Study shows Catholic students have an advantage over their peers in other schools

A new study shows students in Catholic schools are excelling at one particular skill that’s crucially important in higher education, and in life: self-discipline.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute report “Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools: Evidence from Two National Cohorts” shows students in Catholic schools are less likely to act up and exhibit more self-control and self-discipline than their peers in private or public schools, Aleteia reports.

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara analyzed teacher responses to national surveys between 1999 and 2011 to discover the trends, which lead to fewer student discipline problems in Catholic schools.

“Over the years Catholic schools – the largest provider of private education in the United States – have been particularly committed to the development of sound character, including the acquisition of self-discipline,” according to the report.

“Since Catholic school doctrine emphasizes the development of self-discipline, it seems likely that Catholic schools devote more time and attention to fostering it,” the report continues. “And their apparent success in doing so suggests that schools that focus on self-discipline are capable of inoculating, developing, and strengthening it over time – in the same way that other schools might focus on athletic skills to win track meets or football games.

“If other schools took self-discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they would likely have to spend less time, energy, political capital on penalizing students for negative behaviors.”

Researchers suggest school curriculum, discipline policies, and educators’ daily interactions with students all likely help build self-discipline in Catholic schools, but they highlighted another notable factor that’s difficult to measure.

“The most obvious feature that Catholic schools and similar faith-based schools have in common is their focus on religion—including such specifically Judeo-Christian values as humility, obedience, kindness, tolerance, self-sacrifice, and perseverance,” the study said. “It is difficult to pin down whether and how these values, taught in relation to the life of Christ, may influence a child’s behavior. Perhaps students are more likely to internalize such values when they know they are loved not only by their teachers but by their Creator, or when they perceive that misbehavior may have eternal consequences.”

“Religion can mold hearts and minds,” the study concluded, “in ways that suspensions, restorative justice, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) can’t begin to match.”

The Fordham Institute isn’t the only think tank to notice the positive influence Catholic and other religious schools have on student character.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture featured Catholic schools as one of several education sectors in “The Content of Their Character,” a summary of character education in American high schools.

Carol Ann MacGregor, lead researcher for Catholic schools, outlined the “ethos … and the philosophical hallmarks that made a particular education sector (like Catholic schools) unique – e.g., how it conceived the nature of the child, the task of teaching and formation, the purpose of education, and the role of adult authority.”

Educators who want to employ strategies to help students build self-discipline can find resources on sites like TeachHUB, which offers tips and teaching strategies for practicing self-control, memory development and other skills.

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Private school officials discuss how faith shapes school culture, breeds academic success

St. Joseph Catholic School Principal Wade Laffey wants parents to know that the private religious school is more than a public school with a religion class.

“The faith and the catholicity of the school just appears throughout the day in the form of prayer, in the form of the type of uniform the students wear, to the morals and behaviors that are expected of the students and families,” Laffey told the Enid News & Eagle.

Laffey and other religious school leaders recently spoke with the news site about the benefits of a school culture steeped in strongly held religious beliefs, including ways it improves student discipline, engages parents, and encourages students to excel in academics.

Lois Nichols of St. Paul’s Lutheran School explained that the school’s focus on the love of God plays an important role, allowing misbehaving students to reflect on what Jesus would do and how their actions impact others.

“Most of the time they step up to the plate and change that behavior … it is very effective,” Nichols said.

At both St. Joseph and St. Paul’s, parents are also expected to invest in their child’s education through volunteer work, such as serving lunch, tutoring students, and helping with fundraising and school events.

“The students see that, they see the sacrifices that their parents are making for them,” Laffey told the News & Eagle. “That just helps to create that much more of an environment where students realize, ‘We must be worth caring about.’”

Small class sizes at many private religious schools also allows educators to provide more attention to each student than in other schools with large classes, Nichols said.

“The nicest thing about it is that each teacher works really hard with each individual student to make sure their needs are met,” he said.

The combination of factors – a school culture centered on religious beliefs, led by adults with a shared set of values, along with small classes that help teachers focus on each student’s needs – produces students who excel in academics and life.

Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture agree that the holistic approach being adopted by these schools is what makes them uniquely effective in character formation. Values when influential are not generic. Professor James Davison Hunter writes, “No one has ever believed in kindness or honesty without understanding them in the concrete circumstances of a moral culture embedded in a moral community.”  Only the particularity of moral community, such as those that these religious schools provide, can bind empathy with right behavior. This is further explained in the brief monograph, The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, which is itself a shortened version of Hunter’s The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. Creating a moral culture embedded in community is key.

