National Catholic Schools Week celebration emphasizes school choice

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For 40 years, Catholic schools have been celebrating National Catholic Schools Week, for many years starting the last Sunday in January.

But, as a reflection of the growing school choices available across the country, the Catholic schools now share the week with a relative newcomer, National School Choice Week, which started in 2011.

National Lutheran Schools Week -- traditionally celebrated the first week of March -- also is the week of Jan. 26 to Feb. 1.

School choice isn't as simple as it was 40 years ago, let alone figuring out when to celebrate it.

Once upon a time, parents could choose among the local public school, a religious school, a handful of private schools or homeschool.

Today the choices include those types of schools as well as public magnet schools, public charter schools, public cyber charter schools and others.

In Pittsburgh, there are fewer Catholic schools and fewer district schools, but a wider array of choices, particularly since the state passed a charter school law in 1997.

Most students in Pittsburgh exercise some sort of school choice.

In the city, 40 percent of students attend their feeder district school assigned by where they live, at least some of them by choice.

The other 60 percent are making other choices: 21 percent attend a magnet school operated by the district; 9 percent other district schools; 20 percent private and parochial schools; and 10 percent charter schools.

This is the fourth year for National School Choice Week, which initially had 150 events and now has 5,500 events at about 5,130 schools nationwide, including some at Catholic schools.

According to federal data, there are 98,817 public schools nationwide and 33,366 private schools. The National Catholic Education Association counts 6,685 Catholic schools.

Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, doesn't see a conflict with National Catholic Schools Week, saying Catholic schools can promote their schools as schools of choice as well.

In a news release issued in September in advance of this year's 40th anniversary, the National Catholic Education Association, which sponsors National Catholic Schools Week, noted the group "is supportive of efforts to promote choice but does not wish to see the mission and message of Catholic Schools Week diminished in another program conducted during the same week.

"If Catholic schools choose to participate in both 'celebrations,' the association encourages them to do so in ways that showcase Catholic schools as effective models of parental choice in education."

Of the multiple celebrations the same week, Michael Latusek, acting secretary for Catholic Education and Evangelization in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said, "I think it gives an opportunity to look at Catholic education as a choice."

The theme this year focuses on Catholic schools as "communities of faith, knowledge and service."

Events throughout the diocese include Masses as well as activities, such as a "school choice" day at St. Maria Goretti in Bloomfield, food bank volunteering at St. Agnes in West Mifflin, guest speakers on religious vocations at East Catholic Regional Elementary School in Forest Hills and a science fair at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the Natrona Heights neighborhood of Harrison.

"It's a nice opportunity for the kids to showcase what they're all about," Mr. Latusek said.

Mr. Campanella said this week is particularly good for a choice week because it's a time when parents are beginning their search for schools for their children the following fall.

"The goal of National School Choice Week is to inform parents of the choices they have in selecting good schools for their children for the next year," he said.

He said parents need to start looking for schools for next fall "right away, not wait until spring or the summer."

He said the timing also is good for legislators, saying, "We also want to make sure that legislators going back in session across this country pay attention to the voices of parents."

Mr. Campanella said the organizers of National School Choice Week "wanted to make sure that even though there were so many different groups working on school choice and talking about it, there was greater public awareness of all this work being done across sectors."

Its website lists these partners: American Federation for Children; Black Alliance for Educational Options; Children's Scholarship Fund; Choice Media; Education Reform Now; Families Empowered; Foundation for Excellence in Education; Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options; Institute for Justice; KIPP Foundation;, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; New Schools Venture Fund; StudentsFirst; Students for Education Reform; Center for Education Reform; the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice; and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The week doesn't have a particular theme.

Among the celebrants are the Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania, where 300 students will log in on computers at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday for an "all-school virtual rally" to show support for their school choice.

Lutheran Schools Week, which has been celebrated for about two decades by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is highlighting the theme of "raising up faithful disciples."

When the week was celebrated in early March, some churches complained that it interfered with the Lenten season.

Terry Schmidt, director of LCMS school ministry, said the date was moved to the last week of January about five years ago.

"We chose that kind of as a time when celebrating and marketing our schools would be optimal for our enrollment possibilities for the next year," Mr. Schmidt said.

He said most schools gear up in January to market the 2,300 preschools and elementary and high schools nationwide.

But it's not easy to get everyone to agree. Some say it interferes with the basketball schedule, and a few have stuck with the March celebration.

As for the week matching National Catholic Schools Week, he said, "I think it's pretty neat we're all in this together, celebrating parochial and private education together."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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