Sowing the Seeds of Academic Excellence

The following blog was contributed by Tina Moore, vice principal and middle school religion teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Charleston, SC. She has taught in Catholic schools for 20 years, with 16 at BSCS. Tina’s passions are God, family and walking with young people in their journey to Christ.

Listen, understand with your heart, and produce good fruit. This is the message of Jesus from the parable of the The Sower (Matthew 13). The Sower scattered seeds, symbolizing The Word of God, in four places: on a path, on rocky ground, among thorns and in fertile soil. This parable could be useful in considering the environments in our Catholic schools. In his homily, my priest shared that the seeds that fall on the path and are snatched by birds  are the times when we refuse to listen for understanding; the rocky ground likened to hearing with our heads but not allowing it to take root in our hearts; and the thorns a symbol of hearing the message and believing but not transforming into action. 

The rich soil, however, is a setting where authentic sharing of ideas is an intentional part of the culture—and precisely the kind of environment learners, both student and adult, need as our new school year approaches.  Fertile soil lies in forming a school culture to build relationship, community with others (adult and young person) in order to build up the person, our Church, and the world. A proven way to create an environment of collegiality in our Catholic schools is through adult collaboration: adults in the school being open to one another through professional learning communities, with their students and families being at the heart of all they do, working side by side to see the mission accomplished.

In seeking academic excellence at your school, research shows that we produce good fruit when the adults establish and share a vision for the school. In between all of the planning of schedules, safety precautions, and parent communication, we must know with clarity and strength of what we envision academic excellence will look like, sound like, and feel like. Professional development aimed toward growing that vision through teacher collaboration pushes your school forward in the midst of uncertainty. Teaching tends to be isolative in nature; combatting that isolation with regular opportunities for adult learning springboards your school toward collegiality.

As Jesus sums up the explanation of the parable in Matthew 13:23, “But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Fostering a culture in which faculty and staff are geared toward bettering their craft while enhancing their students’ lives is fertile soil. To that end, in today’s environment, seek ways for your faculty and students to connect and build. Being a flexible, adaptable community will get us through the year we have ahead of us. Ask yourself, “How can I build a culture of collaboration and collegiality? What does the Sower want me to sow in my encounters with others today?”

We Are Made for Each Other

Two friends from St. Athanasius, before COVID-19.

The following blog was contributed by Christian Dallavis, Assistant Superintendent for Partnership Schools in New York, NY. Reprinted with permission.

“Are we going back?”

“What will it look like?”

School leaders are hearing these questions every day at the start of July 2020, and they are anxious to answer them.

Soon, every school in America will find a way to make logistical accommodations to operate this fall. Some schools, dioceses, and districts have already published their plans. All of these plans tell families how schools will go back to school during this unusual year.

Few explain why these measures will be taken.

In my experience, people are not likely to embrace a new how without understanding why.

Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl understood this dynamic when the stakes were the highest. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he explained that any attempt to restore hope among those living in fear must understand Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the Holocaust, but school-aged children in the south Bronx and elsewhere have experienced death in their homes to a degree that is not yet appreciated in the rest of the nation.

Take the “conversation” around masks, for example. Some Catholic school principals report that parents are threatening to withdraw their children if masks are required this fall. There is no unity in our community around why masks are important; the mask is just a how without a why. If you are a Catholic school leader who plans to require that kids wear masks, how do you respond? What belief informs your decision to do this?

Beliefs and Goals

First we must distinguish between beliefs and goals. Recognize, for example, that adopting protocols in order to comply with guidance from the  governor, mayor, CDC, diocese, or even Dr. Fauci himself does not constitute a belief. Compliance is a goal, not a belief. Similarly, “protecting the health and safety” of the community is a goal (more noble than compliance!), but still, not a belief, and not compelling to the parent who does not see the value of a mask.

Our root beliefs are the statements of conviction that inform our decisions, inspire our actions, and determine our goals. What do you believe that drives you to require masks? We may wear masks to comply with guidance and protect health—but what is it that we collectively believe that will compel all of us to wear them faithfully?

Too often our shared beliefs go unspoken. In reality, naming our root beliefs—shouting them from the rooftops, in fact—can be the most powerful way to unify our communities around the logistical norms that are aligned with those beliefs.

Catholic school leaders, you have an opportunity right now to anchor these critical decisions in your root beliefs. By putting your beliefs and mission in the headlines of your back to school plans for Fall 2020, you can lead with creed, build culture, and advance your mission. The logistics of your plan, and your community, will follow.

It might look something like this:

The Process

Starting right away, begin a series of regular updates to your community about back to school.

Connect with families every two weeks, on the same day, at the same time, via the same mode, like clockwork. Broadcast your message to current families and  also send a special message to new families—especially incoming kindergartners. If you haven’t communicated with them yet, you should not be surprised to find them shopping for another school. They do not yet know what you stand for, and in the absence of communication during a pandemic, they are getting anxious about sending you their babies.

The Message

You should be clear about the beliefs that are at the heart of the school community and which will be used to make decisions about your back-to-school plan. Tell them, for example, that your school is organized around a set of root beliefs that are at the core of our faith and our mission. They might include:

In this school community, we believe that we are made for each other.

We believe that we are better together, because we are a family; indeed, we are many parts of one Body of Christ.

We believe that we grow in our relationship with God by learning about God’s creation: the world, the people in it, and ourselves. We are always learning, and we believe that we learn better together.

These beliefs drive us to our shared purpose, which is our mission: to fan into a flame the gifts that God gave each of your children. We prepare your children to flourish, so they will be leaders in this life and saints in the next.

The Plan

Even if you don’t have a complete plan yet, share the beliefs that will inform your plan, what you are planning right now, and then prepare folks for your plan to change, as it will almost certainly change. If you do have a plan, be explicit about how each element is informed by a belief. You might say:

We learn better together. As of July 15, our plan is to return to school in the building, as we always do. The first day of class will be August 27. Our mission to ensure that your child flourishes compels us to take all necessary precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 within our community. Given the current public health conditions, these precautions may include wearing masks, distancing desks, having lunch in the classroom, or putting acrylic shields in some spaces. We will publish our plans related to these precautions via these regular updates. Please watch your email. Because we learn better together,  and we are confident that we can provide an excellent education in the faith while safeguarding each member of our community.

We are made for each other. This belief, and the latest scientific understanding of how the virus travels and infects individuals, will guide our decisions about which precautions to adopt. While children may not generally be sickened by the virus, they can carry and transmit it without symptoms. A student may carry it to school and transmit it to a classmate, who can bring it home and infect family members. While neither of these students may ever experience the illness, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members who live with our students who are susceptible to the disease may become seriously ill.

Our children and our community cannot flourish if the virus does. Our goal is to protect every member of our community by minimizing virus transmission from student to student at school. We will adopt precautions that are known to reduce the potential for virus transmission in our school community.

We are planning for a range of possible ways to educate your child this fall in order to ensure your children’s educational experience is as uninterrupted, rigorous, and rich as possible. If your children are unable to return to school in August, we will offer remote learning to ensure they continue to receive a Catholic education of the highest quality.

While we pray for a year of in-person instruction at school for all, if the public health situation in our community requires that we make use of a backup plan to protect your children and our team, we will not hesitate to do so, just as we did not hesitate to close the building in March.

We believe that we are made for each other. We love each one of you and each one of your children, and we are confident that we can provide an excellent education in the faith in each of these scenarios while safeguarding each member of our community. Just as Christ calls us to stop everything to protect one lost lamb from harm, we will do what it takes to take care of each other and we will be stronger for it.

We are always learning. In humility, we recognize that the public health situation may change rapidly between now and the start of school, just as it has since we last gathered in person in March. We also recognize that scientists are learning more about the virus and its spread, and the precautions we take will reflect both our learning and the current public health situation. Starting today, we will communicate with you every two weeks—more frequently if necessary—to ensure you are aware of our most current plans and any changes we make. We are always learning about the virus, its transmission, and our community’s vulnerability—and we will adjust our plans as needed to ensure each child flourishes.

