|Cam Anderson joins his classmates in Stephanie Wyatt’s first grade class in praying the Our Father on the first day of school at Christ the King School in Nashville on Wednesday, August 10, 2016. Photos by Rick Musacchio|
As Catholic schools around the Diocese of Nashville get back in session, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Therese Williams reflected on what makes Catholic schools unique and relevant today, and how the diocese is working to make its schools more attractive and affordable to all.
First and foremost, Williams said, Catholic education is about “educating the whole child, mind, body and spirit.”
Catholic schools enjoy a well-deserved reputation for high academic achievement, she said. Students at all levels earn top marks on standardized tests; high school seniors have a 99 percent graduation rate, and most of them get into their first choice of college, she said. “We have to share this good news.”
Some good news at the start of this school year includes new initiatives at several schools around the diocese.
Students at St. Matthew School will be doing more project based learning, using cutting edge technology like 3-D printers.
Christ the King will be implementing a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program in Pre-K religion classes, and more STEM activities will be integrated into lessons in the upper grades.
At St. Bernard Academy, an 18,000 square foot expansion will allow for more fine arts programming and STEM activities such as robotics. St. Ann School has a new Pre-K program for 4-year-olds, and will offer after school clubs including engineering, fly fishing, and chess.
|Peter Rodgers, the new principal at Holy Rosary Academy in Donelson, started the new school year on Wednesday, Aug. 10, by attending Mass with his students and visiting classrooms during the day. He addressed the students at the end of the Mass.|
Williams, who visits all 19 elementary and high schools in the diocese every semester, said she can see firsthand how a spirit of service permeates the schools. A curriculum of social justice is taught to students at every level, from pre-K through senior years. “Our service component is very rich,” Williams said. “A lot of students are involved in community service and they don’t do it because it’s required, but because it’s a way of life in our schools.”
Incorporating the Catholic Church’s teachings on social justice and service into the curriculum of diocesan schools is not new, but it is one reason that “our Catholic identity is stronger than it’s ever been,” Williams said.
Each school and community has their own approach to manifesting that Catholic identity, she said, and it’s interesting to see those different approaches in action. Catholic identity, Williams said, like academic excellence “is not something we can assume we have.” It’s something that has to constantly be re-evaluated and encouraged in the schools.
Accessing the benefits of Catholic education does come at a cost, one that is a challenge for many Catholic families to afford.
“Tuition is always a concern,” Williams said. “We have a quality diocesan school system but it has to be affordable and attainable for families. It’s a delicate balance,” she said, “because at the same time we have to pay teachers a just wage.”
Long gone are the days when Catholic schools were staffed with nuns working at poverty-level wages to teach children; today, many teachers are working to support their own families.
“If a family has Catholic education as a priority, we have to do everything we can to meet them where they are and help them become a part of the community,” Williams said.
“We’re doing our best to increase tuition assistance,” Williams said. Individual schools have limited scholarships and financial aid available, and the diocese is working toward establishing a wider tuition assistance program.
The diocese’s Endowment for the Advancement of Catholic Schools funds scholarships for families that are most in need, many of whom have experienced a family tragedy. “There are still more who need assistance,” Williams said.
Since the Diocese of Nashville is a “mission diocese,” with a small school system and a small local Catholic population to draw from, it is important that schools constantly market themselves to the parish and to the wider community, Williams said.
“First, we have to be sure the people we already have are happy and invested in the school community,” she said. Then, schools must reach out to new parishioners and the surrounding community by holding open houses and other events that draw people in.
To reach the new people who are moving to Nashville on a daily basis, Williams said, she hopes to have a quality diocesan schools brochure produced this year to distribute through the Chamber of Commerce. “An issue with every Catholic school nationwide is that they need a good marketing plan,” she said.
While Williams and the principals around the Diocese of Nashville continue to grapple with the challenge of increasing access and affordability of Catholic schools, they can be proud of the product they offer. When she talks with superintendents or in other dioceses, Williams said, “we’re right in there with the best.”