Finding Our Home in Catholic School

 This is the third of a three part series on our choices regarding schooling our children.  You can read the first two parts here and here.
I started thinking about Catholic school on the periphery in October/November of the year Sarah was in Kindergarten.  It was at that time we moved to our current parish.  I was acquainted with a mother of 6 (at the time) who had her children enrolled at the school there.  She and I had talked about their schooling decisions.  Theirs was one of the first large families I’d encountered in some time that had chosen Catholic school as opposed to homeschool.  I had been curious about that.  She explained that she and her husband had considered homeschooling, but that through prayer and discernment felt called to educate their children in a Catholic school.  This family sometimes attended the same Rosary prayer groups we did.  And I realized that this was another family we could look up to.  We could learn how to be a holy family.
This mother invited us to visit her parish on a Sunday because they always have donuts after the Sunday masses and we would be able to meet other families with their children in the school.  She spoke highly of the pastor and about availability of Sacraments to the children.  She spoke positively of all the teachers and other families and of the principal (at the time, a Religious Sister).  When describing the tenor of the parish, she used the phrase “faithful to the magesterium” a couple of times, and based on my experience at our first parish, this was important to me.  She encouraged me to check it out and to see, as she knew, that my children would be in an authentically Catholic environment every day at school.
We began by attending Mass.  Our decision not to put our children in the school of the original parish had been made by attendance at Mass at that parish.  The Mass at this parish was…well, it was Mass.  Nothing added, nothing taken away.  The Tabernacle was front and center on the altar (even though our current one is a vast improvement over what was there when we first attended) and not off to the side, or down the hall or anything like that.  The hymns were traditional, which we preferred.  We attended for a few months before deciding to talk to the pastor about joining.
We didn’t plan to send Sarah to school there, though.  For one thing, it was quite convenient that a bus took her and brought her home every day.  And she had made friends already at her current school.  Uprooting her after just attending Kindergarten didn’t shout out as the right thing to do.  But even though we weren’t going to enroll Sarah, we changed to this parish as it was closer than the parish we’d been attending.  
Part of my reluctance to research Catholic schools was based on the idea that I doubted we could afford the tuition.  However, I found out that the parish school was truly parochial (meaning: parish supported) and decided not to let that be a deciding factor at that time. 
After we’d been members of the parish for about 6 months, we were having donuts after Mass when I started to look around the Parish hall.  I looked at the things they had up on the walls.  I noticed the kitchen area.  All of a sudden it hit me that this must be where the school children ate lunch.  There was a big sign up on the door that listed “rules” for the lunch room and it included “We pray before and after the meal.”  
Just as I noticed this sign, Sarah piped up and said, “Look Mom, they pray before and after they eat lunch here!”  I looked at her and asked her what she thought about that (keep in mind…she’s 5 at this time).  She just said, “I think it’s a good idea.  We pray before we eat at home.”
Yes.  Yes we do.
On the way home from church that day, Craig and I discussed and agreed to look into our new parish’s school as a viable option for educating our children.  The first pleasant surprise was the parochial status of the school.  We were already tithing.  Tithing had been a staple in Craig’s and my faith life from the time we had become more serious about our faith.  Nothing would have to change financially for us to move Sarah to the parish school.
When we inquired about the school with Monsignor and the principal, we found out that all the teachers were Catholic, the children prayed throughout the day, religion class was taught daily, there was a weekly all-school Mass, the children (all grades) attended Adoration weekly and YES! they had room for our daughter in the first grade.  🙂  
They had a computer lab (very cool), the classrooms had Smartboards (state-of-the-art), they taught all the basics — Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmatic–along with science, social studies, music and P.E.  The school was less than 10 years old and there was also a preschool.  It had at least as much (academically) as the public school and sometimes more.  But the main things for us were:  Mass (we’d prefer daily, but we’re grateful for weekly), Adoration, frequent opportunities for confession, daily religion and frequent prayer.