In this time of deep uncertainty and fear, Catholic school leaders, you have an opportunity to unite your school communities around these beliefs we all share but do not say out loud often enough. When it is time to go back to school, every school in your neighborhood will have a logistical plan that explains how they will go back to school. Getting these logistics right is the work of crisis management. In the face of a fast-moving public health, economic, and social crisis outside your control, however, our communities need you to be transformational leaders.

What will it take to transform this moment of anxiety and division into one of strength and unity? It will not be a one-page pdf (or a 50-page slide deck) that explains that you will wear masks and social distance and disinfect sufficiently. Instead, it will be how you articulate why you do these things in your communities, how those beliefs are lived out in your actions, and, come August and September, how everyone in your community takes care of each other to ensure that every child flourishes.

The New Back to School Reality: A Masterclass on Bullying Prevention and Working with Parents

The following blog was contributed by Jodee Blanco, New York Times best-selling author and consultant.

We’ve never seen a back to school like this before.  We’ve also never had an opportunity like this before either.  Challenge and uncertainty, when met with faith, optimism, hope and resolve, can become blessed catalysts for growth and even unexpected joy.

If we approach this fall with a sense of adventure and focus our energy on how we can make this work instead of worrying about why we can’t, there is nothing that can stop us.  This coming school year more than ever, we need to set the tone for students and parents with unprecedented energy and positivity, not because we’re putting on a brave face, but because we know we got this.

Just imagine, we will be living history as it unfolds in real time! Think of the 20/21 academic year as an infinite teachable moment. As you’re finalizing your re-opening plans, remember, we’re all human. Some days will be bumpier than others. As long as everyone—students, parents, and the school–is on the same page about what’s really important, what might feel like a burden now, when we look back, may have been a gift in ways that we can’t yet see.

How does a school or diocese get everyone on that same page? How can teachers and administrators make the transition back to the classroom as comfortable as possible for students and encourage an environment of inclusion and tolerance amidst such dramatic change?  What strategies and techniques can schools implement to reassure every student that no matter what next semester holds, the school has their back?

Bullying is likely to take on some new forms, especially patterns of exclusionary, digital and cyber bullying.  How do you recognize and identify these behaviors early on, and what are some simple, practical tools for intervening with love, grace and truth?  What about bullying intervention in the virtual classroom? Where does the school’s responsibility end and the parent’s begin?

What specific communication policies and procedures can schools implement so that parents are working in partnership with the school and not counterintuitively, especially during periods of adjustment or sudden disruption?

I’ll be exploring the above and much more in my Masterclass series for the NCEA later this month entitled The New Back to School Reality: A Masterclass on Bullying Prevention and Working with Parents.

Let’s inspire new levels of creativity together and celebrate how we can transform dissonance into discovery.  I’m SO excited and honored to have been asked by the NCEA to do this series and hope that you’ll join me!


About the Author

Jodee Blanco is the author of four books on bullying, including the New York Times bestselling memoir, Please Stop Laughing at Me. She is also the author of the NCEA’s Anti-Bullying Survival Series. Jodee travels to schools, sharing her story to save lives, and has spoken to thousands of people worldwide. For more information on Jodee and her in-school anti-bullying program, please visit jodeeblanco.com/catholic-schools/.


Jodee’s Other Webinars on Bullying:

Jodee’s Publications with NCEA:

Focus your efforts: Identifying what matters most to close learning gaps for back-to-school student success

The following blog was contributed by Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance Learning, Inc.

Note: This is an excerpt from a blog series on using assessment data to address learning gaps during the 2020–2021 school year. To read the series, click here.

As you reflect on the many unknowns around Back-to-School, you may feel as if you’re facing another “first year of teaching”—but with one key difference. This time, you know exactly what to do. Identify the most critical skills for learning, and focus instruction there. But how do you know which skills are most critical?

The “backbone” of Renaissance Star Assessments is an empirically validated learning progression for reading and math. Our experts take each state’s educational standards and break them down into discrete, teachable skills, then organize them into the ideal teachable order, so educators can help students move along the pathway to greater mastery.

During this process, we identified a subset of skills that are fundamental to students’ development at each grade level—Focus Skills.

