Recent testing data has shown that knowledge of civics continues to decline among students in schools across the country. Civics education focuses on how government works along with the rights and duties of citizenship.

In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a partnership between the Connelly Foundation and Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (FFVF) has provided opportunities for many Catholic high school students to attend immersive educational programs that increase their understanding of and appreciation for American history and civic responsibility.

This summer 30 students from Archdiocesan high schools attended the Service Learning in Public Policy (SLiPP) program, an advanced leadership development workshop that included service-learning opportunities, public policy courses and discussions, leadership development, and communications classes. The Connelly Foundation provided grants to several students who would not otherwise have been able to attend the SLiPP program.

“The program creates a way for students to sharpen their skills in understanding both civic responsibility and political discourse,” said Nancy Kurtz, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools in the Office of Catholic Education. “A big piece of this is the ability to know how to interact with people who have different political points of view in a productive manner, which is the bedrock of a democratic society.”

Kurtz noted that FFVF’s programs are nonpartisan, and that the SLiPP program helps students look at societal problems and how they can take a leadership role in addressing those issues.

Students are encouraged to find their voice, to have opinions, to present what they think and how they think about things,” she said. We are called as Catholics to interact with our community, to see what is going on in society, and take a stand where it is necessary to take a stand. This program is about civics, which sounds very non-religious, but it is also about Catholic social teaching. We really combine those two things seamlessly.”

Deepak Bhagat, Associate Director of Education at FFVF, explained that the SLiPP program is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors who spend five days on campus participating in groups that focus on either public health, media and communications or law.

“Service Learning in Public Policy is our hands-on approach to student civic engagement,” Bhagat said. “The students not only get to hear from various speakers within those certified tracks, they also hear from different speakers on how to be an engaged young citizen or what public policy means.”

The large groups are then divided into smaller groups of students who focus on a specific issue within their track and prepare a presentation by the end of the week, he added.

“You see rising sophomores come in on Sunday and Monday, and they don’t know what they’re in for, of course, but by Friday they’ve delivered a presentation with two or three other rising sophomores,” Bhagat said. “You see their confidence just grow throughout that week.”

Archdiocesan high school students from Archbishop Carroll, Archbishop Ryan, Archbishop Wood, Bishop Shanahan, Cardinal O’Hara, Conwell-Egan, Father Judge, Lansdale Catholic, Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast, Pope John Paul II, Saint Hubert’s, and West Catholic Preparatory participated in the SLiPP program this summer. Students from Roman Catholic and Holy Ghost Preparatory School also attended the program.

Ryan Rathod, junior at Archbishop Wood High School, decided to participate in the SLiPP program this summer because of his strong interest in politics and government.

“I definitely learned the importance of public policy and how that impacts all our lives,” Rathod said. “I’m not really going into a major that has to do with government necessarily, but I think as a citizen, it’s important to be informed of public policy and how that’s made.”

Kelly Williamson, a senior at Lansdale Catholic High School, attended FFVF’s Spirit of America program in 2021 and then participated in the SLiPP program last summer. She is now a student ambassador for Freedoms Foundation and provides support to the foundation staff and the students who go through either program.

“Even if you’re not necessarily interested in history or politics, the skills that you learn here you can use for the rest of your life,” Williamson said. “In the Spirit of America program, we don’t just go over history. We talk about the free enterprise system and how to form an argument, and you’re going to need that for whatever career you’re in. I think it’s important that students know how to do that.”

Rathod added that learning how to be a more confident communicator during the SLiPP program was a rewarding experience for him.

“The public speaking aspect is really important, regardless of what major you’re going into, to be able to communicate our ideas to other people,” he said. “I want to major in engineering, and for that I need to be able to communicate my ideas to the people I’m working with. That’s really important, and this program helped me to communicate better.”

The Connelly Foundation also provides scholarships for archdiocesan students in 10th to 12th grades to participate in Spirit of America, a four-day residential program that helps high school students from across the country gain a better understanding of the principles of freedom. The Spirit of America program, which will be held from October 19-22, is open to all high school students and is offered several times each year.

Kurtz emphasized the importance of the partnership between the Connelly Foundation and FFVF to provide Archdiocesan high school students with the opportunity to become more informed citizens and leaders.

“The students gain a tremendous amount of confidence in their own ability to think through problems, to look at things from multiple perspectives, and speak with authority,” she said. “We would not be able to offer these types of experiences for our students if we were not able to partner with the foundations in this way.”

For more information about Connelly scholarships for the Spirit of America program, visit or contact Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge at