To Whom Shall We Go?

Are they worth it?

That’s the looming question we often hear about our Catholic schools, elementary and secondary.

Even many fans of our schools, who support and promote them, are at times tempted to sigh and wonder, “Yes, we know they educate more effectively, catechize better, and form character well, but . . . given their heavy financial weight, are they worth it?”

Last Friday I spent a good chunk of the day at one of our stellar Catholic secondary schools, Kennedy Catholic High in Somers, Westchester County.

As I drove in, I admired the magnificent campus, with a new football field described as the best in the area.  I would later hear of their competitive baseball, track, basketball, football, and hockey teams.  The building itself has won architectural awards for its eco-friendliness, and the school rightly boasts that it was dedicated by none other than Jacqueline Kennedy, only a few years after her husband’s assassination, and Cardinal Francis Spellman.

At the door to greet me was the chair of the board of the school, Mr. Joseph Costello, his wife, and devoted members of the board.  Each of our archdiocesan high schools (there are other private Catholic high schools, mostly governed by religious orders, which, while wonderfully Catholic, are not considered “archdiocesan”), is now juridically governed not by the archdiocese, but by independent boards, in line with the principle of subsidiarity, so revered in Catholic social thought, that the “closer to home” the administration of any institution is, the better it is.

Mr. Costello, and the school’s respected principal, Father Mark Vaillancourt, told me good news:  the freshman class was the largest in years, and the enrollment for the entire school was up.  The school had finished last year financially in the black, because of creative marketing, strong board leadership, vigorous parental involvement, and support from the parish priests of the area, most of whom were all there for the visit.

Then into the door.  (No security detectors or guards, by the way).  There to greet me were smiling, courteous student leaders, obviously excited about their school, all so spiffy, boys in dress shirt and tie, girls in school uniform.

And there was another Person there: Jesus, the Teacher.  There was His prominent picture, dominating the entrance foyer, with the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in Thee” underneath; there He was on His cross; there He was as an infant in the arms of His blessed Mother, whose statue was prominent; there He was, really and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, in the chapel in the entrance foyer, where Mass is offered daily by Father Mark Vaillancourt or the newly appointed Chaplain, Father Matthew Newcomb, (If I can find two other priests named “John” and “Luke” to go there, I’ll send them!) who described for me the retreat program, opportunities for apostolic service projects, and ample availability of the sacrament of penance for the nearly six-hundred students.

On to many of the classrooms.  Father Mark Vaillancourt told me of the school’s soaring SAT scores, and that every graduating senior last year went on to college, with the class earning over $12,000,000 in scholarships.  No wonder Kennedy has such a high academic reputation!  The classrooms were clean, bright, technologically up-to-date, with teachers eager to tell me of their courses, and students who were quiet, orderly, and rose to their feet out of respect when we entered.  The library and labs looked state-of-the-art.

One of the rooms I entered was in the  midst of religious class.  There on the board were words like “monotheism,” “the one true God of Abraham,” “Judaism, Christianity, Islam,” “all God’s children,” lessons which sure seemed timely and welcome today.  The Bible, the Catechism, the crucifix, the American flag were prominent.

Sister Mary Christopher, a Sister of the Divine Compassion, the religious order which has been a cherished part of this school from the start, told me how each day began with a communal prayer for the entire school.

I was fascinated by the demanding science programs, math classes, (two areas not my favorite), and showed more interest, I must admit, in the history syllabus, writing and grammar courses, and programs of fine arts and drama.  A solid, classical education!

Then onto Mass: the students read, sang, and prayed.  Their attentiveness and reverence, the warmth of their welcome, were inspirational!  At the conclusion of the Mass, the students asked me to bless the football for next day’s opening game (Kennedy won, by the way!) and gave me a team jacket (which I wore Sunday when I blessed the new Giants Stadium — and they won, too!).

Afterwards I visited with the board, faculty, parents, and — very enjoyably — a group of representative students.  Their pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm for Kennedy Catholic High School was contagious!

One of them told me that, earlier, there had been trouble with — pardon me for bringing up a delicate topic — the plant’s septic tank!  Father Mark Vaillancourt, you need to know, happens to have his doctorate in engineering.  So, down he goes, in the “bowels” of the tank, to fix the problem!  Talk about dedication!

For him — and, so clearly, for his faculty, parents, brother priests, board, alumni, and, most importantly, for his students — there’s only one answer to the question, “Are they worth it?”

A ringing yes!

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11 Responses to “To Whom Shall We Go?”

  1. george earle says:

    ”””ARE THEY WORTH IT””””””

  2. Nadine Chiffriller says:

    I have 12 years of Catholic School education by the dedicated Sister of Charity and can attest to the value of this education in my life. In addition to my parents and grandmothers, the sisters and dedicated and hard working lay faculty have made me the woman I am today.

