Editor’s note: National Catholic Schools Week, celebrated this year as Celebrate Catholic Schools Week from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, is an annual celebration of Catholic education in the United States. In today’s post, Michael Barrett, Associate for Education for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains why, in his view, Catholic schools remain an excellent school choice option for families.

For years, the Catholic Church has promoted school choice and has advocated for the right of parents to choose the educational option that best suits the needs of their child. Today, Florida is on the cutting edge when it comes to providing families with real educational options. But among these options, what sets Catholic schools apart?

I would like to highlight two aspects of Catholic education. The first is community.

One of the most striking aspects of an excellent Catholic education is authentic community – not merely a community of students and teachers effectively receiving and imparting knowledge, but a network of families and individuals who know and care for one another deeply.

While this community begins at school, it is not limited to regular school hours or confined to the school building.

Growing up in Brandon, Florida, I remember experiencing this in my own Catholic grade school. I recall a real sense of sharing life with other families from my school. My friends and I not only attended the same school; we sat next to each other at Sunday mass and we carpooled together to school sporting events. Our moms served lunch in the cafeteria and our dads worked the food and drink tents at the annual school fair.

Our families ate dinner together, attended parties together, and supported one another through various triumphs and tragedies. By attending Catholic school, our families became immersed in a particular Catholic school community.  

Both Catholics and non-Catholics alike have encountered and have been enriched by this distinctive experience of Catholic school community. And indeed, this is by design.

As Archbishop J. Michael Miller, secretary for the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, has stated, Catholic grade schools should “try to create a community school climate that reproduces, as far as possible, the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life … This means that all involved should develop a real willingness to collaborate among themselves. Teachers … together with parents and trustees, should work together as a team for the school’s common good and their right to be involved in its responsibilities.”

Therefore, Catholic schools are called to be communities, not only for students and teachers, but for the entire family.

Throughout Florida, 239 Catholic schools serve 79,623 students. Just under 40% of these students participate in one of Florida’s K-12 scholarship programs.

A second aspect of Catholic education is that Catholic school communities are grounded in a particular understanding of human nature and of human love. This understanding of human nature informs and influences the relationships that make up the Catholic school community.  

The Catholic Church, and therefore Catholic schools, teach that each and every person has great dignity and worth because he or she is made in the image and likeness of God.  Furthermore, Catholic school communities understand love to be a “self-gift,” or charity, best exemplified by Christ’s gift of himself to us on the cross.

This, of course, does not mean that Catholic school communities are perfect. Nor does it mean that every student who walks into a Catholic school must be Catholic. It certainly doesn’t mean that every student must walk out of a Catholic school as a Catholic.

However, it does mean that Catholic schools will be Catholic, and that this particular view of human nature and love will be proposed, taught, and thoughtfully discussed – which, in turn, hopefully will influence and guide the entire school community.

When this is done well, Catholic schools offer distinctive communities and learning environments that exist as a wonderful educational option for Florida’s students and their families. 

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