School shopping: Finding the right fit

How do you provide your child with the best Catholic education possible?

For most of the 19th century and nearly all of the 20th, the answer to that question was simple: send them to your local Catholic school.

Today, however, that’s no longer necessarily the case.

Over the last decade, the rising cost of Catholic education, combined with an increase in charter schools and the growing popularity of home schooling has complicated what used to be a fairly straightforward decision. In many places, parents face an almost dizzying array of educational options for their children, and sorting through those options to determine what’s best for both the children and the family isn’t easy.

In this special In Focus, Our Sunday Visitor features the stories of three families who made three different choices. We’ve also gleaned advice from the experts that can help families choose the educational path that is right for them and journey down that path successfully.

Here is what we learned.

Their take: The Gontis Family

When Eva Gontis first contemplated home schooling, idyllic visions of mother and child sitting down together to explore the beauty of the world filled her head. But, three years into home schooling her three oldest children (then ages 7, 6, and 4), Eva knew that something had been missing from those visions: dishes in the sink, laundry piling up and toddlers tugging at her leg.

“As the primary educators of our children, my husband and I wanted to make sure our children received a solid Catholic education and that the Faith was transmitted to them in all its splendor,” she explained. “But it became very difficult for me to manage the house, the children and the teaching at the same time.

“Many women have a detachment from that and can work peacefully through the chaos,” she continued. “Other women don’t have the chaos. But that wasn’t the case with me.”

When Eva and her husband, Jim, learned they were expecting another child, they decided the time had come to put them in Catholic school. Although that decision was, in some ways, obvious, it still wasn’t easy.

To begin with, as a one-income family living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, they didn’t know how they could afford Catholic school tuition.

Even more fundamentally, the couple struggled with the idea of giving up control of their children’s education.

“We’re protectors of our children,” Eva said. “We bring them into the world, start to educate them, and then to release them into the world is a fearful thing. You don’t want anyone to mess up your child.”

Once they began talking to the local Catholic school, however, both concerns abated. Scholarships from the parish and school helped make the tuition affordable, and conversations with the principal reassured them they were putting their children in good hands.

“The principal was very focused on maintaining the kids’ innocence and promoting the Faith in the school with excellent materials,” Eva said. “And she knew our concerns, so she made sure to look out for our children in a special way.”

Nine years later, with seven of their eight children currently in Catholic schools, the couple believes they made the right decision.

“Catholic schools really are a privileged place of evangelization and catechesis,” Eva said. “And the children have had access to opportunities in music, sports and art that would have been difficult for us to afford and piece together on our own.”

Key to the children’s success in school, though, was their parents’ recognition that regardless of where their children spent the hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., they remained their primary educators.

“Just because we handed over the reins to our children’s education doesn’t mean we got off the wagon,” Eva said. “We’re constantly there, talking about what they’ve learned, helping them with projects and putting good materials into their hands.”

They’re equally vigilant about making sure the children see the Faith lived out in the home, both in the family’s relationships with one another and through daily prayers, devotions, and discussions.

“Devotions are the lifeblood of our family,” Eva stressed.

Looking back on their decision-making process, Eva advises other parents to simply focus on what’s best for the family.

“Cinderella has to find the right shoe,” she said. “Find one that you’re happy with and promotes peace in the family. Choosing one option over another doesn’t mean that you’re superior to other families or that you’re a failure. Ultimately, your job is to get your children to heaven. You just need to find the best way for your family to do that.”

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Their take: The Barr Family

Before Andrea and Gerry Barr enrolled their oldest son in kindergarten, they did their research. First, they visited the public school closest to their home in Philadelphia’s suburbs. Then, they visited their parish school. When both left them unsure about how their son would fare, they visited another Catholic school that was both larger and offered a wider variety of classes. Eventually, they decided on the latter, switching parishes in the process.

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At first, they were happy with their choice. After three years, however, it became clear that the school, for all that it had to offer, couldn’t offer their exceptionally bright son enough.

Looking for other options, the Barrs thought about home schooling, but soon decided against it.