St. Joseph serves students through fifth grade, while St. Paul offers instruction through eighth grade. And it’s when students move on to high school that some of the biggest benefits of a religious education come into focus, Laffey and Nichols said.

“Every other school in town wants the St. Joe’s kids,” Laffey said. “More often than not, they’re placed in honors classes and advanced curriculum.”

“We have kids that score higher above most public schools because of the small classrooms and individualized attention,” Nichols added.

Principals and other education leaders interested in strengthening Roman Catholic teachers in their schools can turn to the National Catholic Education Association for support.


High school student interns at Deloitte, sets the stage for his future

When Gregory Damas entered Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School four years ago, he immediately went to work, and the years of internship experience he’s racked up—at the city’s mayor’s office and prestigious accounting firms—is setting him up nicely for his future.

“How many high school students do you know get four internships in four years of high school before they even step foot on a college campus? So that’s insane,” Damas told the Catholic Digest. “I worked at Comcast my freshman year, the mayor’s office of Philadelphia my sophomore year, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ my junior year, and right now (I) work at Deloitte.”

The experience is part of a corporate work-study requirement that makes the Cristo Rey Catholic school unique, both in how it’s financed and the hands-on, real world experiences it offers students. What began as an idea in 1996 to offset the cost of tuition for low income Catholic students in Chicago has become a recipe for success that’s since spawned 32 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia that make up the Cristo Rey Network.

Catholic Digest reports:

According to Genster, the fundamentals of the Cristo Rey model that contribute to its track record of success revolve around four critical elements: Each Cristo Rey school is authentically Catholic; they have a to-and-through college focus; they offer a rigorous college-preparatory education; and they integrate academics with four years of professional workplace experience through a corporate work-study program.

The corporate work-study program is the defining element that makes the Cristo Rey model unique. Each Cristo Rey student works a full day each week at a local business in an entry-level position, and in turn the business pays the salary to the school to offset the cost of tuition.

In Philadelphia, Catholic school officials shuttered Damas’ former elementary school when he was in the 4th grade, only to walk back into the same building—re-envisioned as Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School—five years later.

He is one of 470 students from low-income families in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, at Cristo Rey, and he’s now applying to Villanova, Drexel, Georgetown, and Fordham universities, to study accounting and financial consulting.

“Many of the students come not recognizing or (they’re) thinking small about what their potential is. If we can help them see that they have enormous potential, enormous talents, and enormous potential to develop themselves—and to develop other students in their class,” said John McConnell, a concerned Catholic who helped to bring the Cristo Rey Network to the city. “That’s when they start to super-accelerate their development.”

The network’s 9,000 students worked with 2,000 businesses in healthcare, law, government, and finance to earn $45 million in 2014 alone, though Cristo Rey Network president Jane Genster points out the experience can be priceless.

The on-the-job training “reinforces both the cognitive and the non-cognitive ability found in the classroom. It demystifies the world outside their neighborhoods,” she said. “It helps teach them 21st-century job skills and expectations, and the why of higher education, and career doors that professional opportunities open to them.”

The unique approach at Cristo Rey schools is what Notre Dame sociologist David Sikkink refers to as “alternative pedagogy” in The Content of Their Character, which summarizes findings from the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Schools using alternative pedagogy examined by Sikkink shared “a distinctive organization and distinctive practices and orientations that generated a particular context for student moral and civic formation,” while offering “a fairly explicit understanding of student formation goals, which to a large extent were an outgrowth of an alternative vision of the educational task.”

That seems to be the case at Cristo Rey, where McConnell said the “goal is not really to graduate from high school. It’s not even to get into college. And frankly it’s not even just to graduate from college,” he said. “Our goal is to recognize and realize our full potential. That’s a really lofty goal.”

And it’s one Damas seems to embrace. The Catholic Digest reports that he “hopes to give back for all the mentoring he’s received by teaching kids how to manage their finances.” provides a clearinghouse for school officials to help students identify and apply for a wide variety of internship opportunities.

Classical Catholic school welcomes special needs students

Michael and Penny Michalak founded the Immaculata Classical Academy in 2010 intentionally to include students like their daughter, Elena, who has Down syndrome.  The benefits of this model are widely shared by the whole school community.

The couple saw a need for a Catholic school in which students like their daughter would not be segregated from their siblings. They wanted to keep their children together without compromising educational quality or spiritual formation.