When you can easily identify the most critical skills, you know exactly where to focus instruction to move students forward. You also know the most critical skills from prior grades, which help determine what to review and—when needed—what to set aside. For BTS 2020, Focus Skills can become your “vital few,” with intense work on these skills producing the greatest returns in student learning.

So, where can you see Renaissance Focus Skills?

They’re highlighted on the Instructional Planning Report in Star Reading, Star Math, and Star Early Literacy. Teachers can generate the Instructional Planning Report at the class level to identify the “vital few” for core instruction. Likewise, teachers can create instructional groups based on students’ Star data and the report for each group. Finally, teachers may choose to run the report for individual students.

Additionally, you can see Focus Skills in the Renaissance Planner, which enables you to view more details about each skill (related academic vocabulary, prerequisites, state standards alignment, and grade-level domain expectations).

Educators who use Star have multiple options to access Focus Skills. But given the urgency around reversing COVID-19-related learning loss, we’re making the full list of Focus Skills available to all educators, parents, community members, and students in an interactive, engaging format.

We encourage you to explore the reading and math Focus Skills for your state and review the distribution of Focus Skills across grade levels. Equipped with this knowledge, you can reasonably infer the grade levels with the greatest potential for student learning loss, as determined by the number of Focus Skills. You can also use these lists to identify the most critical building blocks of learning for each grade, so you know where to focus your efforts for the greatest return in student growth.

Now that you know the power of Focus Skills and how to access them, we hope you see why these skills will be critical in the new school year—and the key role they can play in helping students make up lost ground resulting from this spring’s unexpected school closures.

We encourage you to explore the reading and math Focus Skills for your state and review the distribution of Focus Skills across grade levels. Equipped with this knowledge, you can reasonably infer the grade levels with the greatest potential for student learning loss, as determined by the number of Focus Skills. You can also use these lists to identify the most critical building blocks of learning for each grade, so you know where to focus your efforts for the greatest return in student growth.


About the Author

A third-generation educator, Dr. Gene M. Kerns was born with a passion for learning. Over the past two decades, he’s served as a public school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. Dr. Kerns earned a doctor of education in educational leadership from the University of Delaware as well as a master of science in secondary curriculum and instruction and a bachelor of arts in English education from Longwood University in Virginia.

Finding the Words

The following blog was contributed by Liz Ramos, principal of St. Michael – St. Gabriel Archangels Catholic Elementary School, Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

My heart is broken, and I wish I had answers. I wish I knew what to tell my parents when they ask what instruction will look like in the fall after ten weeks of remote learning. I wish I knew what to tell my teachers when they ask how to teach the idea of sharing in a Catholic school when suddenly they are told students cannot share classroom supplies for fear of spreading a virus. I wish I knew what to tell people when they ask whether or not they should begin leaving their homes to venture into a world filled with unknowns. Yes, these questions certainly have their place of importance, but right now, the question that I wish I knew how to answer is the one that will come when my students return to my building and ask why a man had to die in the hands of people they have been taught to trust.

Like many educators, we struggle with finding the right words to explain what happened during this unfathomable incident and so many other tragedies that occurred before this one, but our struggle to find the words is nothing compared to the injustices and oppression that so many within our society continue to face each day.

I often wonder if we, as educators, and more importantly as Catholic school educators, do enough to teach the concept of racism. In religion class, we teach our students to treat others with respect and dignity, but we often avoid discussing the consequences that could happen when we fail to do that, other than telling students that such actions will not lead one to Heaven. In history class, we teach about slavery and the Civil Rights movement, but often we quickly move on to the next topic, claiming there is so much other history to cover before the end of the year. Even in our language arts classes, when we could be discussing more modern pieces of literature that showcase the lives of people from various cultures, we turn to the “classics,” often written by Caucasian males about Caucasian families and lifestyles. Failing to teach about the importance of other cultures continues to leave the impression that one race is more important and that there is little room for those of color. We may not mean to do so, but that is the message we are sending our students when we do.

