Leading with Mission: What Makes A Catholic School Catholic?

Written by Karen Barreras, Director of Leadership Engagement, NCEA, [email protected]

How Would a Visitor Know This is a Catholic School?

As a new Catholic school principal, I faced a pointed question from a member of the parish council: “Why is there a kid in a turban in our Catholic school?” Taking a moment, I replied, “I think it’s a great opportunity for evangelization, don’t you?” 

Moving forward as a Catholic school superintendent, a newly appointed principal with a public-school background marveled at our school’s positive culture, saying, “I feel like I’m in Heaven.” I responded to emphasize the role of faith and education in crafting our unique Catholic school environment.

As Catholic school educators, our primary purpose is to serve God and our school’s mission. Despite shifts in the percentage of Catholic students, our commitment remains unwavering: we are Catholic schools first. According to the 2022-2023 Catholic Databook, 22 percent of our students follow other faiths. Nonetheless, these parents chose our Catholic schools, fully aware that their child will engage in our school’s Catholic environment.

The National Standards and Benchmarks for Excellent Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (NSBECS) emphasizes Mission and Catholic Identity as the first of the four Domains. For an exceptional Catholic school, Mission and Catholic Identity serve as the foundation for Governance, Academic Excellence and Operational Vitality. These aspects cannot thrive without a continual tie to Mission and Catholic Identity.

What defines Mission and Catholic Identity? It is more than merely crosses on walls! It is deeply ingrained in Catholic education, represented by four fundamental standards within this Domain.

Standard 1 

An excellent Catholic school is driven and guided by a clearly communicated mission that embraces a Catholic identity that includes gospel values, a focus on the Eucharist, and a commitment to communal faith formation, academic excellence, missionary discipleship, and service. 

Standard 2 

An excellent Catholic school adhering to mission provides an exemplary academic program for religious education and catechesis in the Catholic faith, set within a total academic curriculum that integrates faith, culture, and life. 

Standard 3 

An excellent Catholic school adhering to mission provides opportunities both within and outside the classroom for Christ-centered student faith formation, participation in liturgical and communal prayer, and action in service of missionary discipleship and social justice. 

Standard 4 

An excellent Catholic school adhering to mission provides opportunities for Christ-centered adult faith formation and action in service of missionary discipleship and social justice. 

As a visitor to a Catholic school, one might be able to observe: 

  • classrooms have prayer spaces,
  • Bibles,
  • there is respect for Church authority,
  • there is evidence of the liturgical year,
  • the school has religion or theology classes,
  • Catholicity is infused throughout curricular areas,
  • Catholic values are evident in interactions,
  • behavior is monitored in a way that reflects Catholic values, dignity and mutual respect, and
  • students pray during the day and attend Mass regularly.

It might be more insightful to inquire of Catholic school students, regardless of their age, “How would someone recognize this as a Catholic school?” The responses from students of various backgrounds often surprise teachers, administrators and parents alike. Capturing these observations during Catholic Schools Week or any time can be enlightening.

In a conversation with a student many years ago, a third-grader’s statement stood out: “We must love (insert name here) even though he is a (insert religion here).” I admired this third-grader’s ability to put “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” into practice. I would say, he understood Mission and Catholic Identity very well, too.