“He likes to learn from me, but to get him to sit down and do the work is difficult,” Andrea explained. “I didn’t want every day to be a fight.”

After doing some more looking, the Barrs realized their local public school offered a special program for gifted students. At first, they hesitated to move forward with the decision, as the school also served students in the district with behavioral problems. But the highly trained staff and faculty-to-student ratio convinced them to make the switch. They enrolled their oldest son in the public school but continued sending their youngest son to their parish school.

A year later, Andrea says the experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Academically he’s being challenged in so many ways. The program is very structured, and the teacher has been specially trained to work with gifted students. Socially, he’s doing great as well. The children from all the special programs are well integrated, and they have a wonderful values program called CARES, that does a great job with virtue and character formation.”

The one downside, however, has been faith formation.

“At his previous school, he learned so much about the Faith,” Andrea said. “He knew more than me, I think. Now, he attends his religion classes after school, and like the other kids, he’s tired from sitting in class all day.”

To compensate for that, Andrea said she’s making an extra effort to pray with the children and supplement what he’s no longer getting in school.

“My husband and I listen to Christian Rock stations and are always acknowledging Christ-like behavior,” she added.

Although it’s still early, the Barrs, on the whole, feel like they made the right call.

“We prayed a lot about it,” Andrea said, “and in the end, for as good as our Catholic school was, they couldn’t give him what he needed. What we’re doing now works.”

Their take: The Pennell Family

It started off as a question of money.

Sixteen years ago, Michael Pennell was completing his doctorate in education and working in Catholic schools, while his wife, Lara, a former Catholic school teacher, stayed home with their three little ones. The couple had a shared commitment to Catholic education and planned on sending their children to Catholic schools. But with finances tight, they opted to delay sending their oldest son to preschool and teach him at home ... just for the year.

“I was nervous,” Lara admitted. “So many parents feel confident home schooling in the younger years and worry about the upper grades. My fear was the exact opposite. With our liberal arts background, Michael and I felt completely confident teaching older children, but my questions was, ‘How do you teach kids to read or to grasp basic math concepts in such a way that they’re good at it and like it?’”

The couple, then living in Dallas, also had to contend with naysayers who worried that the children would miss out on the opportunities for healthy socialization.

The more reading Lara did about home schooling, however, the more confident she grew in her own abilities. Similarly, the more she observed other home-schoolers, with their schedules packed full of educational, athletic, and liturgical activities, the less concerned she became about the socialization question. Accordingly, when the time came to send their oldest off to kindergarten, they decided to wait another year.

“Our two oldest boys had become so close,” she explained. “They played together and learned together. I didn’t want to send one off to school and keep the other at home where he wouldn’t see his brother.”

So, another year passed. And then another. More babies came, the sibling relationships grew stronger, and the Pennells settled into a steady routine of home schooling. They continued that routine after the family moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where Michael eventually accepted a position as the principal of a Catholic elementary school.

The decision of a Catholic school principal and his wife to home-school their six children raised more than a few eyebrows, but by that point, the couple had decided that home schooling was too integral to their family culture to change their ways.

Home schooling came with other advantages as well. The curriculum they initially purchased could be easily adapted and modified to each child’s individual educational needs. Similarly, the children who learned more quickly or excelled in certain subjects could be moved up a level or two, and those who struggled in certain areas could be held back without the stigma typically attached to those decisions.

Learning at home also allowed more time for the children to pursue other activities, from debating clubs to ballet. Likewise, the two oldest boys both finished high school in just over three years, enabling them to work full-time for a year and save money for college. Most important, in hundreds of little ways, from daily prayers and English lessons to lively conversations about the culture over lunch, the Pennells could integrate the Catholic worldview into every aspect of their children’s education.

“We always say that we’re not raising our children to be good children; we’re raising them to be good adults,” Lara said. “With that comes constant consideration about creating strength of character so they can go out and make a difference.”

For families considering home schooling, Lara advised doing as much research as possible and simply giving it a try.

“Home schooling isn’t for everyone,” she said. “But if you’re committed to living your family life as a domestic church, it’s worth struggling through those early, more challenging years.”

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Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

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