Which Catholic school is right for your child?

A look at some of the different Catholic elementary school models in Denver

Aaron Lambert

All this talk about school choice begs the question: What kinds of options are available to Catholic school students in Denver?

Quite a few, it turns out.

While the Office of Catholic Schools is working hard to determine where new Catholic high schools would best serve, parents of elementary-aged children through middle school have a wealth of options when it comes to giving their kids a Catholic education.

“It’s about getting parents choice for their kids’ education,” said Adam Dufault, assistant superintendent of Denver Catholic Schools. “Kids are all different, kids all don’t learn the same way. Within the Catholic school system, we want to create options.”

A handful of the 42 schools in the diocese, 37 directly overseen by the Office of Catholic Schools and five affiliated but run by various religious orders, adhere to specialized models of education that fall outside the traditional parochial school models, which contain their own rigorous curriculum and conform with archdiocesan standards. There are also a number of other unaffiliated Catholic schools which offer educational models that are just as valuable.

No matter which school a parent may choose to send their child to, one element remains a constant through each of them.

“The unifying force for all of these schools is the fact they’re all Catholic,” Dufault said. “That is a non-negotiable.”

Classical

The Archdiocese of Denver is currently home to two Classical academies: Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver and Frassati Catholic Academy in Thornton. Bishop Machebeuf High School is also considering implementing a Classical track in the near future.

The classical model dates back to as early as the 6th century and is built upon three primary pillars: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The study of Latin, art and music are integral to a classical education, and in the case of these two schools, faith is the foundation upon which the curriculum is built.

Our Lady of Lourdes’ enrollment has grown consistently since principal Rosemary Anderson switched the school to a classical model in 2011, and Frassati is currently in its first official year of operation.

Expeditionary Learning

Two schools in the archdiocese adhere to the expeditionary learning model of education: St. Rose of Lima and Annunciation schools in Denver.

EL schools focus on problem-based learning, and as the name suggests, encourages students to explore concepts themselves. For example, students embark on long-term “learning expeditions” in which they connect classroom learning to real world issues.

Another mantra of EL learning is encouraging high-quality work; teachers emphasize the importance to completing every assignment to the best of the student’s ability.

EL schools also invest in professional development for their teachers and leaders to keep them at the peak of their development as teaching professionals, which is of great benefit to the students as well.

For more information about expeditionary learning, visit eleducation.org.

Dual-language

Escuela de Guadalupe is currently the only dual-language Catholic school in the archdiocese, but with an ever-increasing need for bilingualism, that number could very well increase.

Dual-language schools essentially teach students to learn in English and another language; in the case of Escuela, its students learn in both English and Spanish. Some classes are in English, others are in Spanish, and some switch languages between days.

“We know the benefits of kids who are bilingual; they test a little bit better, they can solve problems a little more creatively, and it’s good thing to have,” said Denver Catholic Schools superintendent Kevin Kijewski.

Visit escuelaguadalupe.org for more information.

Montessori

Sophia Montessori Academy is the first school of its kind in the Denver area.

The Montessori method has grown in popularity over the years with its emphasis in hands-on learning, but a Catholic Montessori school is a rarity.

“It’s very unusual for Denver to incorporate the Catholic faith in its fullness into a Montessori school,” said Pauline Meert, one of Sophia’s co-founders. “Montessori teachers in general do incorporate a spirituality aspect, but without actually naming the Lord and the saints. We wanted to be able to talk about God and the saints.”

Founded this year by Meert and Irene O’Brien, Sophia practices the Byzantine tradition of the faith, adding to its singularity. Mixed age groups are one of Montessori’s hallmarks, as is the hands-on approach.

“It’s following Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’ observations that nothing enters the mind that does not first come through the senses,” Meert said.

It also acknowledges that children learn in different ways, and therefore should be taught according to their needs.

“Putting the child first is the basic tagline of the Montessori approach,” O’Brien said. “If children learn and grow in specific ways, then teach them in a specific way.”

Visit sophiamontessori.com to learn more about the Montessori method.

S.T.E.M.

S.T.E.M. is a model that places emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was developed in response to the growing fields of engineering and technology in the modern age to help equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in those fields.

While there are presently no S.T.E.M. schools in the archdiocese, a few schools have integrated S.T.E.M. elements into their classrooms, including Sts. Peter and Paul and Blessed Sacrament. Furthermore, three schools within the archdiocese are discerning the implementation a S.T.E.M. program.

Homeschooling

If a parent would rather homeschool their child in a Catholic environment, there are resources to assist with that, too.

Groups such as the Denver Area Catholic Home Educators offer support and encouragement to local Catholic homeschool families and help connect homeschooling communities to groups closer to their geographic area. They help run cooperatives and programs at various parishes and homes.

Additionally, yearly home educators’ conferences such as the Rocky Mountain Catholic Home Educators Conference and the IHM Colorado Homeschool Conferences are designed to help parents who double as their children’s teachers develop their skills and learn best practices of being your child’s academic educator.

