Jillian Phillips wishes her children to have the peace that comes from knowing that God is always with them, “taking care of them, watching over them,” especially as they get older.
“It’s that peace that not a lot of people have today, but I want it for them always,” said the Warren St. Mary parishioner in a recent Exponent interview.
Her husband, Chad, echoed her hope: “I want our kids to have a good understanding of their faith, so they will have the belief that God will be there to support them in good times and bad.”
“We love the idea that our kids are getting, on a daily basis, a religious education that provides a foundation for them, so our whole family is on a common thread in terms of our beliefs,” he added.
One of three diocesan couples interviewed on the topic of why they send their children to Catholic school, Jillian, the communications director at Warren John F. Kennedy Catholic School and webmaster/social media manager for their parish, and Chad, an insurance broker, who has also helped with coaching at the school, added that they want their children to be aware of what they have that others do not.
“Catholic schools foster this awareness and encourage children to want to ‘give back,’” Jillian said.
Their children – Henry, a seventh grader at Kennedy’s Upper Campus, and his younger siblings at the Lower Campus, Annie, grade 5; Clare, grade 4; and Louis, grade 1 – are happy at school, Jillian said, and “have all the opportunity in the world to become successes in life, not only academically but also as people.”
Their school is helping them to thrive in all aspects of their education, including in their individual interests, the couple said. They are surrounded by friends, teammates, teachers and coaches who “mean a lot to them” and who “celebrate their successes and nurture them when there’s a challenge,” she added.
Catholic schools played “a huge part in who we have become,” Jillian said of herself and her husband. In addition, Chad’s mother graduated from Warren St. Mary High School (precursor to JFK), and Jillian’s father graduated from Kennedy.
“If it meant enough for our parents and their parents to send their kids to Catholic school, it’s a tradition we want to keep going, because we feel strongly that our kids should have that same experience,” Chad said.
Regarding academics, he added: “Catholic education is about more than just the schoolwork.” It’s “going above and beyond in helping students incorporate what they learn into their everyday lives.”
The schools excel in “challenging students to learn and to explore, and to try new things,” and they do “an outstanding job with technology as well,” said Jillian. “No matter what a student’s future path, they will be able to communicate, work independently and as a team.”
In addition, Catholic schools’ small size encourages them to focus on individual students’ growth, Jillian said. This, combined with the schools’ mission to educate students in faith, social justice and service, challenges students to become well-rounded individuals, added Chad.
Another couple, Anne and Jason Bing of Canton St. Peter Parish, said they are happy that their children – Kara, a sophomore at Louisville St. Thomas Aquinas Middle School and High School; Josie, a seventh-grader there; and Grant, a fifth-grader at Canton St. Michael the Archangel School – can pray, attend school Mass, receive the sacraments, and talk about God in and outside of their classrooms.
“We want their faith to be the center of their life on a daily basis, not something they push aside later,” Anne said. “We don’t want our kids’ faith to disappear when they graduate but to continue to grow more deeply, so they really understand not only how to be a Catholic but also how to live as a Catholic.”
Jason added: “Life is temporary, and your faith is the foundation of everything.” He said he believes “the faith-based education that is so important in the Catholic schools is what leads to success in life – education along with morality.
“It makes you well-rounded. Lots of people I know who went to Catholic schools have done great things with their lives,” he noted.
Jason, an attorney, and Anne, a sixth-grade social studies teacher and a lector at St. Peter, both attended Catholic school through high school. Their daughters attended St. Peter through grade 5 and then went to Aquinas for middle school. Their son attended St. Peter through grade 4 and now is attending St. Michael.
The couple said their experience with all three of their children’s schools has been positive at every turn.
Academically, Jason said, “I don’t think there’s a better choice. I’m not worried about our kids at all.”
The small classes, supportive teachers and staff, and the balance between traditional learning, technology and extracurricular activities “provides the foundation we want our kids to have,” Anne said. She commended a program that allows Aquinas upperclassmen to take classes at Walsh University for college credit.
Discipline that encourages students to imitate Christ and develop self-control is another reason many parents send their children to Catholic school.
“Teachers can speak freely on how God wants us to treat other people,” said Anne, and this, combined with the values that parents emulate at home and expect from their children, can have a big influence on students’ behavior.
“Catholic schools are a community and also a family. Our kids have fantastic friends who come from fantastic families. They also have a special camaraderie with their teammates,” Anne said, adding that “the friends I’ve made – parents of our children’s classmates – are friends I know I’ll keep for life.”
“In Catholic school, the parents and teachers have similar goals,” Jason offered. “It’s a unity of faith. Even the non-Catholic students and their families are affected in a positive way by this atmosphere and these relationships.”
The active involvement of parents “really helps Catholic schools thrive,” Anne added. “It’s impressive how much time and effort people put into volunteering to make the schools the best they can be for the kids.”
