the Sisters of Loretto. During Conrad’s free time, he would visit the Loretto Convent and help with chores, thus beginning a long and profound respect and love for Catholic sisters. His experiences in Catholic schools and with sisters influenced his formation as a successful entrepreneur and as an extremely generous philanthropist.

The number of students enrolled in Catholic schools in Conrad’s day was about 2 million, which is about the same number as there are today. However, since Conrad’s day, enrollment grew to a peak of 5.6 million in 1965, and then began to decline. The cause of this decline has many facets, including the decrease in the number of sisters. Although there are significantly fewer sisters teaching in Catholic schools today, the promise of Catholic education remains the same—educating all students to the fullness of their potential and assisting them to use their gifts in advancing humankind.

What are the ingredients of that promise that matter in our Catholic schools? We know the traditional three “r’s”—reading, writing and arithmetic—matter. I believe there are three “w’s” that are essential in delivering the promise of Catholic education:

  1. The first “w” is “worth.” Every student needs to believe that he or she is worthy – worthy of our time, our interest; worthy of our belief in them; worthy of all that we desire for each of them; of our highest expectations. They need to know that their communities, their world needs the fullness of their worth. Many students may not get that message from their families or from their communities. However, without that sense of “worth” education is powerless.

  2. The second “w” is “will.” We all know that it’s not always the smartest students who achieve the most. The will, discipline, courage to achieve is essential. Will incorporates a resilience to overcome obstacles, not just learning obstacles, but life obstacles. The ability to recover from poor grades and resolve to do better next time; resist the urge to go out with friends and stay home to study; recover from unhappy breakups or fights with parents. The will to achieve is so critical for our students, and the resilience to overcome obstacles and challenges that cross their paths are essential to their success.

  3. My third “w” is “wonder”—belief in the promise, belief in the more; a curiosity that is fed by an optimism of all that is possible, for them personally and for all those whose lives they seek to positively impact. Wonder nurtures intrigue about learning the next level, conquering the next hurdle and envisioning the next goal. Wonder feeds dreams and unleashes the imagination with all that the world can become and all that they can contribute to advancing the lives of others.

Worth, will and wonder. When the three “w’s” are integrated with the three “r’s”, the promise of Catholic Education becomes a reality. The three “w’s” are most readily learned through the culture of the school more than through a curricular intervention.

A Defining Moment

This week, January 31 to February 6, is National Catholic Schools Week. Our Catholic schools are currently at a defining moment. Shifting demographics in terms of Catholic populations, rising costs, ineffective school governance systems, and an increasingly competitive schools landscape have placed enormous burdens and challenges on our Catholic schools. Their vitality and, for many, even their viability is threatened. We as a nation need our Catholic schools—not because there are no other educational opportunities to learn the three r’s, but rather because we need, more than ever, graduates who are instilled with the three “w’s”.

There is a growing realization among the philanthropic community that complex problems cannot be solved when operating alone and that collaboration among funders and across sectors is essential. Recently, foundations and donors committed to the vitality of the Los Angeles Catholic schools formed a collaborative with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Department of Catholic schools. One of the products of this collaborative is the development of a Funders Snapshot of academic and financial indicators for each school that helps identify its vitality and its opportunities for growth. This “snapshot” provides a platform for funders and educational leaders to work together with valuable data that monitors the progress of their partnership.

Moreover, this past week, the Hilton Foundation co-hosted with the Specialty Family Foundation a convening of national funders committed to Catholic education. The Philanthropy Roundtable, a leading network of donors and philanthropists, sponsored the event. Presenters included key representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Education Association. Open, honest and energetic conversations moved to action with a commitment to work together on a national level.

Defining moments become moments of hope when everyone understands that collaborative relationships and action are essential. Our most critical charge during this National Catholic Schools Week is to unite our wonder in re-imagining our Catholic schools and utilizing our collective will to assure their worth has a vibrant future. All parents should have the opportunity for their children to “start out right,” just like Conrad’s mother had for her son.

Former Senior Advisor on Catholic Sisters and Faith-Based Activities

Former Senior Advisor on Catholic Sisters and Faith-Based Activities

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