The gift of Catholic education

September brings many gifts. Our schools open. Classes begin. New friends are made, and old acquaintances are found. Most importantly, we focus on teaching and learning, which enriches us as students and adults.

Our magnificent students have been given the gift of a Catholic school education, a gift that will last a lifetime. Catholic school students come to school ready and eager to learn. They have a rare studiousness and seriousness of purpose. All of this makes it exciting for us as educators to do our jobs.

Catholic school students succeed at high levels. They perform at or above national standards in reading and math. Ninety-eight percent graduate from high school (as opposed to 74 percent nationally and 50 percent or lower in many inner cities). They learn in a safe and nurturing environment. Equally important, our students develop strong character and deepen their Catholic identity.

This year, student enrollment is up in many of our schools. At the just opened Pope John II Catholic Academy in Dorchester and Mattapan, 400 new families are enrolled. At St. Ann School in Gloucester, enrollment increased from 120 students to 180 students. In Brockton, the number of students increased from 475 to 526.

These schools are early participants in the 2010 Initiative, led by Boston business and civic leaders Jack Connors and John Fish, other lay leaders and the clergy. Seeing these early results of the 2010 Initiative is encouraging because strong enrollment is one of the keys to a viable and vibrant Catholic school system. The 2010 Initiative’s goal is to conduct strategic planning to ensure the future of the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston.

At the same time that enrollment has increased in some of our schools, changing demographics, a challenging economy and lack of financial resources are threatening others. Often, the difference between a school’s ability to operate in the black rather than in the red is an increase in enrollment.

As a result, the opening weeks of school are both uplifting and sobering for us in the Catholic Schools Office. It is difficult not to note the contrast between the hope and enthusiasm of our students and the strategic, educational and financial realities that we, as the adults charged with providing their education, face every day. Ultimately, in the Catholic School Office and in the archdiocese, we are on the side of hope -- we believe there is great opportunity to meet our challenges.

Seizing that opportunity is at the top of the agenda for the Catholic Schools Office. We are guided by a commitment to three goals:

-- Academic excellence and rigor.

-- Catholic identity and mission.

-- School viability and vitality.

Here are some of the strategies we are putting in place to help us live up to our goals:

-- Partnering with higher education: We are working with our Catholic colleges to provide mentoring programs, teacher and principal training and curriculum assistance;

-- Nurturing Catholic identity: Father Matt Williams, director of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults, is working to provide professional development for our religious education faculty throughout the year, and Father James Hickey, pastor of Holy Family Church in Rockland, worked with principals during August. Both of these efforts are to support our educators in the task of being spiritual leaders and Catholic role models for spirituality and prayer;

-- Strengthening support systems: We are in the process of restructuring the Catholic Schools Office to enhance our ability to provide customer service to our principals and pastors and to develop networks and collaborations among our schools;

-- Keeping our schools viable: Business leaders and individuals have stepped up in significant ways to the challenge of keeping our schools viable. The Catholic community in Massachusetts has championed programs such as the Peter Lynch Inner-City Scholarship Fund, the Campaign for Catholic Schools and the 2010 Initiative. Additionally, we are looking at marketing, planning and development strategies that will keep our Catholic schools viable.

Our challenge is to spread the word about the gift of a Catholic education: the high graduation rate; excellent academic education; grounding in the Catholic faith; safe and nurturing environment; and the way all of these assets work together to instill the qualities of honesty, integrity, loyalty, ethics and a commitment to work that are important to our Church and to our country.

The past, present and future are coming together in powerful ways in our Catholic schools. When the 1909 inscription on the keystone of the Columbia Campus of the Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy came clear with sandblasting, all that we stand for came clear. The inscription reads “For God and Country.” We are energized to revitalize and reinvigorate our Catholic schools so that students have the opportunity for the gift of a Catholic education now and throughout the next century.

Mary Grassa O’Neill is Secretary of Education and Superintendent of Schools of the Archdiocese of Boston.