Dr. Kathy O'Hara is Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and a CEF Board Member.
When I think about the Catholic Education Foundation, I smile. I smile because I cannot think about CEF without seeing the faces of students in our Catholic schools, and those faces always have the biggest ear-to-ear smiles and grins. In fact, the smiles of our students almost distract from their eyes. Our students’ eyes sparkle…well, maybe they do not sparkle during math tests (!)…but they definitely sparkle when they talk about their schools.
People often ask me, “What’s the difference? Why are your students so happy? Why do they love their schools? Why do they do so well?” There are those who like to think that our schools only admit the “cream of the crop.” The truth is that we try to accommodate all who desire a Catholic school education, including those whose families cannot afford Catholic school tuition without assistance. The role of CEF is to help us ensure that economic circumstances are not a barrier for families who desire a Catholic education; currently, about 1 in 10 students in Catholic schools in our Archdiocese receive scholarship assistance from CEF. Parents who choose our Catholic schools are looking for something more for their children and CEF helps make that “more” a reality for many families.
I am reminded about an old joke that I will try to summarize here: it seems that there was young student who was not doing well in school. Math was particularly challenging for him, but all of his grades were below average. His parents had tried everything to help him and nothing seemed to work. As a last resort, they decided to enroll him in the local Catholic school even though they were not Catholic or even particularly religious. After the first day of school in his new Catholic school, the student came home and rushed to his room to do his homework, barely answering his parents’ question about how his first day was. This happened day after day. His parents noticed that he also was always ready for school early each morning. They were amazed and exceedingly happy that their son seemed to like school and was doing so well, and they were afraid to question him too much about why this was so because they did not want to “jinx” the good situation. This positive change continued, and soon it was time for parent teacher conferences. The parents were anxious to hear about their son’s progress. The teachers raved about their son, telling them that he was a wonderful young man who worked very hard and applied himself so well – a model student! When the parents came home, they just had to ask their son, “What happened? From the first day in this Catholic school, you have come home, completed your homework and studied without us ever having to say anything. Your teachers are saying you are a model student. We are so pleased, but we have to know why.” Their son looked at them and said, “Well, the first day of school, I saw that guy nailed to the plus sign, and I figured they meant business and I better not mess around!”
I hope no one is offended by that joke; I retell it to demonstrate that having Christ as the focus of our schools really does make the difference, and the difference is not fear, but love. It is love that goes beyond simply caring about kids – it is a love for the most important part of their beings, their souls. A Catholic scholar, Fr. Richard Jacobs, wrote that “Teaching is an intimate communication between souls.” That is the difference. That is the reason we have any success at all in Catholic schools.