If I ruled the world of Catholic education from kindergarten through graduate studies, and if I were pushed up against a wall of choice and told I could have only four years under explicitly Catholic auspices, I would without hesitation take the high school years.
I’m convinced that the potential for a positive educational impact is greater in the secondary school years than in any other four-year block of time allocated to the formal educational process.
Every year from K through the Ph.D. is important, but there is something special about those years between elementary school and college. Why?
To explain my bias in this regard, I have to go back to what I call the “center of significance” and let it serve to make an analytical point.
The newborn child constitutes the center of significance in his or her unfolding life. All experiences, all surrounding influences — warmth or cold, hunger or satisfaction, pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort — all are measured by the infant in reference to the self. The self constitutes the center of significance in the infant’s life.
As the presence and awareness of siblings and peers enter the world of the developing child, parents move into the center of significance in that child’s life. Parents become the point of reference for what the child begins to value, how the child begins to walk and talk, where the child goes, and who the child knows. Parents can expect to hold this spotlight position in the child’s life for about a decade.
At some point in the pre- or early adolescent years of the developing youngster’s life, it becomes clear that the parents no longer hold the central reference position. They no longer constitute the center of significance for the child. The center, however, is never vacant for long.
Friends and peers — the gang or group — might now take center stage. Peer pressure can push anchorless youngsters into a forced march of adolescent conformity; others, often unknown, are leading the way. Or the center can be filled with a hero from the world of sports or entertainment. It can be filled by an older brother or sister, by a friend, a neighbor, uncle or aunt.
Indeed, it might be filled by the child him or herself, thus signaling a reversion to infantile self-centeredness. Or, it can be, and often is, filled by a significant adult in the school setting: a teacher, coach or counselor.
The Catholic high school is especially well-suited to mediate a process of reconnection between parent and adolescent child. The Catholic high school is also quite likely to provide a positive peer group environment for the developing adolescent as well as presenting good adult role models.
These are just a few of the reasons why parents choose to put their children in the Catholic high school setting. The challenge today is to find the resources needed to keep our Catholic secondary schools open and affordable for Catholic families who appreciate the unique role these high schools play in the development of the young.
Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.