Catholic Schools: Where Faith and Learning Meet


"Itís a very, very prestigious honor to receive the Blue Ribbon award," says Marilyn Valatka, principal of St. Timothy School in Chantilly, Va. "Five percent of schools in the United States are Catholic schools. Twelve percent of the total number of schools in the U.S. that received the Blue Ribbon award this year were Catholic schools. Thatís pretty good."

On Lois Scrivenerís first day as principal at Holy Name School of Jesus in Indialantic, Fla., 10 years ago, school officials presented her with a long metal rod.

"I thought, ĎWhat on earth is this for?í" Scrivener recounts.

She soon learned what her new duties would entail when she received a call that a 4-foot diamondback rattlesnake had been seen near the kindergarten classroom.

"I use the rod to pin the rattlesnake to the ground until someone from maintenance can remove it," says Scrivener, who estimates that she uses the rod on rattlesnakes six to eight times a year at the elementary school near the Atlantic Ocean, which has 575 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

"I have a snake phobia," says Scrivener, who is originally from New York. "But if it comes down to me or the kids, the kids always come first."

Such selflessness was among the attributes that earned Scrivener a Distinguished Principal Award from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. That same attribute ó displayed by parents, teachers and staff ó also prompted the Department of Education to recognize Holy Name of Jesus School as a 2001 Blue Ribbon School. It was one of 30 Catholic elementary schools to be named out of 264 public and parochial schools nationwide.

The government instituted the Blue Ribbon Schools program in 1982 to stimulate school improvement. The application process allows schools to identify and reflect on ways to make schools safer, and better academically and socially. The awards are given annually in alternating years to U.S. elementary schools or high schools that apply and satisfy various criteria.

Strong parental involvement, challenging standards and curriculum, high levels of student performance, as well as school, family and community partnerships, educational leadership, and active teaching and learning are among the criteria the Department of Education considers when selecting Blue Ribbon School award recipients.

School administrators were notified of the awards in May and formally presented with them last fall in Washington, D.C., during two days of speeches, meetings and other events culminating in a surprise visit from first lady Laura Bush.

"Itís a very, very prestigious honor to receive the Blue Ribbon award," says Marilyn Valatka, principal of St. Timothy School in Chantilly, Va. "Five percent of schools in the United States are Catholic schools. Twelve percent of the total number of schools in the U.S. that received the Blue Ribbon award this year were Catholic schools. Thatís pretty good."

Although some schools have already celebrated their Blue Ribbon achievement with cookouts, prayer services and in one case a bratwurst lunch, others recipients such as Holy Family School in New Albany, Ind., are delaying a parish and schoolwide celebration until Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 27-Feb. 3. The theme of this yearís celebration is "Catholic Schools: Where Faith and Knowledge Meet."

Promoting Catholic Education

Catholic Schools Week, which became an annual event in 1974, is a national celebration of the important role Catholic elementary and secondary schools across the United States play in providing values-added education for young people. This yearís theme is "Where Faith and Knowledge Meet."

Robert Kealey, executive director of the Elementary Schools Department at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), says that the Blue Ribbon award winners are representative of the strength and excellence of Catholic elementary schools throughout the United States.

"Itís important that people recognize that Catholic schools do provide a quality education and that this education is being provided in both suburban and urban areas," Kealey says.

St. Ann School in West Palm Beach, Fla., is one example of an urban school that overcame many obstacles to achieve Blue Ribbon status. "The Blue Ribbon program closely looks to see if you have met the needs of each childís ability to learn and excel," says Candace Tamposi, principal of St. Ann School. "The first time we applied we saw that we could improve...and we really made some changes."

For St. Ann, the oldest school in the Palm Beach Diocese, changes included making school entrances, all of which had 10 to 30 steps, more accessible to persons with disabilities. Closed-circuit TV monitors were added so that a child with disability in the cafeteria could watch a performance on the schoolís third floor.

Parents, students and community members along with the local Knights of Columbus also helped raise $3 million for the construction of a performing arts center, scheduled to open in 2003.

These changes turned the inner-city pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school from one that was on the verge of closing in the late 1980s into one which is now expanding and doubling classrooms, Tamposi says.

"Itís a wonderful achievement for this community," she says. "The children were the most involved and excited about this. They got the sense that if we were to receive this award, it would not just be for the school but for ourselves. They would graduate from a school with a top-quality reputation and leave a legacy for their brothers and sisters that come after them."

Faith is the Foundation

But itís not just award-winning curricula or new buildings that make a school a winner. Many teachers, parents and administrators believe the Catholic faith plays a key role in achieving Blue Ribbon status.

"Being a Catholic school certainly gives us a built-in focus and a built-in center," says Jerry Ernstberger, principal of Holy Family School in New Albany.

At Sacred Heart School in West Des Moines, Iowa, visitors are reminded of the schoolís religious mission every time they enter. Principal Anita Westerhaus proudly repeated the schoolís motto, printed above the front door: "Be it known to all who enter here, that Christ is the reason for this school. He is the unseen but ever present teacher in its classes. He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students."

"Each school needs a vision and our faith helps us to achieve that," she adds.

An important criterion Blue Ribbon Schools must fulfill is that the curriculum meets the needs of each child. Many educators say they also consider this a natural outgrowth of a schoolís Catholic mission.

"Catholic schools really do try to see that every student succeeds, knowing that each child encounters different obstacles and talents, through forgiveness, cooperation, effort and faith," Ernstberger says.

Valatka agrees. "Every Catholic child has a right to a Catholic education," is her philosophy. "I donít think itís just or honest to send a child to a public school because we canít provide for his or her needs," she says, noting that the school has recently added several positions to help learning-disabled students.

Sacred Heart School in West Des Moines did the same. Jane Kinney, student support coordinator and teacher, recognized the need to include a program for children with learning disabilities after many parents complained that a lack of resources was forcing them to send their children to a tutor or to the public schools for remedial help.

Kinney, whose children Michael and Matthew attend the school, says the fact that Catholic school teachers are willing to spend extra time attending meetings to improve curriculum, while earning salaries far less than their public school counterparts, shows that they believe in the Catholic schoolís mission.

"People have faith in doing what weíve been called to do," Kinney says. The cooperation of parents and community is also essential to helping Catholic schools achieve their mission of living out the example of Christ.

Importance of Parents

Administrators, parents and teachers also cited parental involvement as a key element in garnering the Blue Ribbon honor. Parental commitment is abundantly evident at Holy Name of Jesus School. Scrivenerís report at the award ceremony that mothers and fathers volunteered a total of 11,000 hours on various school projects last year drew gasps of surprise from the audience.

Parental involvement at St. Timothy School in Chantilly, Va., resulted in the construction of a $5,000 pond in the schoolís courtyard. The pond, procured through a grant by a studentís father who is a landscaper, will be stocked with fish and used in science classes.

Strong community involvement is another element that administrators, parents and teachers say characterizes Catholic schools and Blue Ribbon winners. Such involvement is easy for Catholic schools to achieve, according to Shirley Loesch, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes in Vancouver, Wash.

"Thatís just naturally what weíre all about," Loesch says, noting that numerous volunteers are found at the school every day, helping in the kitchen, the library and in running afterschool sports programs.

Michelle Chiappetta, president of the Home and School Association at St. Francis Xavier, one of three Blue Ribbon Schools in Metairie, La., says intangible qualities such as the teacherís concern for the students and parentsí generosity are what make the school a winner.

During the site evaluatorís visit, the school was in disarray due to construction of a two-story addition. The fact that the school won despite its physical condition confirms for Chiappetta that "spiritual qualities run through the building."

"It validates what I believe the schoolís philosophy has been since I sent my child there," says Chiappetta, whose sons Vincent, 7, and Nicholas, 5, attend St. Francis Xavier. "It confirms for me as a parent the schoolís academic excellence and nurturing environment."

Parents and principals at the Blue Ribbon Schools are not the only ones who notice the concern and kindness shown on the part of parents, teachers and staff.

Kenny Kerrigan, 13, president of the Junior National Honor Society at St. Timothy School, also noted these qualities in a letter he wrote welcoming members of the evaluating team.

"I have attended St. Timothy School for nine years and I have seen many things that go on in this school," Kerrigan wrote. "The most noticeable thing that goes on in this school is the love between the students and teachers and staff."

Such qualities are not limited to Blue Ribbon Schools. The NCEA believes that Catholic schools across the nation share similar values.

"Parents clamor to enroll their children in Catholic schools because they provide the enduring values of safety, concern, compassion and love of learning," states a handbook published by the NCEA for Catholic Schools Week.

"Many have come to realize that the basic values that have always been held close in Catholic schools ó respect for God, for country, for self and for each other ó are values that the citizenry at large is demanding," the NCEA says in a statement. "Amid all of the government talk about faith-based initiatives, Catholic schools stand as a reminder that faith and knowledge have been part of the equation since the founding of Catholic schools."


Mary Zurolo "Where Faith and Learning Meet." Columbia (February 2002).

Reprinted with permission from Columbia Magazine. All rights reserved.


Mary Zurolo is a freelance writer from Hamden, Conn.

Copyright © 2002 Columbia

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