After the tour that summer, my serious and sweet girl, Sarah said, “Mom…this is nice and all, but I want to stay at my school.”  Aww, of course she did.  All of you probably understand how difficult it is to be unable to give your child any and every thing her heart desires.  The decision to uproot Sarah was not an easy one.  But it was the right one.  And now, it is almost like she’d never attended another school.
Of course, I was nervous.  My daughter would be the new girl.  What if she didn’t make any friends?  What if teachers and other parents didn’t like us?  It was a leap of faith to take the plunge and move Sarah. Besides, most of my worries had nothing to do with our “main things.”
Yes, the transition was a little rough.  Sarah was new and she joined a class where just about all the girls had been together since preschool.  Thank God for the wonderful parents of the other children in her class, though.  Seriously.  As nervous as I was trying to get to know them and learn about their children (and expel some of my own demons regarding my childhood in Catholic school), several of the moms extended a lifeline to me and smoothed the transition.  By the start of the second semester, I think we were all feeling “at home” in our new school.
We continue to support the school and now have three children who attend.  It feels like a family.  Some changes were inflicted by the Diocese almost two years ago that were difficult to take and very sudden.  Some families chose to leave the parish and school.  We thought about it, albeit fleetingly.  But in the end, the “main things” were still in place.  
Mass, Adoration, Sacramental Life and Prayer have always been and continue to be a central part of our children’s Catholic education.  As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep them there.
Every so often, when I allow myself to think about high school and whether we will send our children to the Catholic high school in the area (incidentally, named one of the top 50 Catholic High Schools in America), I can feel myself slipping into considering other things like Academics and College Prep and whether it’s on the list of the top 50 Catholic High Schools in America and I have to stop myself.  Because even if a school comes highly recommended for academics and even if it supposedly does the best job of preparing kids to go to college and even if it is on the list of the top 50 Catholic High Schools in America…even if it hits all of those marks — if a school does not satisfy those “main things” that drew us to Catholic education in the first place, then it won’t be THE RIGHT environment for our family.  
It is here that I feel I should state my philosophy on education.  I believe that probably as much as 90% of education happens at home no matter where the child attends school.  Yes, the kids learn things at school, but they learn 90% of most things at home.  I think they learn that school is important based on whether school is important to parents and whether it’s made a priority at home.  I think kids learn that reading is important when they see their parents read.  
Kids learn their faith at home, too.  As a matter of fact, I think the biggest influence the children have with regards to faith are parents regardless of where they are spending their schooling hours.  A kid can be taught a belief system by their teacher, principal, a sister or a priest over and over again…but the child will usually carry on the faith he sees modeled in the home.  
This is why we’re open to public school again, should the “main things” not be met by a Catholic school environment.  Even though the kids attend weekly Mass, Adoration, partake frequently of the Sacraments, at school…it really wouldn’t matter much if Craig and I were not supporting that at home.  Conversely, even if the kids were to attend public school and NOT have weekly Mass, Adoration and Sacraments (at school), they COULD still have all of that because Craig and I would work to provide that.  (Before we switched parishes, I had been looking into finding a place to take Sarah to Mass once a week before school.)  Craig and I can ensure our children have frequent opportunities to go to Confession and Adoration, too.  
All things considered, it’s a huge bonus that we’re able to find a Catholic school environment that helps us so freely with raising our children in our Faith.
Our environment is not without it’s problems.  Every school has them.  But this isn’t about the problems, that can be a post for another day.  I think it’s safe to say that every parish and every school (like every family) has its positives and negatives and everyone has to find the right environment for their family.
In the end, even though we didn’t put a lot of thought into it before the first day of our first child’s schooling, we ended up in the right place.  In general, my thoughts on schooling haven’t changed all that much…however much they might have changed on the details.  I’m thankful that we’re blessed with our school and I pray we’ll maintain this environment through all of our children’s schooling.   We feel like we ended up “at home” with Catholic school.

