This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw. She had made friends with girls her age at parish events. It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year. We did a little more research and decided this was the time.
Our experience so far has been nothing but positive. Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.
Everyone is kind and friendly.
When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region. She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”
The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students. Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic of whether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options). I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”
To which my daughter replied: “Mom. This is St. Urban’s. We don’t have bullies. The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”
The friendliness is welcoming to me, too. The administration respects my time. The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers. When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.
I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs. Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse. Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class. It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.
Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.
The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying. Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day. There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does. I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.
Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me. There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true. When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”
“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said. “And also the Angelus.”
The children ate and then talked quietly. The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass. The children swept up and prepared to leave. Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.
My daughter’s teachers know her.
The school is small. There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits. (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, and here for The New Yorker’s explanation of it. I have found this to be true in practice.) My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest. But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.
When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going. To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.
I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her. All these things you describe? That’s my girl. You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her. She’s not lost here. There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.
The curriculum is well-chosen.
Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum. Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.
If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.
Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.
Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before. But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal. I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture. There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.
Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good. I’ll take it.
The school makes the most of its strengths.
One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school. That approach doesn’t work. Homeschooling isn’t for that. Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point. If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed. The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.
My parish school does that too.
There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age. There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location. Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.
My daughter loves it there.
No school can be everything to everybody. My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments. Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period. She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here. Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.
She’s a normal kid. Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream. There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well. Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.
Addendum: About that award she got.
Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning. Truth? It’s the other way around. I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes. I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.
And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around. You know what happened? They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.
What’s the big event? Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction. One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties. The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.
That’s what I want in a Catholic school.
A page from 100 Years of Dominican History, published in 1921. Photo by Anna Catherine Minogue, b. 1874 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.