Catholic Schools’ Secret Of Success: Parents

A Tampa Tribune story the other day chronicled how nuns, priests and brothers were no longer the “heart and soul” of Catholic School classrooms. More like skeleton crews these days. The story focused on the 12,000-student Diocese of St. Petersburg, which includes Tampa.

The dynamics of this diocese reflect the national trend that has seen fewer Catholic men and women answer the vocational call to religious orders. And those who did are increasingly opting out or retiring. As a result, some 95 per cent of Catholic School teachers are lay instructors. Two generations ago, that figure was nearly reversed; lay teachers in Catholic Schools were a rarity. The non-uniformed civilian who didn’t teach religion.

Case in point: South Tampa’s Christ The King Catholic School, which is staffed, as it were, by the Salesian Sisters. All three of them. As of next school year, there will be none. All laity, all the time.

To Catholics, especially the generations who were taught almost exclusively by nuns, the loss of the tradition and the special symbolism is hardly shocking — simply sad and wistful. Catholic schools and nuns were synonymous.

Unencumbered by family priorities, they were totally committed. They had this unique calling that transcended “job” or “profession.” They had standards. They labored, well, religiously. They knew the value of discipline.

And they were overrated.

OK, that’s harsh, but hear me out. My credentials include being taught by St. Joseph’s nuns through the Philadelphia grammar schools of Holy Innocents and St. Timothy and by the Christian Brothers at La Salle High School. I can attest first-hand that even corporal punishment can be overdone. Martial arts, arguably, need not be incorporated into language arts. I lived George Carlin’s early material.

Back in the day, nuns didn’t need a college degree, and the same nun who drilled you on the rigors of math was supposed to teach you the finesse of rhetoric and composition — and everything else right through the middle school years. That would have been beyond Mr. Chips, let along Sister Margaret Mary. You also learned about the kind of stuff that could cost you salvation and how you could help salvage “pagan babies.” In eighth grade we were seated — 35 boys on one side, 35 girls on the other — according to academic rank, which seemed more humiliating than motivating to the usual academic laggards.

But here is the key point. We learned. Even the academic cabooses.

And, yes, there’s a place for rote memory, thank you. And homework was always checked — no, scrutinized — the following day. You were accountable for your actions — and there were consequences. An impressive test score or a scrupulously completed assignment brought a Blessed Mother or St. Joseph holy card. Miscreants could expect labor-intensive detention.

And then there was the summary notice to parents at the first sign of an apostate, a class clown or an academic malingerer. Likely in that order.

That parental nexus was the critical variable. Back when parents typically came in pairs. The nuns were imbued with what any teacher — regardless of academic credentials or pedagogical knowhow or lack thereof — must have: a reinforcing ally at home. En loco parentis should be so literal in today’s public schools.

For all their vows, habits and mystique, the nuns were simply instruments of parental priorities and extensions of parental oversight. You were sent to school to learn what was taught. That was your job. It wasn’t an option or an experience nuanced with psycho-babble, sociological verities or socio-economic excuses. Talk about empowerment. Your friends, your peer pressure, your television time, your threshold of pain, your hormones weren’t priorities. It all underscored the secret to any successful school: Parents worthy of parentage.

Parents who get involved in their kids’ lives and are supportive of the teachers. Parents who are actually on the same side as the teachers. Parents who don’t believe their “gifted” child is also a gift to teachers and don’t feel that their child’s individuality is compromised by school uniforms. Parents who don’t look at schools as one-stop social service agencies and don’t regard teachers as underachievers on the lam from the real world. Parents who take care of the civilizing part before sending their kids off for the formal schooling part.

That’s why the Catholic schools worked — and still work. Because parents demanded that they work, and they weren’t interested in a self-esteem curriculum for their tuition dollars.

The Catholic schools may have lost their nuns, but they haven’t lost their way. They are much more than secular institutions with Catechisms. They don’t need FCAT validation.

They need what all schools need. Parents with the right stuff. Amazingly, effective teaching will follow. That hasn’t changed.

But, OK, the nuns made the most of all that empowerment. And maybe I did deserve all that corporal punishment. Maybe I still do.

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