Schools in Western states must meet new standards to comply with church teaching

SAN FRANCISCO – Catholic elementary and secondary schools in nine states and Guam will be required to meet new and more detailed standards showing they are educating students in the Catholic faith and tradition, as well as nurturing the faith of the total school community.

The standards took effect this year, and schools must adhere to them to be accredited by the Western Catholic Educational Association. It is the first time specific standards to measure Catholic identity will be part of the accreditation process.

“The Catholic schools will only survive if we stick true to the mission of our faith,” said Christian Brother William Carriere, the association’s executive director and former schools superintendent for the Diocese of Orange.

“I think this will go a long way toward getting Catholicism taught across the curriculum and not just relegated to theology classes,” said Joe Tassone, theology chair at Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield.

The association accredits Catholic schools in 26 dioceses in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Guam, encompassing about 308,000 students in 1,000 grade schools and high schools.

A concern that some Catholic schools were losing sight of their Catholic identity motivated the bishops of these dioceses to formulate the standards in 2008, Brother Carriere said.

The association’s seven-member board of directors has approved the final version for elementary schools and began working on a final version for high schools this year. Brother Carriere said he expects the final document for high schools to take about two years to complete.

Maintaining Catholic identity of high schools is more challenging than at elementary schools because some high school teachers tend to think of themselves as “mini-college professors” in terms of academic freedom, losing sight of their obligation to teach the Catholic faith, Brother Carriere said.

“We have to stick to what we believe … our Catholic teachings, and our Catholic values and Catholic perspectives, otherwise there’s no point in having Catholic schools,” Brother Carriere told Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the archdiocese. “We don’t want to be just an academic center. That has happened to some places.”

The new norms for accreditation include a “Catholic Identity Factor” stating that the school is Catholic and approved by the local bishop. The school also must provide authentic Catholic teaching, opportunities for community worship and participation in the sacraments, and promote evangelization and service to the community. Teachers’ own formation for catechetical and instructional competence must be ongoing.

“It is very good that Catholic schools should be accountable for their Catholic content,” said Jesuit Father John J. Piderit, president of the Catholic Education Institute, based in New York. The institute focuses on helping schools find practical ways to enhance Catholic faith and intellectual tradition.

“Most Catholic high schools do a good job on campus ministry and involvement in social justice. The more challenging area is Catholic intellectual content beyond the area of religious studies,” Father Piderit said.

“You’re not a Catholic high school unless you are teaching the Catholic faith in religion classes,” he said. “A good Catholic high school addresses religious issues in English literature, history, science and social studies. So this is a welcome challenge to Catholic high schools to show the extent of Catholic culture prevalent in their institution.”

The association’s new accreditation standards will focus on teaching the faith across the curriculum, Brother Carrier said.

Schools will include evidence of Catholic identity in the self-study document they prepare in advance of the accrediting committee’s three-day visit and the committee will look for evidence of Catholic identity in interviews with parents, teachers, students, and administrators at the school, Brother Carriere said.

The accreditation of a school assures parents and higher institutions of learning that the school meets certain academic and other standards.

The Western Catholic Educational Association falls under the authority of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arms of the state’s Catholic bishops.

The norms also requires schools have active partnership with parents about the spiritual and academic education of their children; use Catholic signs, sacramentals, traditions and rituals; and ensure all school personnel are actively engaged in bringing the good news of Jesus Christ into the total educational experience.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.