As individuals, we work hard to provide a safe and welcoming environment for our children so they can be afforded so many opportunities that may not have existed when we were their age, and yet, we find that there are obstacles that continue to prevent our society from progressing as a whole.  We must seek change and allow our students to share their own stories and their own struggles and actively listen to what they are saying to gain insight into what they are feeling. Many of our students are too young to have their voices heard, and so we must be the megaphone for their voices so that all children of God can be heard.  We also need to model what healthy dialogue is with all community members. While we may not always agree with what another person says, we need to welcome other voices to join the conversation so that even for a moment we are forced to think about our own ideas and values. We also need to continue to explain that people make mistakes – some graver than others – and that while forgiveness needs to be shown, it is not always easy to give, for healing wounds takes time.

While it may not always be comfortable, it is important for us, as educators, to teach our parents and our students about how to have these discussions about race and culture so that change can be made. Below is a list of books you may find helpful not only in having those conversations, but also in celebrating the lives of so many who have risen above the injustices they have faced. 

Book Titles

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, An anthology edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, by Duncan Tonatiuh

The Whispering Town, by Jennifer Elvgren

Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni

The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson

My Hair is a Garden, by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Something Happened in Our Town, by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard

That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice, by Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca

Serving God Through Serving Others

The following blog was contributed by Eileen Mostyn, a senior at the University of Notre Dame and summer intern for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

From the time I entered preschool at age three, up until now, as I prepare to begin my senior year of college, Catholic education has been a constant in my life. In fact, I’ve never known any other form of education. During that time, I have found that there are many features of Catholic education that don’t change much, no matter your grade level. There was a crucifix hanging in my kindergarten classroom, in my high school chemistry lab, and in my university lecture halls. I have been regularly attending Mass with classmates for eighteen years. Every school cafeteria and dining hall in which I’ve eaten has been meat-free on Fridays in Lent.

There is one particular thing that has been present in every level of my Catholic education, however, which I feel has made the greatest impact on the person I am today, and the person I will continue to grow to be: service. Throughout my life, I have been raised knowing the importance of serving others in everything that I do. All of my teachers and school administrators impressed upon my classmates and me the idea that if we wanted to be servants of God, we must first be servants to others. From food drives to visits to nursing homes, service has been central to every school community of which I’ve been a part.

Even now, in my upper-level economics classes, our professors encourage us to consider the results of our decisions. Is the economically efficient outcome always the best moral outcome? How do we make sound economic decisions, while also doing as much good as possible? There is a larger sense of responsibility in these questions than in the question of whether I could bring canned goods into school for the food drive, but the central question remains the same as it always was: how can I use what I have and what I know to serve other people? My Catholic education prepared me to be able to think carefully about these questions, and helped cultivate in me a desire to find the answers and live my life in service to others.

Through Catholic education, we are able to do so much more than just share knowledge with students; we are able to share values with them which will shape who they grow up to be. The values that were shared with me from the time I was three years old are certainly still with me. My elementary school’s motto is central to my belief system to this day: “Serving God Through Serving Others”. Importantly, I was not only exposed to these words, but to teachers, school leaders, priests and parents who truly lived them. I feel very fortunate to have been raised by and around so many people who were constantly striving to live their lives in service to others. Without their example, the words telling me the importance of service would have been meaningless.

The way we teach our children matters. As people involved in Catholic education, we have the very important, and very exciting, role of shaping the minds and hearts of tomorrow’s leaders. Catholic educators everywhere are doing the amazing work of showing children how they can live out this call to service. It is through the action of service, an action which is central to the mission of Catholic education, that we are able to teach our children how to be servants of God by being servants of others.

Authentic Identity in Catholic Education

The following blog was contributed by Emma Ladwig, a senior majoring in marketing at the University of Notre Dame and a summer intern with the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a common question, and one I have asked myself (and been asked) countless times. As a college student, I now hear it phrased differently, perhaps in questions like “what are your plans after graduation?” or “what jobs are you interviewing for?” or something else along those lines. No matter how it is asked, though, the crux of the inquiry is the same. The question is focused on what role I will play, what my title will be, and what responsibilities I will have.

This question of what we want to be is ever present in our conversations since early childhood—and it’s an important one. Our job and the responsibilities we have are often our means for providing for ourselves and contributing to the betterment of society. But I argue that there is another question, seldom asked and seldom answered, which is also important for us to ask ourselves and the youth with whom we work: who are you going to be when you grow up?

