Thousands of students are settling in to new rules and classroom procedures this month. Yet for the 14,000 or so in 35 Catholic elementary and high schools across the Diocese of Phoenix, there’s something familiar that unites them.
While many schools can foster high academics and promote a community feel, only these faith-based schools have a true Catholic foundation. Signs of the Catholic faith are impossible to miss at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Prescott.
Students enter through the school office. A poster highlighting the 12 Promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus alongside an opened Liturgy of the Word book greet them on one side. A liturgical calendar and student learning expectations — matched with Biblical illustrations — hang on the other wall.
A world map, framed by dozens of flag images at the end of the hallway where students are dismissed offers a gentle reminder that they are “Bringing Christ to the World.” Classrooms have prayer corners, papal posters and rules that start with “As a child of God, I will…”. The school song addresses all three Persons of the Trinity.
The “Discipline with a Purpose” expectations use Scriptural images to show they should ask questions — like “Where is the King of the Jews?” — and follow the rules — such as God’s instructions to Noah for building the ark. Sr. Terri Stafford uses the Discipline with a Purpose guidelines and examples of the saints to help her fourth and fifth-graders make connections with whatever they’re learning.
“The more they hear it discussed with successful people, the more they can apply it in their own lives,” said Sr. Terri Stafford, a graduate of Ss. Simon and Jude School and Bourgade Catholic High School.
The students may not always realize the faith aspect is such a part of the education, especially those who enter as kindergartners, but in 24 years of teaching, Sr. Terri sees it come out in their writing. They make connections with the Gospels and the saints. She hears it in graduation speeches too.
“It’s like if you lived on an island, every day you’d be absorbed with water,” Pamela Dickerson, principal, told The Catholic Sun during an open house the day before the new school year began.
Students at Catholic schools are immersed in the living water of the Church. They pray, read the Gospel and find other ways to live their faith daily.
“It becomes part of your character. It’s who you are to act as a disciple of Jesus,” said Dickerson, who has spent 23 years at Catholic elementary schools. “They don’t have to think about it. It’s part of their being.”
Students poured into their new classrooms during the open house eager not just to drop off supplies and meet the teacher, but welcome others. They checked out nametags to see if any new students were on the roster and asked about class pets.
Weston Yadron enrolled at Sacred Heart as a third-grader because he said his family wanted the kids to be in a Catholic environment — he’s the middle of three kids. The day before starting his eighth-grade year, Yadron said his relationship with God is stronger.
He likes that the teachers spend their own time ensuring students understand a lesson so they don’t fall behind academically.
“Teachers and parents go above and beyond helping students emotionally, spiritually and physically,” the principal said.
Yadron said he also enjoys extracurricular activities, especially theater camp.
Students write the faith-based scripts. Last year’s “The Ninth Life” production had feline characters figuring out their own sin.
“The way I act in public, I take pride where I go to school,” Yadron said.
Sixth-grader Emily Kabbel doesn’t know any different. She’s been at Sacred Heart since kindergarten, but likes the community, going to Mass weekly and learning about God. She finds herself paying attention in religion class and is eager to see how it’s taught this year.
Sr. Terri, who teaches religion, remembers when a student who transferred from a public school suggested Sacred Heart adopt the “Character Counts” program. She politely told the student that the Church has the virtues and Beatitudes to draw from instead.
“Those things are who we are as Catholics. We don’t need to do another add on,” Sr. Terri said.
Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Phoenix, MaryBeth Mueller, emphasized that Catholic education helps form followers of Christ.
“The specific purpose of Catholic education is the formation of students who will be disciples in this world, loving God and neighbor,” Mueller said. Students are also called to “enrich society with the leaven of the Gospel” and ultimately to “fulfill their destiny to become saints,” she said.
Patricia Collins, principal of Seton Catholic Preparatory in Chandler, noted the rich faith component that characterizes Catholic secondary education.“When you walk on a Catholic high school campus it is obvious that Christ is the reason for its existence. He is present in every class and the center of our education program, our discipline and our interaction with each other,” Collins said.
Mass is offered daily with teachers and coaches sure to show up on game days. Seton leaders encourage each club to attend Mass together at least monthly and departments are expected to allow for regular time in eucharistic adoration. Students also take turns leading each class period of the day in opening prayer.
They’re guided on living their faith in public too, leading theater audiences in prayer prior to performing. They also learn to stay civic-minded. When election season comes, students taking civics classes study the issues and candidates through a Catholic lens and hold election night gatherings to discuss results.