The best statistic of all

It is open house season for private and Catholic high schools. Messages about academic excellence, superior college matriculation, amazing test scores and Advanced Placement courses offered are plastered all over ads, brochures, and websites. Don't get me wrong, academic outcomes are important, but are they everything?

A good friend of mine is the president of a highly competitive Catholic school in Miami. Each year at the Open House event, he stands in front of hundreds of parents and prospective students and tells them, "If you are only looking for the best academic experience for your child, don't come here." This is a bold statement, and he is 100 percent serious.

Yes, to be an authentically Catholic school, schools must offer the best academic program possible for students, but pursuit of academic excellence is a means to the end, not the singular end. Students must be challenged to achieve their academic potential, but this is not enough.

Catholic schools are successful because they are animated by the Gospel and meet students where they are, encouraging them to be the best students they can be and, more importantly, the best people they can be. When my friend asks families if all they want is academics, he is telling them that Catholic schools do not stop at academics. Catholic schools form the whole person and develop students of character and faith shaped in the Gospel of Jesus.

Students in Catholic schools are challenged to understand their place in this world and their responsibility to their fellow person. Regardless of their own faith system, students learn of the person of Jesus and his remarkable example. They learn of a man who shared experiences like their own and established a Church that has positively impacted billions of people. They see the power one person can have and must ask themselves what God is calling them to do in their own lives.

For Catholic schools, God is calling them to open the minds and hearts of students and families. This requires a strong and challenging academic program, but standardized test scores and college placement will not be the main measure of success. Catholic schools have a history of moving people from poverty and creating engaged, thoughtful community leaders regardless of their SAT scores. The true results of Catholic schools are not the test scores but the millions of students and families whose lives and communities have been forever positively changed thanks to the values and character that Catholic schools instill.

Recently, I was with an old friend who recounted the story of getting thrown out of a local Catholic high school after his junior year -- the same day as his best friend. A simple letter was sent home saying they were no longer academically eligible. Both young men were from working-class families, one first-generation, both with jobs to pay their own way through school. These young men advocated to return to the school, and they were given a second chance. Neither one helped pad any academic statistics for the school, but both went on to become faith-filled parents, engaged community members, and individuals with successful careers. Both of these men are better people and are in significantly stronger economic positions thanks to the opportunity afforded them by their Catholic education.

For many, especially at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, the opportunity of a Catholic education is truly the difference-maker in their lives. Thanks to the generosity of the donors to the Catholic Schools Foundation, we can make this opportunity possible for thousands of students each year.

So as you see all of these open house signs and academic statistics, remember the most important of them all: Catholic schools change lives.

- Michael B. Reardon is executive director of the Catholic Schools Foundation,