  3. SR says:

    I am not a Christian, but I went to a Catholic school in India for 10 years. The religious component of our education was Moral Science – that taught values common to all religions. I did not have to participate in a mass or say Christian prayers. The science curriculum was secular. My daughter now goes to an independent private school in North Carolina. I would gladly choose a Catholic school for my daughter because of the values like respect, discipline, high expectations for excellence, ethics and morality that encompass Catholic education. But I need to know that there is no forcible religious indoctrination and that Science education is secular. There are so many first generation educated immigrants like me who would not hesitate to pay the full tuition for a good educational alternative to public schools. We are secular or liberal in politics, but conservative on how we raise our children so they embody the best of both our family’s and the community’s cultural values. Would the Archdiocese make efforts to include families like mine?

  4. Irene says:

    Hi SR- You should check with the local Catholic school in your neighborhood to get the specifics on the curriculum. In my daughters’ school, non-Catholics are welcome, but the school is very upfront that all students- not just the Catholics- are expected to attend religion classes. And, a few times a year, the school as a group has Mass during school hours; all students are expected to attend. Regarding science, the science curriculum is the same as that of the public schools. They don’t teach creationism or intelligent design in the science classes, if that is your question.

  5. Colin C. says:

    Mmmm, but what percentage of students at Kennedy Catholic High take their Catholic faith seriously? What percentage go to Mass every Sunday? Surely this is the test that determines whether or not it’s worth having these schools under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. Archbishop Dolan mentions many positives about Kennedy Catholic High, but do these exist because the school is Catholic or because the school is privately run? It seems to me many a non-Catholic private school can achieve the same positives that Kennedy Catholic High achieves. If Kennedy Catholic High didn’t exist the void would be filled by another private education provider.

  6. Mary says:

    Colin C. reminds me that I stopped giving to my educationally excellent Catholic high school alma mater several years ago. Too much emphasis is on what appears to be multicultural secularism and not enough on Catholicism and the Body of Christ. Are the students required to study the catechism? Are they prepared to go into the adult world with a clear understanding of the truth of marriage between a man and a woman? Are they thoroughly pro-life? Do they even believe in sin? Are the sacraments the most important asset they can use to face our godless society? Just looking at the school’s website, I don’t think so.

  7. Martha says:

    I noticed you said it was a classical education, something that I agree is so desperately needed in our society. I was wondering if you had heard of The Montfort Academy, which seems to be a private school in your diocese. They have, as far as I can tell, a real classical education, including grammar, logic, rhetoric, debate, Latin, Greek, astronomy, etc. And they seem very orthodox, too, which is not so easy to find these days. The entire school attends mass once a week; I don’t think any Catholic high school around here does that! One more bright spot of hope for our youth?

  8. Irene says:

    @Colin C. Here in the Bronx, private schools can perhaps do what the Catholic schools do, but at seven times the cost. Tuition in my daughters’ parochial school runs about $5,000 per child. The three independent schools in the community charge $36,000 per child in the lower grades, more in the upper.

    Our local public elementary school is considered one of the best in the district; the parish school substantially outperforms that school in the state standardized tests. I believe the NYC public schools spend about $17,000 per child in general education spending (More than 3 times what our parochial school spends per student).

    Here in NYC, some public school proponents try very hard to downplay the success of Catholic schools. (The Catholic schools \cream\, is the most common charge). I think those folks are doing a real disservice to our schoolchildren. Instead of trying so hard to make a case against Catholic schools, they should rather figure out what makes Catholic schools so effective, and try and replicate that in the public school system.

  9. Mark A. says:

    As a student and graduate of Kennedy Catholic I can honestly say that Kennedy Catholic is by far the best Catholic HS in the area. Each year the students are required to take a theology course, of which they refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. All teachers KCHS always remind their students that “this is a Catholic school and we believe in what the church teaches or we wouldn’t be here.” The school doesn’t force out outsiders to the faith and welcomes all faith backgrounds. Students honestly feel welcome and at home, and I believe thats why we all excel and form a true family in Christ.

  10. Mary says:

    I think the Catholic schools ought to be radically Catholic. Revolutionary. Daily mass required for each class once a week; start the day with the office; Angelus at noon; and attention to devotions, prayer, etc.

  11. Ralph says:

    God Bless You Sister Christopher! You are still there!

    You were such a strong presence 25-30 years ago when my siblings and I attended JFK (the present name, Kennedy Catholic, was a fitting change.)

    How I saw you then was as a tough but fair teacher and administrator; to defy Sr. Christopher was understood by all to be a foolish thing, because we knew, without doubt, justice would be meted out. There was never a question of where you stood – you stood for what was right. Even the most rebellious of students (some of whom were in my family) understood you had their best interest at heart. And you brought out the best in us, works in progress that we all are.

    Looking back on those memories, now I see the strong, silent enormous reserve of faith you shared with us and that you are still sharing all these years later. What a model you provide!

    What we did with the gifts you and others shared with us after leaving Kennedy is our responsibility. After a time, I rejected them … and for many years. That was my will at work, no one else’s, and not a product of my Kennedy education. Thankfully, God saw fit to give me another chance, and when He finally got my attention again, a word on the board in the Kennedy classroom 20+ years before came vividly back to me as if it was yesterday. The word on the board in that unforgettable lesson was “metanoia”. (Thank you.)