While Catholic Schools Week, observed this year Jan. 29 – Feb. 4, traditionally kicks off with open houses for prospective students that sandwich Sunday Mass times and re-registration opportunities for the following academic year, the celebration is not focused on enrollment. The nationwide observance was designed to showcase the gifts a Catholic education provides and honor the communal hands that help campuses thrive.

There will be an extra 325 area students celebrating Catholic Schools Week locally. That’s the net enrollment gain the Diocese of Phoenix saw this school year with total attendance growing the last five years. Enrollment now pushes 14,900 with more students expected once a new diocesan high school opens in the fall of 2018.

Catholic Schools Week events such as the diocesan Mass and rally at the State Capitol, held Feb. 1 this year, remind students that the world is larger than just their school or parish, MaryBeth Mueller, superintendent said, but also how they fit in. Representatives from most Catholic schools in the diocese and some from across Arizona attend the Mass.

The rally is open to the public and features live music from a Catholic high school or two, cheers from high school spirit lines, testimonies from students who benefited from need-based tuition scholarships and a few words from each of Arizona’s bishops.

“I think the Mass and rally show the students the possibilities for them in the future for Church and society,” Mueller said. “Together, we are united as Catholic school students, the Catholic Church and the diocese.”

Students from Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral School cheer at the Catholic Schools Rally in front of the Capitol last year. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

The National Catholic Educational Association, which coordinates the weeklong celebration, set this year’s theme as “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” It encompasses concepts that are at the heart of a Catholic education, Mueller explained.

“First schools are communities — mall families in their own right, but also members of the larger community of home, church, city and nation. By focusing on faith, knowledge and service — measures by which any Catholic school can and should be judged — Catholic schools prepare children to use their God-given talents to the fullest later in life.”

James Pavlacka, director of leadership support for NCEA, will be a special guest this year. He will also visit some schools to get a pulse of diocesan campus life.

Some things he will find: school staff and administrators working closely with parents to find tuition assistance that makes schools affordable and available plus all top 12 reasons the NCEA advocates Catholic education. Among them: caring faculty and staff, high achievement standards, moral development and self-discipline, and integration of faith, culture and life.

Nearly 150 students at Xavier College Preparatory, for example, attended the first “Agape Latte” event last month. The “caffeinated conversation series” on faith and life is based on a model introduced by Boston College in 2006. Faculty and administrators share personal stories in a coffee house setting. The first one focused on “Amazing Gifts of Grace” with three more scheduled for the spring semester.

At the elementary level, Our Lady of Mount Carmel is launching a JPII Young Philosophers Club for junior high students to learn the basics of apologetics. Community experts will help them explore and understand the Catholic perspective on key topics, develop defenses of such truths and debate them in a civil manner.

The diocese’s youngest learners aren’t exempt from being held accountable. Pre-kindergarteners at Sacred Heart in Prescott raised $21.84 by doing extra chores at home. “Santa’s elves” chipped in, too, allowing them to buy $107 worth of toys for area foster kids at Christmas.

“Knowledge in the faith is the reason for our schools. They are the teaching mission of the Church,” Mueller said.

There are some 1.9 million students enrolled in 6,525 elementary and high schools nationwide. More data.