Beyond our titles and responsibilities, we are each called by name to be people who reflect Christ in our work. Whether we work as a CEO, school nurse, teacher, custodian, principal, secretary, superintendent or intern, our roles are what we do—not necessarily who we are. As a community that strives to cultivate minds and souls, our witness of living who we are called to be by God is essential. Ideally, our jobs should be extensions of our nature and purpose as sons and daughters, but fruitful membership in the body of Christ should always be our primary goal regardless of our occupations at any time.

As an intern at NCEA this summer, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing how employees across the association integrate their identity as Catholics with their roles within the workplace. Every morning, we begin with prayer to recall the importance of starting our day in the presence of God, realizing our entire lives and every part of the workday is ordained by Him and for the advancement of His kingdom on earth.

Throughout the rest of the day, I have the opportunity to learn from the people with whom I work. The individuals at NCEA have already taught me many lessons about what it means to be true to whom God has authentically created them to be, simply by working in accordance with the traits God gave them and the Christian identity that guides their lives. I have seen a servant leader who strives to listen and asks the important questions. I have experienced the joyful kindness of a long-time employee. I have learned from an incredibly knowledgeable individual who acts with humility and helpfulness. I have discovered nuances of the association because of a thoughtful coworker who followed up after working with me.

I don’t just work with directors, representatives, coordinators, and managers. I work with people of service, joy, humility, patience and peace. These differences may seem like small things, but living a Christian life is often about the small, silent things that pull hearts slowly and surely heavenward.

Though subtle, these small movements are not lost on students, and I posit that they are instrumental in creating an environment where children are reminded of the importance of using their distinct natures and qualities to glorify God. How wonderful would it be if they notice how a teacher has made them feel welcome and try to imitate that trait when a new child joins the class? How rewarding would it be if they witness their custodian’s positive attitude and think to emulate that when they work on a tough assignment? When we talk to children about their future, how wonderful would it be if they mention their desire to be saints, to be people of praise, and to be servants of their parish and community in addition to serving in various jobs or roles?

Although I doubt that the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” will change, I do have faith that Catholic education is asking the question, “who do you want to be when you grow up?” through the actions of school staff, parents, clergy and religious. As we seek to educate our children to be both citizens of our world and citizens of Heaven, then, it is our duty to continue walking in a way that fulfills the work God has prepared for each of us.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10 RSVCE

Sweet Spirit: Educating for Freedom in Catholic Schools

The following blog was contributed by Dr. Brandi Odom Lucas, principal, and Karen Chambers, director of campus ministry, at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles. Dr. O.L. earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from Loyola Marymount University. She is passionate about how faith and culture enhance education, is a mom of three amazing humans and a super fan of students, educators and gospel music. In addition to her role in campus ministry, Karen Chambers, M.Div. also teaches theology. She earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,
And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord;
There are sweet expressions on each face,
And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.

 The above lyrics are to the gospel song Sweet, Sweet Spirit by Doris Akers. It describes the feeling I have when I walk on my Catholic high school campus each day. Which is why it pains me to say what I am about to say.

There is racism at your (and my) school. Hard Stop.

It is lurking in your classrooms, your curriculum, your handbooks, your locker rooms, your faculty rooms, and even in your relationships.

It is sneaky and camouflaged in phrases like:

“It’s our tradition.”

“We’ve always taught it this way.”

“We can’t become political. We are just a school.”

“They (students) are hearing that from their parents. What can we do about it?”

It threatens to disarm you with beliefs like:

“If I say something the board will get upset.”

“That parent is a donor and we need them.”

“I am white. What can I do/say about it?”

And it gains strength through your denial which can sound like:

“This is an isolated event.”

“I know the student’s family…s/he’s a good boy. He didn’t mean it like that.”

“Racism doesn’t exist at my school.”

There is racism at your school. Your job, as educational leaders (administrators and teachers), is to measure it regularly and extinguish it immediately. Any racism occurring in an institution opened in the name of Jesus Christ, a Catholic institution, is an abomination of God.

