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Betsy Kneepkens: Giving kids a Catholic education is a critical support to raising them in the faith

Since writing a monthly column for The Northern Cross I have dedicated one month, usually February, to an issue related to Catholic schools. I have a huge heart for Catholic education, because I know that the faith formation I received in Catholic schools played a major role in developing my inclination to seek Christ when it comes to others, myself, and life situations. I am confident that the moments in my life in which I have experienced the greatest joy, gratitude, and appreciation have been when I have been attentive and intentional about following that inclination. I can’t help desiring the same sort of opportunity for my family, and for all children, for that matter.

For the first time in 50 years, I am not attending, working at, or having children attend Catholic schools. I do have two sons at a Catholic university in St. Louis, but they are so far away I find it difficult for me to claim that as being involved. My passion for Catholic schools has not wavered, and in so many ways I can be even more objective and supportive of these institutions from an outside perspective.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

I know that many Catholic parents of young children agonize over the decision of what school they will send their little ones to. I also know, sadly, that the vast majority of parents in our diocese don’t have a choice of a Catholic school, because there is no Catholic school near them. However, for those who do have a choice, they discover that a Catholic school setting is an excellent way to start their children’s formal educational process.

Through my personal observation and by means of my children’s experience, I would strongly advocate that there is a significant advantage to sending your young children to an educational environment that shares the values you have in your Catholic home. Providing a sound foundation more readily allows a child to build strong character traits which will be essential as they battle the secular imposition of an ungodly society.

Most Catholic school administrators acknowledge that when parents do look into our parochial schools, attracting them to those first few years, pre-K to end of elementary, is not terribly difficult. There is a willingness by parents to establish a firm foundation, and they easily see the value of doing so.

Who could pass up a young child able to pray the rosary or recite a reading at a mid-week school Mass or observing the concern these young people express when collecting money for programs like Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl project? I think these ever-present experiences provide the reasons parents choose Catholic schools, even over the strong academic habits and discipline that is inherent in the parochial school culture. When parents compare these sort of attributes with the local secular school, Catholic schools shine brightly every time, and I get it.

As a parent whose children have all gone through nine years (Kindergarten through eighth grade) of Catholic education, I would like to challenge parents who are considering removing their child from the Catholic school to attend a secular middle school. I know the vast majority of our Catholic schools only go up to fourth or fifth grade, but I believe this needs to change.

Catholic schools largely help a child discover the best version of themselves. Fully discovering their purpose is impossible without figuring out what God is calling them to. Although the early years support and develop a tenderness of heart for others through Christ, the challenges of living those lessons out begin to become more difficult during those middle school years.

Many of my friends who have transitioned their children to a public middle school when they still had an option for a Catholic school environment would often share their reasons. Most often I heard that they no longer wanted to shelter their child because they knew they would have to go to a public high school eventually.

I hear those friends’ reasoning, but my experience would say the longer you can keep a child in a Catholic school, the greater amount of skills you can equip your son or daughter with in order to face the inevitable. Our children live in a godless, anti- Christian culture, and without the proper tools, they can easily succumb to the influences of that culture. Furthermore, if I had chosen a secular elementary for my little ones, I would be sure to consider a Catholic middle school to aid them when they might need it the most.

Now that my youngest is in high school, I can see the product of that formation in my older children as they went from high school to college. Middle school years were difficult, and that time of their life presented opportunities to understand, develop, and use the virtues necessary to combat life’s evils. Perhaps my children would be considered “sheltered” in our Catholic school. I found that giving them as much exposure to formal Catholic thought and responses has best prepared them for this nearly anti-Christian culture.

With four of my six children through high school, I can’t help but be cognizant of the many times our children were presented with immoral opportunities that could have had disastrous results. My children have been far from perfect, and I can fill a newspaper with stories of those imperfections, but I can say that the skills they received in those middle school years linger in their thoughts when posed with the difficult choices. Parents need support to raise their children in this world. Some may call it sheltered, but I call Catholic middle school education additional reinforcement to help my kids become the best version of themselves as intended by our Creator.

From a parent of many years of parenting, if you have young children in our Catholic school system, keep them there. If you your Catholic school doesn’t have a middle school, do what you can to see that this changes. If your child attends a secular school and there is a choice of a Catholic school, please take some time to call the school to find out all the wonderful things they have to offer your child. For the sake of a more holy world, let’s grow our Catholic schools in this region.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.