Catholic elementary schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington are diverse and varied. Their size varies from just over 100 students to over 700 students. We have schools in the heart of the District of Columbia with little or no green space for student play, schools sitting on vast acres of land with a chicken named Nugget on the school grounds. We have schools with dual immersion programs, others specializing in the STEM curriculum, and others adopting a classical curriculum. In all this diversity, however, they are united in their call to respond to the Great Commission given by Jesus to make disciples of all nations. This common mission is at the heart of every Catholic school and that is why Catholic Schools Week is celebrated nationally every year. This year, the theme of Catholic Schools Week is “Catholic Schools: Faith. Excellency. A service.”
Faith is an important part of every Catholic school. Beyond the daily religion classes and the pictures and statues in the building, our Catholic schools strive to inspire prayer and put faith into action every day. School Mass is an important way to create community within schools. Many schools meet weekly to worship together, and Catholic Schools Week is no exception. At St. Michael’s School in Ridge, Maryland, which is our southernmost school, Lila Hofmeister, the principal, said, “Each grade is involved in planning the week of Mass for Catholic schools. Many schools will also celebrate Catholic Schools Week within their parish communities during weekend masses on January 29 and invite parishioners and the wider community to the school for open days, although some are virtual in accordance with Covid security protocols.
Excellence has always been a hallmark of Catholic education. Teachers and administrators work hard to ensure that students meet and exceed program standards. More than half of our archdiocesan elementary schools have been recognized as National Blue Ribbon winners, and many have won the distinction multiple times.
The Covid pandemic has forced schools to explore new strategies to maintain learning excellence and help students grow. St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington, DC has taken a multi-step approach to helping students achieve excellence. Raven Wilkins Sr., Principal of St. Augustine, said, “It was important to help transition or build a bridge for learners who were learning primarily at home last year as they returned to the classroom this year. Under the direction of Helene Cropper, Vice-Principal, a free summer program was created to help students academically and meet their social and emotional needs. Principal Wilkins and Dr. Olga Williams, the technology teacher, also analyzed each student’s standardized test results, and Dr. Williams designed targeted strategies using a variety of tools to help each learner acquire the skills needed for growth. “We’re already starting to see results from these strategies,” said Wilkins, who noted improved student performance on mid-year tests.
Service, where faith is put into action, is also an important part of our Catholic schools. LaSandra Hayes, principal of St. Mary’s School in Landover Hills, noted how the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. asked, “What are you doing for others?” This principle is what guides the St. Mary’s School community, she said. “Our testimony is what we do for each other,” said Hayes, who recently launched the school kindness campaign. The campaign encourages students to find ways to be there for others in more or less important ways. The St. Mary’s School Community has always been a community that strives to serve others and has recently stepped up its efforts by offering the Deaf community of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington the use of the school gymnasium for mass and other functions when their facility was recently damaged by fire. “In this time of physical distancing and dealing with Covid and other difficulties, it’s important to show that you care and are there for others,” Hayes said.
Community service is also important at St. Michael’s School, where students will make memories during Catholic Schools Week for police, firefighters and healthcare workers. “We sent a flower arrangement to Dr. (Meenakshi) Brewster, Chief of St. Mary’s County Health Department, to thank her for all of her hard work and dedication during this pandemic. We are grateful to all of our community workers,” Hofmeister said.
Catholic Schools Week this year runs from January 29 to February 5.
(Christina Mendez-Hall, Ed.D., is assistant superintendent for Catholic identity and accreditation for Catholic schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.)