Catholic schools provide an exceptional educational opportunity

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Three recent events have caused me to reflect upon the state of Catholic primary education on the East End of Long Island.

We are lucky to have two growing Catholic schools on the East End: Our Lady of the Hamptons (OLH) in Southampton, and Stella Maris in Sag Harbor. These two schools have been educating children in our community for generations.

The three events which prompt this letter are the visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the United States; a misleading article in the New York Times dated April 13, 2008; and outrageous and bigoted remarks by Bill Maher on HBO.

Mr. Maher expressly stated on Sunday, April 13, that God is nothing more than an imaginary friend. He then vilified the pope and those who look to him for leadership by comparing the pope to Warren Jeffs and his polygamist cult of personality, the leader of a group which, I suspect, has very little to do with the tenets of the modern-day Church of Latter Day Saints.

Mr. Maher’s comments were both intolerant and ignorant of the educational and spiritual experiences of our children in Catholic schools today. Sadly, these comments reflect an acceptance of hate and a tolerance of intolerance that many Catholics have come to expect.

Similarly contentious was the above noted article in The New York Times, which led its readers to believe that all Catholic primary schools are in crisis. This is simply not true. While is it true that many Catholic primary schools throughout the country have closed since 1960, when Catholic school enrollment was at a historic high in this country, it is also true that many Catholic schools, such as Stella Maris and OLH, have experienced great growth and support in recent years.

Catholic schools provide an opportunity for a holistic private education that develops the body, mind and spirit of its students in a safe yet competitive environment. As a member of the Catholic school community, I am angered by the attitudes of personalities such as Bill Maher and the media focus on our vulnerabilities. I am, however, buoyed by what I have witnessed in the pope’s visit and even more important by my firsthand experiences with the Catholic school community on the East End of Long Island.

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States last month was extraordinary. If the pope is the embodiment of the Catholic Church then we have seen from his words and his actions that the church is capable of confronting its failures. It recognizes the necessity of forgiveness and reconciliation as the basis for emotional healing and spiritual growth.

The Catholic Church reaches beyond itself with a worldwide message of humanity as a force for human rights. The pope’s address at the United Nations, his visit to the Park East Synagogue in New York, and his masses at Yankee Stadium and in Washington, D.C., confirm that the church has not been marginalized to the extent that many of those driving popular culture would have us believe.

By the pope’s actions this past week, we see that the church does not represent the vestiges of our past beliefs, and our failings as human beings in western civilization. Rather, the church resounds with not only the hope but the promise of the forgiveness, the love, the compassion, and the tolerance that are at the heart of all people. Pope Benedict XVI has set a beautiful example for our children, and he has reminded me that I am proud to have my three young children in Catholic schools.

Our children (all children) will inherit a world that is at once beautiful and ugly, wondrous and perilous, hopeful and discouraged. More than anything, life is an awesome endeavor that we should seek to love. It stands to reason then that children who have the benefit of an education that prepares them to simultaneously recognize what is good (with what is bad) and what works (with what fails) will be prepared to lead.

Too often we observe forces that foster and engender cynicism, sarcasm and expectations of the worst this world has to offer. This cannot be a basis upon which to shape a generation of children. Overly disparaging and pragmatic postures do not educate children wholly, and they do not make good citizens.

Two of my children attend OLH, and one attends Stella Maris. Like so many families, my husband and I labored over the choice of schools for our young children. There are diverse and interesting choices to be made in this regard, and each school on the East End offers different strengths. Ultimately, we chose OLH and Stella Maris because we believe that these schools embody some of the best traditions in an academic education, along with the spirit of hope, tolerance and optimism that will determine our future. We have been very happy with our choice in schools.

Stella Maris and OLH, while much the same at their foundations, each offers in a different way not only an outstanding Catholic school education but an outstanding education generally that is open to students of all faiths.

Stella Maris is the oldest Catholic school on Long Island, founded as St. Andrews in 1883 (the name Stella Maris was given to the school in 1992, when the school was joined by Most Holy Trinity of East Hampton). Stella Maris, meaning “Star of the Sea,” attracts a warm and dedicated community of families. The parents of the students enrolled at Stella Maris are involved daily in the process of the school day, the impact of which is immediately apparent when one enters to the school. There is a noticeable atmosphere of respect for all people and faith in God.

Class size at Stella Maris is small (averaging about 15 per class), and the academic results are outstanding. Tests consistently demonstrate that Stella Maris students outperform other students tested throughout the state and country. The accomplishments of Stella Maris graduates speak for themselves.

Principal Jane Fitzgerald Peters describes the educational approach of Stella Maris as one that looks first to the individual gift or strength of a given student and then encourages that gift while providing the whole foundation upon which that gift will grow. Ms. Peters’s great gift is that she loves her students and teaches them to love the world beyond them.

A most recent example of this was a fashion show and luncheon fund-raiser from which the proceeds raised by students and parents were divided between Stella Maris (which, like all private schools, is dependant on such fund-raising) and a school in Zambia, Africa, that is educating children with the help of Sister Kathleen Murphy. Dedication to humanity and helping those in need is a core value in our Catholic schools. Each class at Stella Maris has “adopted” a different child in an orphanage in India, sending those children financial and spiritual support on a regular basis.

Much like Stella Maris, students at OLH, led by Principal Sister Kathy Schlueter, are taught to reach beyond themselves, by endeavoring to understand their own value as persons so that they are free to love, value and respect themselves and others. The OLH community also extends into the greater worldwide community with an extensive list of service and outreach programs, which the students learn to accept as a natural part of the educational process.

OLH is consistently recognized for its academic standards and achievements as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.” Graduates of OLH attend some of the most competitive and prestigious high schools in the Northeast. Like Stella Maris, OLH has a waiting list for certain grade levels while accepting applicants for openings in other grade levels. The populations of OLH and Stella Maris are diverse, and my children have formed friendships with children of various races and religions, united by their love of God and respect for people of faith.

Long before it was at the forefront of our collective consciousness, Catholic schools were “green” and mindful of avoiding waste. Recycling and making do with fewer material goods and facilities has long been a necessary part of the Catholic school education. These are positive values instilled in our children everyday in Catholic schools. Stella Maris is in the process of installing solar panels; this teaches environmental responsibility while providing an early lesson in the process of working with the community (the Sag Harbor Historical Society). OLH, too, is expanding its facilities in order to meet the needs of a growing school (OLH seeks to build a new wellness center/gymnasium with additional classroom space) by working together with its neighbors in Southampton.

There are those who say that the physical facilities at the Catholic schools cannot compare with other local private or public schools. This may be true in certain instances, but it is not meaningful. The benefit of a Catholic school education is not its luxurious physical facilities. Our children have what they need to thrive academically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Our children learn and experience respect of self and others in a faith-based atmosphere. This is the luxury afforded our children at Stella Maris and OLH.

Carole Read Bennett is a resident of Southampton.

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