There must be someone out there praying an awful lot for our family.


A Dalliance in the Public School

This is the second of a three part series on our choices regarding schooling our children.  You can read the first part here.
With homeschooling definitely off our radar, we needed to figure out what we were going to do.  Probably part of our journey to our current school wouldn’t be complete without discussing our journey to the parish.  We attend the church whose parish boundaries we lived within for about 2-3 years after moving into our first home.  It was very large.  And, since Craig and I were typical cradle Catholics who weren’t as well-catechized as we now feel we should have been, that parish sufficed for about 18 of those 30 months or so.  Sarah was baptized when we’d attended Mass there for almost a year.
As I’ve mentioned, Sarah’s baptism is really the launching point of Craig’s and my reversion/renewal of our Catholic faith walk.  We remained at the parish where she was baptized for about another year or so.  We became increasingly uncomfortable with some of the Mass practices and as we read and learned, realized there were a few actual liturgical abuses occurring.  In the end, I watched with a heavy heart some of the things I just felt were “off” and knew I didn’t want my children attending the school there if that was how Mass was.  We have attended on occasion since and much has changed.  I might still be unhappy attending the parish if it were an option, but it seems the liturgical abuses are now a thing of the past.  Praise God!
We decided to attend the parish where Craig and I were married…the one in which he grew up.  They had a couple of orthodox priests (pastor and newly ordained associate) and we witnessed nothing that was “off” or anything remotely close to a liturgical abuse.  We joined that parish and remained there until Helen was about 9 months old.  Both Dani and Helen were baptized in that parish.  I have fond memories that include Craig’s and my wedding, both of their baptisms and several other happy parish events.  It was a good “resting place” so to speak as Craig and I grew in our faith and tried to figure out how we were going to raise this family we were having.
During this change, Sarah attended preschool in a daycare center environment.  We lived down the road from a daycare center and found out that she could attend preschool “part-time” which actually meant three full days per week (M-W-F).  I can’t press the point enough that we never really thought all that long and hard about something like half-day preschool vs. full-day preschool or T-TH mornings vs. M-W-F all day.  When we started sending Sarah, she had just turned 3, Dani was turning 1 and I thought it would be nice for Craig to have a little “break” from having two children at home and I hoped he’d have time to work with Dani the way he’d worked with Sarah on things like letters, numbers, pretend play, etc.  Then, when Helen came along, it was good for Sarah to have a routine that included preschool.
The daycare fed the public school where Sarah would attend.  We thought we were in luck because Sarah’s enrollment in Kindergarten would coincide with the opening of the newest school in the district and she would attend that one.  Therefore, her school was the newest, biggest, brightest thing.  The daycare advertised “Kindergarten Roundup” for the schools into which it fed, and the timing kind of sneaked up on us.  
In Missouri, a child must be five on or before July 31 to attend Kindergarten.  That spring, when Sarah was 4, we attended Kindergarten roundup because Sarah would turn 5 on July 16, and she was ready to go to Kindergarten.  Now, it never occurred to me NOT to send her.  I never thought about the fact that she would be the youngest in her class and therefore would spend her life doing everything “last” in her class (things like turn 10, turn 16 — drive) and it didn’t really phase me then that Sarah would graduate high school while still 17 and if she went to college would be taking off so shortly after turning 18.  I only mention this because it’s something I’ve had to consider with Dani in that her birthday was in August and she is going to spend her life doing everything “first” in her class as well as basically have another year under her belt before she might fly the coop.  And of course, my dear baby boy Vincent is another mid-summer baby with a June 30 birthday and I’ll be considering these things with him.  It now kind of freaks me out thinking of Sarah, just a month after turning 18, leaving home to attend college or something like that.