“A classical education is, I think, the best education for a child with special needs because it is an education in everything that is beautiful, true, and good. It is perfect for these children,” Penny Michalak told the Catholic News Agency.

The school is shaped by a distinctly Christian ethos where “Prayer is the air we breathe,” says Mrs. Michalak. “Our whole philosophy is to teach every child as if we were teaching the Christ child, so that is how we handle each and every student.”

“You can’t learn compassion in a book,” says Michael Michalek. This virtue is formed at Immaculata where students learn “the ability to give of yourself to help others” continually.

The ethos of a school matters tremendously for forming the students that attend it. “Schools constitute their own moral ecosystems and are sites that advance their own particular views about human life and the just society,” write James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson in The Content of Their Character, a new publication from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Students at Immaculata are immersed not only in a story of goodness, truth, and beauty, but also in a community that cherishes students with special needs. The particularity of firmly held beliefs about human life and the just society—and the lived community that embodies them—are at the core of character formation.

“Michael sees the founding of a school like Immaculata as the natural Catholic response at a moment in history when children with Down syndrome are especially at risk,” reports the CNA.

Michael Michalak says, “Look at what the Catholic Church has done throughout history: We see orphans; we build orphanages. We see sick people; we build hospitals. It is in this particular time and place that we saw the need to take the lead on this and to start a school that incorporates the whole family.”

Immaculata Classical Academy created this video for students to share what they love about this environment. Teachers in other schools can use this as a prompt in their own classrooms to invite students of all abilities to reflect on the benefits of learning together.

In Phoenix Catholic schools, service is a given

In the Diocese of Phoenix, Catholic school students learn service by sustained practice. At St. Mary’s High School volunteer service is not a requirement—because service is already a natural part of their lives.

At schools like St. John Bosco, “. . . it is ingrained in our mission statement as followers of Jesus. We believe we were put here on earth to use our gifts by serving others,” says 1st-grade teacher Jena Gump, according to The Catholic Sun. There is explicit religious reasoning for service—as you would expect in a religious school.

From preschool through 12th grade, students learn the importance of giving back and thinking beyond themselves.

The school encourages children to donate a can a week to the local St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry. And when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and the Gulf coast region last summer, the school collected 16 moving boxes full of donations.

How does this affect the character that students form in their years of schooling? That is the question that animated the School Cultures and Student Formation research project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The project investigated religious schools—Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, and Islamic—as well as non-religious independent schools, home schools, charter schools, and public schools. The findings appear in The Content of Their Character, edited by James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson. They write of the Catholic schools studied that, “in keeping with Catholic tradition, service to one’s community, and especially service to the disadvantaged, featured prominently in school life.” Not surprisingly, “the most religiously orthodox school communities looked to the authority of God, whether mediated through scriptures, traditions, or broader communities of faith.”

The presence of an authoritative tradition and a supportive social environment made the formative environments of religious schools—like the diocese of Phoenix—unique. “I think the service and the leadership opportunities are what makes Catholic education different,” says Jena Gump.

When “giving back is a part of daily life” as Phoenix Catholic Schools seek, it is no wonder that schools like St. Mary’s don’t have to require service. They can’t imagine not doing it.

Building an integrated, sustained culture of service is a long, slow work. It takes at least a dozen years, but it’s worth the effort. Getting Smart offers “21 Tips for Connecting Learners to Their Community” for school leaders looking for a way to get started.

Friends over phones: Catholic schools are limiting technology in class

Several Catholic schools are reducing technology use in their classrooms and school buildings, citing “the human and spiritual formation of their students.”

Notre Dame Catholic School in Wichita Falls, Texas, banned phone use in the school during the school day. Principal Michael Edghill, speaking to the Catholic News Agency, explained that “it takes a rightly formed person to undertake the task of human formation, which is the mission of Catholic education.”

Edghill said his biggest concern is a tendency to let technology become the main driving force of education rather than a tool of support for teachers and students. “No machine or technical tool can appropriately engage in the formation of the soul,” he said. His guiding principle is intentionality.

Jay Boren, headmaster of St. Benedict Elementary in Natick, Massachusetts, echoes Edghill’s vision of human formation, saying that dramatically reducing technology in the classroom “allows students to cultivate the ability to sustain attention, develop concentration, and appreciate silence, which are necessary dispositions to ponder truth, beauty, and goodness.”