Mary Machado, the Metro area coordinator for the Denver Area Catholic Home Educators, has been homeschooling for over 19 years. The benefits of homeschooling are numerous and quite varied, she said, but homeschooling brings with it a unique kind of virtue formation.

“[Homeschooling is] challenging; it’s countercultural in a lot of ways, but there’s some real benefits of the family dynamic being together, facing that and growing in virtue together,” Machado said.

Shandra Emrich, a parishioner of Holy Name Parish, described being a homeschooling parent as a “total gift of self, poured out as a libation in service to the soul God has entrusted to us.”

Featured image by Andrew Wright

COMING UP: Parents choose. Kids win.

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Parents choose. Kids win.

School choice a legislative priority for the archdiocese in 2017

Aaron Lambert

The Office of Catholic Schools, the Colorado Catholic Conference and a diverse group of state-wide allies are teaming up to make school choice an important issue this legislative session, which opened Jan. 11.

Superintendent Kevin Kijewski and Colorado Catholic Conference executive director Jenny Kraska are pushing for Colorado legislators to consider implementing a scholarship tax credit program within the state, which would grant a tax credit to individuals and/or businesses who make donations to scholarship-granting organizations. Those organizations can then use the donations to create scholarships that can be given to help pay for the cost of tuition at private schools or out-of-district public schools that would otherwise be too expensive for families.

The overarching goal for passing such a law is to promote school choice, or as Kijewski and Kraska prefer to call it, parental choice.

“We’ve been making a concerted effort to get away from using the term ‘school choice’ to the term ‘parental choice,’ because really, it’s about parents being able to make the decisions for their kids,” Kraska said.

Implementing a scholarship tax credit program could be beneficial not only for Catholic schools, but for private and charter schools as well. Ultimately, it empowers parents to be, as the Catholic Church teaches, the primary educators and teachers of their children.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices,” Kijewski told the Denver Catholic.

The concept of school choice is a hot button issue in education, made even more so with the nomination of known school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary. School choice, in its simplest form, can be defined as programs that offer students and their families alternatives to public schools. Every taxpayer funds public schools with the taxes they pay; school choice allows for these public funds to follow students the schools or services that best meet their needs, whether that be public schools, private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices.”

While the current federal ruling supports private school choice through public funding–a precedent set by the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman V. Harris–the main obstacle to school choice lies within the states. In Colorado’s case, there are two Blaine Amendments in the state constitution that strictly prohibit any public funds from being allocated to private school entities. These provisions date back to the late 1800s and are named for Congressman James G. Blaine, who fueled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the time by lobbying for these provisions to be passed in each of the states after a federal proposal was shot down.

Thirty-eight of the 50 states in the U.S. still have some sort of Blaine amendment in their state constitutions.

“[Blaine amendments] provide a huge impediment for [public] money flowing to private schools,” Kraska said.

There are a few different options when it comes to school choice, including the popular voucher system and the more recent Education Savings Accounts. For Colorado, however, Kijewski and Kraska suggest the best option is to implement a scholarship tax credit program, which have also been implemented in 17 other states.

Giving parents control

Brittany Corona is a national school choice advocate and former director of state policy for EdChoice. She is starting a National Catholic education reform nonprofit organization, the vision for which is based on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis. It will work primarily to unify the Catholic voice in education reform and advocate directly within the school choice network.

According to Gravissimum Educationis, parents are the primary teachers of their children and should be free to choose which school their child goes to in conformity with their conscience. To that end, Corona said that school choice works in conjunction with the Church’s teachings regarding education.

“Allowing for public funds, or in the case of tax credit scholarships, charitable donations to scholarship granting organizations, to be directed toward families who direct those dollars towards school choice or education options in choice, is consistent with Church teaching,” Corona explained.

There are limitations to scholarship tax credits, however. Corona said that because they’re funded entirely by charitable donations, there is a cap on the money that students are able to access. According to Corona, the ideal method for school choice would be to “allow parents to direct the dollars that are allotted for their children to an education option of choice.” Education Savings Accounts are the best option to systematically change the system for school choice, she said.

Still, she said that in the case of Colorado, scholarship tax credits are the best way to go.

If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools. Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.”

“Scholarship tax credits differ from other school choice options because they’re completely made up of charitable contributions, so it’s not coming out of the state pot of public funding at all,” she said.

Though results vary on a state-by-state basis, statistics show that attendance rates at private schools increase when parents are given choices of which schools to send their kids to. The state of Florida implemented a scholarship tax credit program in 2001, and recent statistics published by the Florida Department of Education show a steady increase in private school enrollment rates from 2011-2016.

Competition also plays a factor when parents have a choice, which can increase the overall quality of education a school offers.

“If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools,” Kijewski said. “Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.

“This is about empowering people, not only to go to Catholic school, but to go to whatever school they want. It’s about empowering people to make choices for their kids.”