Kindergarten Roundup sneaked up on us, but we went and got Sarah enrolled for school.  We really liked her teacher in Kindergarten.  Matter of fact, we really liked the school, the principal…everything.  I thought that for a secular environment, they did the best they could to support the values we were trying to instill in Sarah…but of course, there was not an environment of prayer involved.  They said the Pledge of Allegiance every day (in which they included “under God”) and they had another sort of pledge they said that was kind of like a secular Morning prayer.  The recitation of this other pledge included things like “respect myself and others” and to “do my best”…kind of stuff.  It was carefully worded without any reference to a faith or God and I didn’t object to it.  Sure, I wished she were able to pray an “Our Father” or “Hail Mary” in the morning or something, but I also knew that wasn’t going to happen at public school and accepted it.
We lived in a terrific school district known for excellence in academics, so I didn’t have a problem there.  And the school bus was convenient.  Craig didn’t have to worry about loading up the kids to go pick up Sarah at school…he only needed to walk to the end of our street to wait for her to get off the bus.  And she was attending the same school as all the neighborhood kids, so that was a plus, too.
One thing that I didn’t like was how little interaction and involvement between parents there was at the public school.  I never knew most of the kids’ parents’ names.  When Sarah had trouble with one (older/bigger) child on the bus, I had no idea how to find out who the child was and how to contact the parents should the problem get any worse.  Thankfully, that issue happened close to the end of the school year, but I remember being a little distraught that I didn’t know how I could handle it.  
And due to the fact that I didn’t really know the parents of the children, I didn’t know what kind of values other kids were being raised with and what sort of behavior was seen as acceptable.  
Additionally, there was a smal amount of pressure for Sarah to attend non-Catholic, yet faith-based activities…like AWANA or other denominations’ Wednesday night church activities.  Of course these weren’t sanctioned or promoted by the school.  However, other kids that Sarah became friends with were in families that did these activities.  Sarah was invited to these things.  I allowed her to go once, but it felt very strange to me.  I was concerned that Sarah wasn’t old enough yet to be able to handle learning about Jesus in a non-Catholic environment.  I didn’t want her hearing anything contrary to what we taught her about our Faith.  I worried about whether anti-Catholic themes would be presented to her or if she spoke up and participated in the activities, that she might show her Catholicism and what reaction she might get.
I was ready to be on the lookout for anti-Catholic concepts in the school work, but since she was just in Kindergarten, there really wasn’t any of that yet.   
One of the biggest things that took me by surprise in the public school was how the boys and girls interacted with each other.  It was already considered normal for girls and boys to claim boyfriends and girlfriends.  A lot of the parents laughed it off or pegged it as “cute” and “harmless.”  I think I may have done so outwardly myself (I wouldn’t want to be that “weird” parent uncomfortable with kids expressing themselves or their feelings, right?).  But I worried about this with Sarah.  There was a social “pizza night” at a local place that did fundraisers for local schools and when one little boy walked in one night, Sarah turned into a different girl.  She looked out the window, when this boy said, “Hi Sarah” she got red in the face, clammed up and didn’t say “hi” back.  Craig made the point that perhaps she was embarrassed or shy.  I came to find out that this boy “liked” Sarah and she “liked” him, too.  The teacher and everyone aware of it thought it was “cute.”  However, I remember being very surprised by this and a bit worried by it.  It’s not that I thought crushes weren’t something kids have at that age, but I think it was the tolerance…or even encouragement by adults…I found it very uncomfortable.
I was still having some nagging feelings that this wasn’t the right place for our children.  Just a couple years before, I had been thinking it would be best to educate my children at home so that I could be sure and bring my children up in the Catholic faith in the best way possible.  And now, I had my daughter in an environment five days a week where she couldn’t learn ANYTHING about her faith.  
I started tallying up the time she was exposed to family and Catechesis vs. the time she spent in a secular, public school environment and I started to get very uncomfortable about where we were headed.  I knew I needed to get Sarah into some form of religious education.  We’d stepped up some things at home:  at the time we were doing a family rosary most evenings, we had always prayed before meals and at bedtime, and I was diligent in attending regularly scheduled Rosary prayer groups/Catholic fellowship outings with the children.  Of course, we still attended Mass every week.
I think I might have been up for doing catechesis at home, but I was worried that I wouldn’t have the time to devote to it in order to do it solidly.  The last thing I wanted was to catechize my children at home and fail at it.   
So I began considering that the public school route might not be the way we wanted to go…

Read Part Three…

The Decision on Schooling of Children

This is the first of what will be a three-part series on our choices regarding schooling our children.  (Part Two and Part Three)
I’ve written before about the fact that when Craig and I embarked on this journey of parenthood, I didn’t really think all that much about things like labor, delivery, breastfeeding, etc…we’ve always settled into what seems to have worked for our family
When it came to sending our children to school, I had some pretty strong opinions on some things and not on others.  Those opinions are still strong today, however they have changed a bit.
Background:  I attended a Head Start preschool program.  Then I attended public school in kindergarten and half of first grade.  I attended Catholic school from first grade through eighth grade.  I attended public high school.  My husband attended Catholic school first grade through high school.
I don’t remember Craig’s opinion on school before we began.  I know that we’ve acted together and have been equally committed to each of the decisions we’ve executed with regards to our children’s education.  But I can’t remember if he had much opinion one way or the other before we had any kids in school.
My first thought about educating my children was that I didn’t care whether we sent them to Catholic school.  My experience in Catholic school wasn’t something I looked upon all that fondly.  To be fair, my life turned upside down with the separation and divorce of my parents in second/third grade and growing up without a father present in my day-to-day life was bound to take its toll on my happiness meter.  I can’t blame Catholic school entirely for the fact that my childhood is not something about which I reminisce.  However, being in Catholic school didn’t particularly help me out in that department either.
Kids are kids.  And they are that regardless of whether they attend Catholic school or not.  Kids can be cruel.  And they can be cruel even as they have been raised in a family that would be mortified to learn of their cruelty.  
My attitude at first about educating my children was pretty much this:  At least at a public school, I wouldn’t have to heal hurts inflicted by other children who were supposedly being raised with the same value and faith system with which my children were being raised.  
For some reason, it seemed to hurt me more (so I thought) to deal with other Catholic kids in a Catholic school ridiculing me than it would have to deal with supposedly non-Catholic kids in a public school environment doing the same.  I’m not saying I was right to make such an assumption and I’m not saying it makes perfect sense either.  All I knew was that I went to Catholic school where I was on the receiving end of some perceived injustices and life would have been better (in my broken opinion) if I wouldn’t have been at a Catholic school receiving such treatment.
Of course, when Sarah was first born (and then Dani), school wasn’t the first thing on our minds.  But it became something we began considering as we learned NFP and, for the first time, came into contact with families that educated their children at home.
I was fascinated by the idea of homeschooling.  It was so foreign to me.  Sure, I knew of one or two families growing up that took their children out of our Catholic school to homeschool, but I never got to see those kids again.  I was, after all, in Catholic school and when you’re a kid, you see other kids (not in your family) at school and that’s pretty much it.  I have a picture of me with a very good friend named Kristine at my First Holy Communion.  I think the next school year, her family (they had 9 children I think) began homeschooling and I never saw her again.  
Anyway, the couple that taught Craig and me NFP homeschooled.  I also worked with a man who, with his wife, had 8 children and I knew they homeschooled.  Just so happens the man I worked with and the man in the teaching couple were very good friends.  So, through the process of learning NFP, we became friends with both of these families.  Our lives have been blessed beyond measure to know these holy people.  I wanted our family to be just like their families.  I wanted my children to be just like their children.  I thought the way to do that was to homeschool.
I had an experience while at Adoration one fall evening in which I thought I heard the call clearly that Craig and I needed to get to a position where we would homeschool.  Craig was working part-time at the casino, waiting for a chance to go full-time.  I was in a job I enjoyed but that had stagnated with regards to opportunities to advance.  I wanted very much to find a way that we could homeschool.
I thought homeschooling was the way to get my family to be a truly holy family.  I thought it would help my family be like the two families I mentioned.  We could have a complete and authentic Catholic curriculum.  I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone telling my child one thing and doing something completely different in the context of their personal life.  Craig and I were learning so much about our faith at this time and I was bound and determined to ensure my children grew up knowing what I was now learning.  
If I homeschooled my children, they would never wander away from the Church because I thought I would be able to protect them from influences that would lead them away.
Looking back, I see an awful lot of pride and a lack of humility in my intentions.
I feel compelled to state that many of the homeschooling families I know are very humble and not prideful.  My statement there is truly about me and where my heart was at the time.  Back then I wouldn’t have thought myself prideful…but I know I was.
Three main issues came up that kept us from homeschooling.  
First, my level of education (MBA) was an obstacle to what I wanted for the first time in my life.  My salary, let alone my earning potential, was larger than my husband’s.  I had a strong desire to be the main teacher for the children, however there was no way I could become a stay-at-home mom so that I could educate my children.  We busted our budget over and over again.  Yes, we removed lots of luxury type things — cable, dance lessons, volleyball for me and golf for Craig — but no matter what we did, there was no way we were gonna make it on Craig’s income alone from being a dealer at the casino.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  I have student loans (written in present tense because I am still paying on them).  We had some other debt (written in past tense because we no longer have any other debts).  It was all too much to just say “buh-bye” to my income.
Secondly, Sarah needed a traditional school environment.  I couldn’t see it so much when she was three and four.  But as she neared school age, I couldn’t deny that Sarah’s brain is wired for a traditional school environment.  She loves routine.  She loves goals.  She loves to read.  She loves to excel.  She loves to be recognized.  Yes, she loves to be recognized by someone other than her mother and father.  She likes to perform.  She loves to make new friends.  She loves the extra-curricular activities that go with school.  At first it was Girl Scouts (we don’t do scouts anymore, but Sarah enjoyed it).  Now it’s Challenge Club and Volleyball and Choir.  Seeing Sarah now, I can see that she would feel suffocated and stifled in a homeschool environment.  And now I see that all my children (so far) thrive in a traditional school environment.  Dani enjoys the social outlet that the traditional school environment supplies.  Time will tell with Helen, but so far, school (she’s been in preschool) has provided an environment that tames her wild heart a little bit.  Where I fail to teach her things as her mother (because Helen knows how to push my buttons and I haven’t figured out how to deactivate my buttons), the teachers succeed.
Perhaps I see things this way because we’ve gone the traditional school route, but I have to say that I’m glad I didn’t test those waters.
Finally, Craig and I needed the school environment.  What I should say is that Craig and I needed THE RIGHT school environment.  I’ve come to see that just any school environment wasn’t going to cut it.  As I mentioned, even at the beginning, I wasn’t sold on a Catholic education for my children.  The fact that I am now in the camp that I will sacrifice to continue to provide a Catholic education for my children through high school is testament to the fact that we’ve found THE RIGHT environment for us.  Ultimately, God led us where we needed to be to have the school environment that brings us the most peace.

With the pass on homeschooling, we didn’t immediately go the Catholic school route.  

Stay tuned…

Read Part Two