From the very first chapter in Genesis we learn that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Scripture doesn’t say God created some people in God’s image. Scripture shows us that every human is made in the image of God, inherently has equal dignity, and that it is imperative to take action when that dignity is called into question. In 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter against racism entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts, The Enduring Call to Love,” in which they remind the faithful that, “Every racist act—every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin—is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God. In these and in many other such acts, the sin of racism persists in our lives, in our country, and in our world.” This sin of racism rejects the dignity of our Black brothers and sisters, and it works against the consistent ethic of life that Catholics believe vital to the faith. We deny God’s greatest gift to us – life – when we devalue the life of God’s children.

Catholic Social Teaching, which is based on Scripture and tradition, revolves around the central theme of “Life and Dignity of the Human Person.” The personal and social sin of racism violates the central theme of our moral and ethical foundation. Pope Francis recognized this when he stated in his general audience on June 3, 2020 (following the murder of George Floyd) that, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” However, simply “not being a racist” is not enough. When we stand by and watch it without taking action, we are complicit at best. The U.S. Bishops recognize this when they say, “Finally, too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered” (“Open Wide our Hearts”). To stand by and do nothing is a sin. Our faith calls us to be disciples of Christ who recognize the dignity of all people, who stand with those on the margins, and who fight for justice. If we are not taking action against the sin of racial injustice, we are failing in our Christian faith, we are missing the mark, we are sinning.

Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly Dove,
Stay right here with us, filling us with Your love.
And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise;
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

In the past, the tendency has been for us to designate spaces in our schools where Black students and students of color are comfortable to be themselves. Most times these spaces are found in the relationships with certain faculty members. And many times, those faculty members are also persons of color. Many schools have allowed these relationships to shoulder the sole responsibility of responding to, comforting and healing students who are facing racialized experiences in and outside our school. Recent responses from alumni of Catholic schools to “Black Lives Matter” social media posts indicate that those safe spaces are not enough to counter the trauma caused by unchecked racist practices in Catholic schools. Catholic schools must be the safe spaces for its Black students and students of color.

In order to become safe spaces for our students, Catholic schools must educate for freedom. This involves:

  • Showing commitment to shifting the consciousness of their faculty and staff. This is accomplished through challenging racial biases and residual white advantage at our schools.[1]
  • Affirming and acknowledging the identities, cultures, experiences and perspectives of their students of color.
  • Identifying, addressing and protecting all students against racialized experiences occurring within the institution especially in areas of curriculum, policy and stakeholder relationships.
  • Strengthening student’s ability to name their oppression and those of other marginalized communities using both theory and experience.

The result of the above commitments is a transformed student who is free to interact with and change their world. The schools that educate for freedom are better positioned to work alongside the student’s family and community to transform their self-concept and view of the world. The institution’s shift from an inactive-complicit approach to an active-healing approach helps to better prepare all students, especially Black students, for the world they will experience and positions them as active participators in that world. The Catholic school then assumes a countercultural position through its commitment to an education that heals and restores the damage caused by a society that devalues the lives, histories, contributions and experiences of Black people and people of color. Teachers and staff members become “care agents” who, through their critical teaching, “provide opportunities for deeper reflection and affirm students’ lived moments”[2]. 2 Corinthians 3:17 reminds us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. To what degree does the Holy Spirit dwell in your institutions? How will you answer God’s call for freedom?

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[1] Singleton, Glenn (2015). Courageous Conversations About Race. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, California

[2] Odom Lucas, Brandi, “Sweet Spirit: The Pedagogical Relevance of the Black Church for African American Males” (2014). LMU/LLS These and Dissertations, 205. https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/etd/205

Ancora Imparo: Spiritual Reflections to Combat Racism in Catholic Schools

The following blog was contributed by Vincent Hale, music and theater teacher at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in New York, NY. For a more complete and in-depth understanding of Who, What, When, Where, and Why to respond to Racial and Social Injustice, check out his piece on the Partnership Schools blog.

