By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
In elementary and high schools around the Diocese, the countdown to the new school year is underway and excitement is building in faculty and staff meetings as well as in countless homes around Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
Related Story: Schools strive to prepare students for global community
In St. Veronica School, situated just off Route 9 in Howell Township, the principal, Resurrection Sister Cherree Power, looks forward to the “school family” getting back together.
“Kids are coming back, new kids are joining,” she said, adding that one of the aspects that means the most to her is that the opportunity to share Catholic Social Teaching is once again at hand.
Similar to her colleagues – including those in St. Jerome School, West Long Branch; Our Lady of Sorrows School, Hamilton; St. Leo the Great School, Lincroft; and Red Bank Catholic High School – Sister Cherree regards sharing the precepts of social teaching as set forth in the United States by the Catholic bishops as an integral part of a Catholic education.
The tenets learned, from the first years of schooling on, she said “will help these youngsters one day go out into future leadership” aware of what it means to be “truly called to serve … to live the mission.”
A Model to Follow
Since the first years of this new millennium, Catholic Social Teaching – with its major themes of life and dignity of the human person, call to family, human rights and responsibilities, concern for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of workers, global solidarity and care of God’s creation – has been woven into the curriculum of Catholic schools, including St. Veronica School.
There, what began as a response to a Middle School Accreditation requirement to create a schoolwide project has become a part of tradition and an award-winning model for other schools to follow.
The idea for the project, which was honored by the National Catholic Education Association in 2004 for promoting Catholic Identity, Sister Cherree recalled, was born “back in 2000 at a meeting in St. Raphael School, Hamilton,” where the educators learned they would need a project and “it suddenly came to me that Catholic Social Teaching would be our project.”
One of the reasons she found it inspiring was that at that time, “so many Catholics had no idea of Catholic Social Teaching and the mission and importance of it to the Church.” The faculty and staff recognized the importance of “helping the children live the mission over time.”
“We studied [social teaching] for over a year-and-a-half, and the faculty realized there was no place to add it as a subject,” she said. The decision was made to weave the tenets into every subject in the curriculum.
Each trimester, the curriculum focuses on one theme from the bishops’ statement “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions” and at the end of the trimester, the students put the principles they have learned into practice with a service activity.
This trimester, for instance, there will be focus on the family and activities including asking older students to consider positive steps that can be taken at home and recording segments from television shows and discussing how they portray family happiness at home.
Calendars for faculty and family keep a focus on the social precepts as do various activities including family and community projects, charitable fundraisers and environmental activities such as beach cleanups.
“The [families] and kids are fine with it. In terms of service, it becomes a part of living and giving and caring for God’s creation,” she said. “They don’t feel forced or balk or see it as weird. They see it as part of who they are.”
Who We Are
The same can be said at other diocesan schools, whose educators and staff took time out of busy back-to-school schedules to share a sense of the importance of social teaching on their campuses.
Karen Falco, vice principal of Red Bank Catholic High School, shared that the fall semester will see “complete involvement of all classes” as most departments work together on projects.
She offered the example of the history and arts departments working together on the history of dance around the world and how dance reflects the cultures it represents. A real aim of the curriculum is to involve students active in all disciplines.
“We all work together,” Falco said, giving the example of how everyone on campus, including athletes and artists, participates in a range of activities including food and fundraising drives, supporting the troops, and nonprofits including Covenant House.
The students volunteer to work with students with disabilities from the nearby Schroth School throughout the year and including summer vacation, said Falco, calling the students’ enthusiasm “eye-opening.”
“They are actually seeing that the world is composed of all different types of people, and they open their hearts and lend their hands” willingly in numerous ways, she said.
Saint Leo the Great School, meanwhile, will be participating in a character development program known as The Positivity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping America’s youth build stronger relationships by recognizing character strengths in themselves and others. The program uses a positive psychology philosophy to educate students about 24 character traits and how they relate to one’s self and others.
“The project was adopted because of its potential strength to fortify character and interpersonal relationships,” said principal Cornelius Begley. “Their motto, #OtherPeopleMatter, reminds our students of the importance of focusing on not just oneself, but on all those around them.”
Students in Our Lady of Sorrows School will be expanding their social teaching horizons this year in a variety of ways, too, said principal Maureen Tuohy.
The school has traditionally practiced service projects, but not on a monthly basis, Tuohy said. That will change this year as all of the children will go hands-on with projects ranging from creating placemats and greeting cards for nursing home residents, food drives for the Mount Carmel Guild, letters to troops deployed around the world and collecting socks and pajamas for local children in need.
“Mainly, our call is to serve others. We model it for the children so they see that they can [help] on a regular basis, and it becomes part of who we are,” she said.
“If our role as a Catholic school is to help them become messengers, what better way than to send messages out [in the form of tangible items],” she said. “We do what Jesus did – he did for others. Seeing and doing, that’s how we learn.”
Indeed, Filippini Sister Angelina Peliccia, principal of St. Jerome School, said the sensitivity to and awareness of the needs of others learned from such experiences is a great reflection of faith.
“It is who we are,” said Sister Angelina. The values embodied by Catholic Social Teaching, she said, “enhance our academic curriculum and lead to developing individuals with character and integrity.”
Her thoughts were echoed by Stella Monteleone, whose children, Christina and Guido, absorbed such lessons in St. Jerome School.
Monteleone, a member of St. Jerome Parish, is an administrative assistant at the school who wears a number of hats. She helps out with the youth choir, coaches cross country and serves as a Eucharistic Minister of Holy Communion in the parish.
She can often be found helping with the outreach efforts that are the hallmark of social teaching in St. Jerome.
Monteleone said as students in the school, her children benefited greatly from participating in outreach projects that gave them a bigger perspective of the world.
“They learned that we’re not all perfect,” she said, adding that her children used to be “amazed by volunteering with people with disabilities. It gave them a greater understanding of what life is all about. … In a school where everything is embodied in faith, they learned how important it is to give back.”