Quite obviously, these school leaders are expressing a particular view of the purpose and pedagogy of education that is sustained and informed by a living Catholic tradition. These commitments are not insignificant to the work of learning and formation.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture designed the School Cultures and Student Formation Project to investigate the varieties of moral formation in ten different sectors of American high schools. According to Carol Ann MacGregor, lead researcher for Catholic schools in the upcoming book, The Content of Their Character made particular note of the Catholic school’s “ethos . . . and the philosophical hallmarks that made a particular sector [such as Catholic education] unique—e.g., how it conceived the nature of the child, the task of teaching and formation, the purpose of education, and the role of adult authority.”

When these philosophical and religious hallmarks shape the ethos of the school—as they have at Notre Dame—they can have significant effects for students. Edghill reports that “the unplanned side effect [of banning phones during the school day] is that the students actually talk to one another before school in the mornings now instead of just staring at their individual screens.”

Resisting the siren call of screens is no easy task for adults or students. As an alternative to banning phones, one teacher awards participation points to students who voluntarily leave their phones (off, or in airplane mode) on his desk as they enter the class. Regardless of the tactics, it takes a strong vision of the purpose of teaching and the work of formation to resist the lure of our screens.

Catholic students learn, serve, lead, and succeed

Catholic schools around the country are celebrating Catholic Schools Week under the theme: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed. Students at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa, will serve in nursing homes.

The week of service will be the highlight of the year for the school, said religion teacher Nita Carlson.

The week kicked off on Monday morning with a prayer and games. A visit to local nursing homes was scheduled for later in the day. There, the students were to sing with residents and help them make Valentine’s Day cards. The students will wear different shirts each day of the week to match the theme of the activity, which offers a break from their usual school uniforms.

“Students will get a chance to write about what they like about Notre Dame,” Carlson told the Burlington Hawk Eye, “and the fifth-graders will even get a chance to record those essays on the local Catholic radio station.”

Catholic Schools Week has been around for decades, Carlson said. This year’s theme focuses on spiritual, academic, and societal contributions provided by a Catholic education.

“Educationally, we have much in common with the public schools,” Carlson said, “but our faith base sets us apart.” Indeed, many schools include service learning or volunteering as part of their educational plan.

How does a faith base set apart Catholic and other religious schools? One way is through the schools’ sources of authority. “Underwriting these various frameworks of moral understanding were different sources of moral authority that provided the standards for ethical action,” write Ryan S. Olson and James Davison Hunter, editors of The Content of Their Characterwhich summarizes field research in school culture and character formation in a broad range of educational settings—including Catholic schools.

It is not merely the “Catholic school effect” that Catholic schools provide a better education than the surrounding public schools. These schools have sources on which to draw—scriptures, traditions, and saints—by which to invite students to service. This is what can and sometimes does set Catholic schools like Notre Dame High School apart from their peers.

Educators in Catholic schools looking to do similar work can look to Notre Dame’s Philosophy of Education, which states: “The Burlington Notre Dame School System exists because we believe that God has a central place in the education of our children.” When students serve in a nursing home, it is an expression of their mission to “respect each person as a reflection of the glory of God.”

Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students create drama for understanding

Chicago students of different faiths are continuing a tradition that’s drawing them together through the Olive Tree Arts Network, a nonprofit that uses creative expression as a catalyst for cross-cultural dialogue.

About 150 students from eight of the city’s religious day schools—including Muslim, Catholic and Jewish schools—come together each year to participate in a shared curriculum known as Poetry Pals, run through the arts network, The Chicago Tribune reports.

The program tasks pre-teen students with working together to create wacky stories based on their religious customs, with the underlying goal of forming stronger bonds between students of different faiths, Olive Tree director Ilene Siemer told the news site.

“This is a really important stage in kids’ lives, because they don’t really have pre-seeded notions of each other yet,” Siemer said. “So we’re able to effectively convey how much we all have in common without having to deal with any of the baggage that many adults may carry.”

Students with Bernard Zell Jewish Day School and the Muslim Community Center Academy headed to the Catholic St. John Fisher School earlier this year to learn about the Catholic faith. In January, they went to the Muslim Community Center Academy, where students did a skit about a gang of Irish dancing squirrels cutting down a Christmas tree, and listened to Muslim students explain the basics of the Islamic faith, the Tribune reports.

The events offer students a way to have fun with their peers from other religions, while also sharing the philosophy, customs, and traditions of their own faith.

“I feel like I’ve gotten to teach (other students) a lot more about our religion, and how even though there are differences between our religions, the differences are very small and we can all still be friends,” said 11-year-old Ibrahim, one of five students who made a presentation about his religion. “I wish more people could understand that Islam is a religion of peace more than anything else.”

Siemer said a major objective of the program is to provide students a “safe place to ask questions” about different faiths and to quell prejudices before they evolve into something more dangerous.

The religious day schools in Chicago and elsewhere offer a unique space for students to form strong identities, and to learn from others with different beliefs.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia fielded a study of ten sectors of schooling—including Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic schools—to examine how those institutions form character and citizenship.

Charles Glenn, lead researcher of Islamic schools, wrote about the experience in The Content of Their Character, currently available for preorder:

One student expressed appreciation that the Islamic school “feels actually kind of safe. You know everyone’s just like you, you’re not the outcast or seen as different or any of that. It’s really like, it’s a healthy environment and really just safe.”

The Islamic school provides a safe place for identity formation. The Olive Tree Arts Network extends that safe environment by creating a space where students can build relationships with kids of other faiths through a shared creative experience.

In addition to convening middle-schoolers for these creative events, the network also offers a simple infographic to help individuals of other faiths—or no faith—to understand the core beliefs and influential figures in Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism.

How Montana Catholic school students build character through community service

Serving others is a way of life at Montana’s Missoula Catholic Schools.

In kindergarten, students collect food during the week and help to sort it at a local food bank. Fourth-graders are hosting a sock drive to clothe area homeless. Others are helping the elderly with landscaping, repainting community signs, and clearing overgrown trails.

“They love doing stuff to help people in the community outside the school,” teacher Katie Wardsiani told the Missoulian, “to be part of that makes my heart feel so big.”

The tradition of serving the community is a bedrock of Catholic social teachings that dates back decades at Missoula Catholic Schools, which has modernized the practice to focus on personal development and structure for students to give back.

All students at Loyola Sacred Heart high school, for example, must complete a quota of community-service hours each year with a goal of working toward something bigger. By graduation, each student is expected to design, plan, and implement their own 40-hour “Senior Vision Project” aimed at improving the quality of life for others.

Senior adviser and teacher Dave Klein told the Missoulian, charity work wasn’t as structured when he attended Catholic schools, but the intent is for students to take ownership of their work and continue on after high school.

“It was more of a compulsory thing. There wasn’t an ownership. It was an obligation you did then, but didn’t do after that. It was something you checked off,” Klein said of past practices. “We hope our students will own it, feel empowered by it, feel proud of it.”

That seemed to be the situation with 17-year-old Luke Bledsoe, who cleared brush and branches along miles of the Lewis and Clark Trail in Idaho to make it more accessible.

“My goal was to try to let elderly people see the beautiful spots,” Bledsoe said, adding that his 85-year-old grandfather made the trek with him after he cleared out the overgrown trails. “He had been a district ranger and had probably never seen those spots before because it was so thick and hard to trudge through.”

Another senior, Kylie Esh, organized a workshop for elementary students to explore conscience. Speakers attended to help youngsters contemplate the role of silence in reconciliation, decision-making, and other topics of morality and faith.

“I wanted to better the faith of these kids,” Esh said. “A lot of schools do a senior project, but it’s about a topic. Giving back to the community is important.”

Other students like 17-year-old Kenna Guenther built on their previous service work for their Senior Vision Project. Guenther spent the summer helping elderly Missoula residents with landscaping and other chores, and the experience inspired her to help them document their family trees and offer wisdom to their grandchildren.

“It’s personal. It just is a lot more meaningful,” Guenther said of her work with the elderly. “They were happy and very positive people. It made me think about what I want to be like when I’m older.”

Guenther said the idea for her senior project stemmed from similarities she shared with those she helped over the summer, the Missoulian reports.

“I live really far from my family and they live really far from their families, so I’m going to interview them and make a family tree. And just anything they want their grandkids to know about them and life,” she said. “I’ll make it into a nice book for them around Christmas time.”

Catholic Schools researcher Carol Ann MacGregor presented the report Varieties of Moral Formation: Selected Preliminary Findings from a Landmark Research Study to the U.S. Department of Non-Public Education in 2016, which pointed out how ongoing disagreement among Catholic educators centers on whether compulsory community service as an element of schooling undermines its volunteer nature.

“Some (teachers) suggested that it would not be ‘service’ or ‘volunteering’ if it were required, while others argued that students needed the added structure,” MacGregor wrote.

Other schools have the same vision for formative community service.

The “portrait of a graduate” prepared by the Jesuit Schools Network provides a helpful starting place for educators to consider how community service—whether compulsory, voluntary, or some combination—can cultivate the strong character virtues students will carry with them throughout their lives.