Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 8, 1999
The uniqueness of Catholic schools
Trustees focus on visible signs, living out the Gospel
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
More than 30 years have passed since Vatican II declared "what makes the Catholic school distinctive is its attempt to generate a community climate in the school that is permeated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and love."
Today, Catholic school districts across Alberta continue to look for ways to express that distinctiveness, to themselves and to their communities.
It's an ongoing process, recognized in by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in its 1997 document The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium which states that "now, as in the past, the Catholic school must be able to speak for itself effectively and convincingly."
In anticipation of Catholic Education Sunday Nov. 7, three longtime trustees shared their thoughts with the WCR on what makes their schools Catholic.
"First of all, when any of our parents or anyone else walks into our schools, there has to be a visible presence, through crucifixes and other items that make it clear the school is Catholic," says Ken Lesniak, chair of the Elk Island Catholic school division.
"Then it has to be made clear by the practices of the staff. It has to be evident that our faith is the centre of the school, from morning prayer to meal prayers, to celebrations, to the presence of the parish team in the schools."
The Catholic identity of a district is "in the forefront" in the development of district policies, belief statements, mission statements, and recruitment of staff, Lesniak adds.
"We constantly refer to whether this fits with the teachings of the Catholic Church and meets the needs of a Catholic school.
"When we're dealing with the really tough issues, that's the first question we ask."
It's a conscious effort on the part of trustees, administration, and school staff, agrees Gerald Bernakevitch, chair of the Evergreen Catholic Separate Regional Divison, which includes Spruce Grove, Stony Plain and Westlock.
"It's a focused effort - there's a path we want to follow, and every year we try to enhance that.
"There are a whole myriad of things that have to happen, and it's carried throughout the whole year. It's not just something we start out doing in September and then let fade for the rest of the year.
And, he adds, there's a "certain amount of vigilance required to ensure that it's happening."
One way in which schools measure whether they're being effective is through parent satisfaction surveys, which include questions dealing specifically with the faith dimension of the school, Bernakevitch says.
Edmonton Catholic Schools chair Ron Patsula says it's important for a district to write down its beliefs and mission, so they can be clearly articulated.
The district's beliefs then form the basis for developing policy and responding to issues, he says, as in the case of Edmonton's recent rejection of an offer to build a joint use school with Edmonton Public.
"Once you state your beliefs and state the outcomes, you have something to measure yourself against," he says.
"For example, we state that we believe each person is created in the image and likeness of God. That affects how we operate in the classroom. A teacher should stand at the front of the classroom and say to themselves 'Each child is created in the image of God and deserves my respect.'"
Edmonton Catholic Schools has developed what it calls a Manifesto for Catholic Education which it is using as a resource throughout its current review of administrative policies. The manifesto offers an examination of what characteristics make a school Catholic and specific recommendations to enhance its Catholicity.
Already the document has been used as the foundation for the division's new Religious Education policy, and teacher assessment policy.
But Fr. Stephen Wojcichowsky, coordinator of religion services for the division and part of the team which developed the manifesto, emphasizes that it's a working document.
"The principle behind the manifesto was to help whoever in doing whatever to breathe the Catholic spirit into what they were doing."
All three districts emphasize the critical role teachers play in creating a Catholic environment. Their role becomes increasingly important as schools become, for many students, the only place they hear the Gospel message.
Because Catholic schools are not isolated from society, but reflect the communities in which they exist, "the school is undoubtedly a sensitive meeting point for the problems which besiege this restless end of the millennium," according to the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education.
"The Catholic school is thus confronted with children and young people who experience the difficulties of the present time."
All the more reason to become a welcoming community, says Patsula.
"Our schools should be schools where God is present. . . . Our responsibility is to live in the real world and bring Jesus there."