An answer from Kathleen Porter-Magee, the superintendent of Partnership Schools in New York City:
Our secret sauce is a holistic approach that puts values at the center of education. It’s faith at work, and there are lessons in our work for the wider education-reform movement.
These days, talk of values isn’t always welcomed in education circles. The conventional wisdom holds that public schools ought to be values-neutral. But fact is, no school is truly values-neutral. Educators working toward this goal tend to veer towards relativism — forgetting that relativism is itself a value.
Teachers and administrators make decisions about what is and isn’t learned and how content is presented. These decisions form children. And strong values form strong cultures. Schools play a unique role in a child’s development, and education reformers shouldn’t shy away from pursuing values that will make their communities stronger.
Perhaps no school system in the world has been as successful at imparting values as US Catholic schools. They have done this by challenging modern beliefs about what should and should not be taught in schools. Catholic schools profess that truth is objective and that one goal of education is the search for objective truths. This informs students about the merits of civic engagement, commitment to family and devotion to Almighty God.
Yet when early charters looked to replicate the historic success of urban Catholic schools, they focused more on external characteristics than on the values that provided the foundation for learning. Catholic schools have become the framework many charter networks use to promote discipline and order within their own schools.
But Catholic schools don’t seek order for its own sake, a way to keep kids in line. Rather, because of our belief in free will, Catholic schools seek to form students with the habits of virtue that help them choose to do good. To that end, Catholic schools emphasize that freedom comes with responsibility, with actions consequences. This approach forms the habits of virtue that serve students well beyond graduation.
I would add the values are Catholic Christian values: love of neighbor, concern for the vulnerable, respect for life, development of a sound conscience, prayerful humility before God, time for prayer and worship. Increasingly, more and more children who attend Catholic schools aren’t Catholic; many are not Christian. Catholic education can be an invaluable witness and an opportunity to build bridges of friendship, understanding and mutual respect.
Sometimes, it can even move hearts.
Some months back, I met with a family. The parents are not Catholic, but the daughter attends our parish elementary school. They told me that the daughter wanted to become Catholic. They are fully supportive — and they are even considering RCIA themselves. They had met with the pastor and wanted to see what the next steps should be.
St. Paul VI said, “The world listens more willingly to witnesses.”