Back to school

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Bishop Ricken

A few days ago, I looked at a calendar and noticed that it is mid-August already. I am always amazed at how time can pass so quickly. As we all know, this means that summer vacations are ending and a new school year is about to begin.

The words “back to school” always carry a mix of emotions for students and parents. Many families will send a child to school for the first time, excited about what they will learn and who they will meet, but nervous about being away from home for the first time.

For older students, the end of summer can mean a dramatic shift in their routine, from the slow-paced days of summer relaxation to the ordered routine and stress of the school year. At the same time, returning to school means a chance to reconnect with old friends and meet new friends.

Still other students will be attending new schools. For these students, a new school might represent hope for a fresh start along with fears of how they’ll adapt to their new environment.

Some families will send a son or daughter off to college, anxious for this new adventure into adulthood, yet sad to see how quickly the years have passed.

All of these emotions are very normal this time of year. Though it’s been many years since I attended school, I still feel some of these same emotions this time of year. But for me, as we get ready to go back to school this year, the strongest feeling I have is a feeling of excitement!

I am excited because I recognize the many great things that happen at the Catholic schools in our diocese. A few years ago in this column, I described our schools as “diamonds in our own backyard” and that description continues to fit. Our schools are academically excellent and provide a place where students can steadily grow in their friendship with Jesus and the church. Our schools are also assets to our community, not only by educating our future leaders, but through the countless hours of service that our students and families give to people in need.

Despite these wonderful characteristics, I also recognized the challenges that our schools face. So at that time, I announced that we would undertake an assessment of our Catholic schools to see what was working and where we had opportunities for improvement. The results of that assessment were shared this past January when we officially launched “Disciples on the Way: Strategic and Mission Plan for Catholic Schools.” This new school year, then, is the first full school year under our new plan and there are many exciting things that have already begun to take place.

For instance, I had the privilege recently to gather with the teachers of our diocese in a daylong retreat focused on discovering Jesus. In particular, teachers were invited to grow in their personal relationship with Jesus and consider how they can invite their students to do the same. This is one step in helping our schools become authentic schools of discipleship.

Likewise, I am excited about the plans to promote greater collaboration between parishes and schools. Parishes and schools exist to serve each other. Both have great benefits to offer the other and both will thrive as they seek ways to enhance their relationship. We are committed to finding ways to invite our school families to become more fully integrated into their parish. We also want to help parishes rediscover the wonderful blessing they have in their schools. Continuing to work towards greater collaboration is one of the focal points of our Parish Mission Planning, and I am excited to see our schools and parishes grow stronger as a result of this.

Another aspect of our strategic plan that excites me is the way our schools are working to improve the educational experience for all families. This includes making technology available that can enhance learning for our students. It also includes initiatives where schools offer blended learning opportunities so that each student can advance at the pace that fits her/his unique learning style and circumstances.

Finally, I am excited about the plans we have to make Catholic schools available for all families who are interested. In particular, we are working hard to ensure our schools are inclusive and accessible for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, language or academic ability. To do so, our schools must be financially viable.

Being financially viable means providing competitive compensation to ensure that we can hire and retain the best teachers and administrators. It also means developing robust tuition assistance programs so that families who cannot afford the full cost of tuition can still access the great benefits that Catholic education offers. To assist our schools in this area, we will soon be hiring a School Finance Director and a School Advancement Director.

These are just some of the reasons why I am so excited about this school year and the future of Catholic schools in our diocese. I encourage you to read about some of the other great things happening at our schools featured in this issue of The Compass.

So as we approach going back to school this year, in addition to the worries, fears and anxieties, I hope you will also have feelings of optimism, pride and excitement, knowing the great things that are happening in our schools and the great things that are yet to come.

In closing, I invite you to join me in praying for all our students who are heading back to school this year, whether to a Catholic school or a public school. We are blessed in our diocese to have strong schools and communities that value education. Please pray, too for their teachers, principals and all the other adults who serve our children every day at school.

May Jesus, our greatest teacher, be present to everyone in our schools this year, may they find comfort in his deep love for them, and, inspired by this love, may they serve all those they encounter.