An atmosphere for faith and academic development

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Nearly 10,000 students will fill the seats and populate the halls of South Jersey Catholic Schools in the coming school year. Their parents and other family members will make countless sacrifices to support their Catholic school education.

When asked for the top three reasons why they chose a South Jersey Catholic School, 94% of parents listed the Catholic faith, religion or values as a top reason for their choice. Another 73% identified the community or family environment of their children’s school, while 70% selected academic programs.

As the director of curriculum and assessment for the last six years and now Superintendent of Catholic Schools, I have witnessed how these attributes of our schools combine to create a unique and outstanding atmosphere for the faith and academic development of children and teens. Every day in a South Jersey Catholic School begins and ends with prayer. I have witnessed pre-kindergarten students lead morning prayers that are beautiful in their simplicity, and I have finished the school day with high school students by reciting the Act of Contrition as a reminder of our dependence on God’s mercy that is just as beautiful.

The hours between the prayers are filled with personal witness to the Catholic faith by school leaders, teachers and students alike. I have watched principals give students immediate feedback when they observe the Beatitudes in action. I have seen the joy and peace that comes from personal relationship with Jesus lead teachers to gentle, loving interactions with their students, day in and day out. I have watched as students genuinely help each other with their schoolwork with kindness that can’t be put into words.

If Catholic schools are like families, then they have conflicts like all families do. I have seen firsthand how the foundation of faith and relationship with Jesus that are the foundation of our school families allow students, parents, faculty, staff and school leaders to interact with love and with mercy. The freedom to have those kinds of interactions is a gift, and we take the responsibility to nurture it seriously in a world that cries out for people who are compassionate and understanding.

The Catholic Identity and family atmosphere of our schools are possible because our principals, faculty and students intentionally invite the grace of God into the school as a community. This is what sets us apart. It even sets our academics apart. We succeed because our focus is on helping each student to understand who God made them to be and helping them to achieve that. Concentrating our efforts on students in this way is a natural outgrowth of our invitation of God into every aspect of our school communities.

Our focus on students’ growth and development, and not explicitly on one score or outcome, enables us to succeed on “secular” measures of education, as well. I have witnessed deep engagement in science in state-of-the-art labs and marveled at art created in high school studios that rival those at four-year colleges. I have read essays written by sixth graders that would earn an “A” in many high school courses and analyzed standardized test data that show second grade students gaining almost two academic years of growth in half a school year. Each is an outcome of the whole package of inviting God into all we do as a faith community.

In the coming school year, South Jersey Catholic School principals, faculty and staff will collectively spend over one million hours in the intentionally Catholic communities that our schools nurture, dedicated to their students’ growth in all aspects of their lives. The students themselves, as well as their parents, will collectively spend many tens of millions of hours in that pursuit at school and at home. Please join me at the start of this school year in a prayer to thank God for the good work he is doing in our Catholic schools, and to continue to invite God’s grace into our schools to bless all that we do.

Bill Watson, Ed.D. is superintendent of schools, Diocese of Camden.