In addition, Catholic schools themselves help parents afford their children’s education with scholarships, grants, reduced rates for families with multiple children attending, and other resources – including state programs for parents whose children have been attending underperforming public schools, or for very low-income families.
Jason noted that two men who had a positive influence on him when he attended St. Peter and Aquinas – Msgr. John Finnegan, the late pastor of St. Peter, and former coach Lloyd Bagley, who together with his wife, Mary Anne, volunteered large amounts of time and money to both schools – have scholarships named after them.
The schools also offer opportunities for parents to gain volunteer hours – by working at bingo games, etc. – in exchange for money off of tuition.
“A lot of people don’t even look into Catholic schools because they don’t think they can afford sending their kids there,” said Jason, “but it is ‘doable’ for the majority of people.
“It’s worthwhile and important,” Jason explained, “to meet with the school administration to see what can be done.”
A third couple, Shannon and Troy Leavery of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Streetsboro, are happy with the way their daughters – Sydnie, a junior at Kent Roosevelt High School, and Ashlyn, an eight-grader at Kent St. Patrick School – are “turning out,” thanks to the Catholic school community “who helped raise them.”
“We know that Catholic school teachers want to be there for the kids," said Troy, an account director for a biotech firm.
With the smaller salaries they receive, compared with public school teachers, Catholic educators “aren’t there for any other reason” than to teach students about their faith, to help them succeed academically, to support their extracurricular interests, and to encourage them to do their best – “and to be the best people they can become,” he said.
Troy, who attended St. Frances Cabrini School in Conneaut, and Shannon, who entered the Catholic Church in 2001, said the Catholic schools, with their commitment to faith, academic excellence, service and care for the whole child, left them with “no other choice” than to send their children to St. Patrick School.
“You can always tell the kids who went to Catholic school, because they are well-behaved and hard-workers,” Shannon said.
“They reach out to help others,” said the fulltime aide at St. Patrick, who has also substituted in the classrooms there, volunteered in the after-school program, helped in the school cafeteria and the library, and was vice president of the Home and School Association.
The Christian atmosphere of the school, the closeness of students with the teachers – and teachers with the parents – is a reason she probably will stay working at St. Patrick after Ashlyn graduates this year, she said.
“I love being with all the kids,” said Shannon, who is also a Eucharistic minister at St. Joan of Arc. Troy is an usher, and both of them served for a number of years on parish council. The family has also served at Lenten fish fries and in the kitchen and in child care while Generations of Faith was taking place.
“We love serving the parish. It’s not an obligation,” said Troy.
He added that, if they desire it, St. Joan of Arc parents may have their children’s tuition reduced by doing service.
The couple believes that their own service is one of the reasons the Leavery girls have volunteered at the parish. Sydnie is a lector and Ashlyn is an altar server – one of few to serve during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Serving your parish is something everyone should be doing,” said Troy.
St. Patrick School also encourages students to serve others, he added. It’s part of treating others “with the love of Jesus – an obligation we have to be Christians to one another.”
Shannon said that she and her husband are proud of how their daughters have taken this value to heart.
“Sydnie always tries to include everyone, doesn’t look down on anyone. This is something she learned from school. She’s a better person than Troy and I are!” Shannon said.
Ashlyn was involved in St. Patrick’s peer tutoring program before the pandemic halted it temporarily. She understands the importance of being there for others, her mother said.
“Catholic schools push kids to do better in so many ways,” Shannon said.
“The kids learn to have responsibility for themselves and for others,” Troy added. “Catholic school allows you to become who you can be as an individual.”
Shannon pointed out that St. Patrick’s seventh- and eighth-grade religion program has been helped out this year by having diocesan seminarian Brook Benedict teach the classes.
As part of his pastoral internship at nearby Ravenna Immaculate Conception Parish, he taught 8th grade religion at St. Patrick last school year and was asked to add the 7th grade classes this year, due to the retirement of two teachers.
“Ashlyn and the other students love having him as their teacher,” Shannon said. “He relates well to the kids and says he is continually amazed at the questions they ask him.”
The school is “as close as a family,” Shannon said. “If someone needs something, it’s taken care of.” She noted that Sydnie chose her eighth-grade teacher as her Confirmation sponsor, and the whole family still has a close relationship with her.
Concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, Troy noted that St. Patrick School, like other schools in the diocese, has had students back in five-days-a-week in-person classes since the first week in September – after bringing them back from online learning a few classes at a time.
“They’ve been able to do this because the teachers and administrators are committed to doing what’s best for the students,” Troy said.
With all the protocols in place for safety (including social distancing, the wearing of face masks, frequent disinfecting and handwashing, employing desk shields and air filters where possible) “they’re making it work because it’s all about the kids getting the best kind of education,” he said.
Regarding her job as a classroom aide, Shannon added, “I feel safe every day.” She pointed out that many parents in the community who have children in the public schools, “were looking for five-day [in-person] learning."
“I think many of those kids will stay at St. Patrick because their experience has been so good during the pandemic.”