By Paul Wirth

          This week is Catholic Schools Week, a time to celebrate the importance of Catholic schools to our students, to our communities and to our Church.

          Throughout the Diocese of Erie, 29 Catholic schools are a bustle of open houses, special events and — especially — community service projects. It’s a week when Catholic school students, faculty and volunteers help repay the support and love given to them year-round by their parishes and communities through service, and through the love of Jesus Christ.

          “Now more than ever, we have a need to connect with people on a real level,” says Jim Gallagher, superintendent of Catholic schools. “Everyone is connected electronically and virtually, but we are not always connected spiritually with one another in the way that we are called to be.”

          This week, people in diocesan Catholic schools are forging those connections in a variety of ways. Here are just a few examples:

          Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage asked Claudio Reilsono, head baseball coach of Carnegie Mellon University, who is also a professional baseball scout and author, to give a keynote address to students, clergy and board members. “He will speak on the importance of his Catholic faith in his professional and personal life,” says Karen Ionta, president of the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools, “which will serve as an example to all of us.”

          Students in Karisa King’s kindergarten class at Seton Catholic in Meadville are collecting toothpaste and toothbrushes, and will put them in “smile bags” they have decorated, before donating them to the clients of the Pregnancy Center of Meadville.

Kennedy Catholic High School students also took part in
a service project during Catholic Schools Week that benefitted
Shenango Valley Animal Shelter. Students surprised community
helpers with special treats and cards of thanks.
Contributed photo

          At St. John Paul II Elementary School in Hermitage K-6 students are donating small toiletry or snack items and will gather to assemble care packages for troops serving overseas. “It’s part of our mission,” says Principal Kathryn Tiefenthal. “Even though we don’t know the people we are helping, we teach students to serve others and to share the love of Jesus Christ.”

          Service doesn’t only happen during Catholic Schools Week, but rather, it is woven into the fabric of the entire school year, says Laura Blake, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools.

         “It is during Catholic Schools Week that we are reminded to stop and reflect about the value of a Catholic education,” says Blake. “But the kinds of activities you see in our schools during this week actually happen all the time, all year long. The come naturally, because they are part of the mission of Catholic education.”

          Almost all schools will be performing a service project this week, from helping parishes, to community projects like making sandwiches for the homeless or collecting food for animal shelters, to shoveling snow for those in need, to supporting members of the armed services.

          “There are fun things happening in our schools as well, of course, and elementary students really look forward to those,” says Blake. “When you wear a uniform all year long, everyone likes to be able to wear goofy socks on one day.”

          According to the National Catholic Education Association, Catholic Schools Week has been held since 1974 as a celebration of Catholic education in the United States. The theme this year is “Catholic Schools: United in Faith and Community.”

          Catholic Schools Week also is a time for educators and supporters of Catholic Schools to remember what sets Catholic schools apart. One big differentiator is an unrelenting focus on academic excellence.

          A consistent way to ensure excellence is by following national standards, Gallagher said. The National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (2nd edition. Arlington, VA; National Catholic Educational Association) provide specific guidance around four main performance areas: Mission and Catholic Identity, Governance and Leadership, Academic Excellence, and Operational Vitality.

          “These standards are the roadmap for what our schools — to be effective — should live up to,” Gallagher says. “We work every day to ensure that our schools meet these benchmarks, because that is the way to have a vibrant and healthy Catholic school community.”

          In addition to academic excellence, the faith-based nature of Catholic education is key, Gallager says. “We are able to bring our Catholic faith identity and that world view into our educational process,” he says.

          “We grow our students academically and athletically,” says Blake, “but also spiritually, and in that way, we prepare them to be active members of their Church and their communities.”