As a Black male Catholic school educator and leader, ancora imparo—I am still learning. I am challenged to expand my knowledge, the capacity of my influence and the impact of my instruction, especially in the current state of our country, laced with violence, hate and systemic oppression. I have been wondering how I should respond to these heinous acts of police brutality against people of color and the requests of my white colleagues and friends for suggestions on how they support the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Start with Why, Simon Sinek prompts the reader asking, “Why did we start doing what we’re doing in the first place?” As educators we should ask, what policies, curriculum, systems, structures and routines implemented in my school advance or hinder racial justice? Scripture animates my educational philosophy. I get out of bed every morning to have a transformational impact on the lives of children and families through the power of music and theatre infused with love and joy. I encourage all Catholic school educators and leaders to return to their “Why?”

Through personal connections to scripture and individual relationships with God in prayer, He imparts infinite wisdom. The fruits of the spirit are the keys to overcoming the racism that devalues the image of God in others. We must access our faith to see people how Christ sees them. This process will require self-reflection, mindfulness, and being open to addressing all the thoughts and feelings that arise. Below you will find six scriptures with a probing question that support my version of “Why” to respond to racial and social injustice as it stands now, while ancora imparo.

  1. I Corinthians 12:15-26 NABRE
    “But as it is, there are many parts, but one body.”
    If I am in a position to hire, what practices do I employ to ensure diversity within my staff?
  2. Proverbs 22:6 NABRE
    “Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.” Am I helping students learn from an early age that their voices, lived experiences and opinions are valuable?
  3. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NABRE
    “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” How have I fed into the idea and perpetuated the effects of white privilege?
  4. Matthew 28:19-20 NABRE
    “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” How are my thoughts, words, actions, and character shaped by my environment?
  5. Colossians 3:13-14
    “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.” How can I listen with the intention to understand without judgment?

I have been the victim and inflictor of racially charged biases on several occasions. White people, probably with good hearts, have unconsciously asserted microaggressions against me and I have done the exact same. The key is to acknowledge those missed opportunities for human connection and ensure we are prepared for an alternative response in the future. My hope is that this post points you in a clear direction of “Why” to commit to this work.

Leading by Example

The following blog was contributed by Rachel Rell, a junior at the University of Notre Dame and a summer intern with the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

As the oldest of six children, I often found myself calling out to our mom for help in yielding off the copying voices of my younger siblings. As I grew up, I began to notice the other areas my younger siblings copied me: ideas for art projects, food recommendations for dinner, favorite colors, the list goes on. Although this was largely an area of annoyance for me throughout my younger years, I began to see that my younger siblings were watching all that I did and copying it. Although having them choosing the same favorite color was annoying to me, the things I did were creating an impact on their lives and the habits they were developing. How I responded to situations and treated others was how they were going to act in the future. I have lived my whole life in a sphere of influence, and now have made it one of my guiding principles to live as though others are watching, because they are.

Timothy 4:12 says, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” Even though I don’t believe this verse is written only for the young, it is one that I have built my life upon. Our culture today has taught us that leaders are strong, dominant and outspoken. But what about those of us that were not made this way? One of the many lessons my younger siblings have taught me is that leadership does not always look the way that it does in movies. Leadership is stepping up to be a role model for others and living up to the responsibilities involved with being a positive one. Our Church and our schools need these leaders more than ever. Our students need you to show them how to become the person God is calling them to be, not only through carefully laid out lesson plans, but through actions.

One of the reasons my parents chose Catholic school for my siblings and me, and one of the reasons I chose a Catholic university for myself, is the people that students are surrounded with. My teachers throughout the years provided me with positive role models at school to continue the emphasis on the values that my parents taught us at home. My teachers taught me not only math and English, but also helped to form my habits and values; my friends, not only hopscotch and jump rope rhymes, but what a true friend looks like. As Catholic school educators and proponents of Catholic education, the children that we form are the most important aspect of everything that we do. As those that they interact with on a daily basis, we can have a substantial impact on the habits they form and the people they become. We aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. But, it is the resolve to act intentionally, knowing that they are watching, that helps us to become the positive role models our children and students need. We have all heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” but it is a common phrase for a reason. So, live and teach as though your three-year-old sister is copying everything you do because although your sibling, child or student might not be watching, someone else’s probably is.