Faith, knowledge and service are the three pillars upon which the excellence of Catholic schools rests. And schools across the Diocese of Nashville and the country will be celebrating that excellence during the annual Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 29-Feb. 4.
“Our kids are not only good scholars and active in their faith, we want them to be good citizens and active in their communities,” said Dr. Therese Williams, the diocesan superintendent of schools. The results of those efforts to form good citizens can be seen when Catholic school graduates reach adulthood and take their place in their communities, she added.
The 19 Catholic schools in the diocese – three high schools and 16 elementary schools – will be celebrating Catholic Schools Week with a variety of events, including service projects, shows of appreciation for teachers, students and families, academic showcases, special liturgies, and plain old fun.
During the week, school officials “want to clarify who we are and expand on our mission, and celebrate teachers, parents, students, families and communities,” Williams said.
At the forefront of that mission is giving students a firm foundation in their faith. “We value our faith and the formation of the faith for our children,” Williams said.
“Passing on our faith is why we exist,” added Alice Valiquette, curriculum director for diocesan schools.
Catholic schools in the diocese teach students to put their faith into action, Valiquette said. As part of the religion curriculum for all diocesan schools, students in grades two through 12 have at least one classwide social justice project a year, she explained. “They do (the project) and then they write a reflection sheet on what they did and why they did it, what they got out of it.”
“It’s one thing to do it, it’s another to understand why you’re doing it,” Williams said. The reflections the students write are as important as the project itself, she said. Through that, students learn that their commitment to social justice and service should last a lifetime, not just be a one-time effort, Williams said.
The religion curriculum for schools in the diocese has a strong social justice component. “We are one of the few dioceses with religion curriculum standards that are aligned with the Church’s social justice teachings,” Williams said.
Besides the faith, Catholic schools also offer excellent academics. “Academically we’re very strong and sound,” Williams said. “Our students continue to make great progress on test scores.”
Students in the elementary schools take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills every spring. The average scores for each grade in each subject area tested are about two grades higher than what would be expected in that grade, Valiquette said.
“Our test scores really did well” in 2016, Williams said. “We had exceptional growth at every grade level in every subject.”
Diocesan schools also score above the national averages for the Iowa Test, Williams said. “We do very, very, very well” compared to Catholic Schools across the nation, she said.
The Iowa Test is challenging, Williams said. In comparing test scores from Catholic schools in the diocese with other private schools or public schools, parents need to know the quality of the test and the difficulty of the test, she said.
The success with test scores is not limited to the elementary schools. The average scores on the ACT for students from the three high schools in 2016 were all significantly higher than the state averages. The Catholic schools average scores and the state averages were: English, 26.0 for the three high schools, and 19.6 for the state; math, 23.5 for the diocese, 19.2 for the state; reading, 26.1 for the diocese, 20.3 for the state; science, 24.7 for the diocese, 19.9 for the state; composite, 25.2 for the diocese, 19.9 for the state.
“The growth in test scores comes from the hard work of our teachers,” Williams said, and the continuing benefits of the system wide curriculum, which outlines the standards for each subject and each grade, listing what needs to be taught at each level to prepare students for the next grade.
“This is the minimum standard,” Williams noted. “They can add anything their principal approves on top of that.”
Every year, Valiquette meets with teachers to review the standards and make any changes as needed, she said. “We have our teachers involved in curriculum changes,” Williams said. “They have real ownership.”
Total enrollment in schools in the diocese is more than 5,700 in grades kindergarten through 12 and another 350 or so in pre-kindergarten, Williams said. That total is down slightly, she said, “but we have several schools that are up,” including St. Patrick School in McEwen, St. Joseph School in Madison, the Sacred Heart Schools in both Loretto and Lawrenceburg, and St. Ann School in Nashville.
The diocese is working on a diocesan wide marking plan to get out the word about the excellence of a Catholic education, Williams said. Each school has their own marketing efforts and the diocesan plan would be on top of that, she said.
“We need to do more as a system,” Williams said. “We need to let people know the value of our schools.”
One obstacle for families is the cost of attending a Catholic school. To help boost the amount of financial assistance available to families that qualify, the diocese will host a gala to raise money for tuition assistance on Saturday, May 6, at Holy Family Church in Brentwood, Williams said. More details will be announced in the coming weeks, she said.
“We need more financial assistance,” Williams said. “We want all Catholic families to have the opportunity to attend Catholic schools.”