School has begun, the bells are ringing again, and students, teachers and administrators are beginning to bond in this new school year. We in “church business” certainly have no paucity of themes and practices to choose from as we try to capture purpose and meaning in our personal and professional lives, and this year is no exception.

The Year of Faith that Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed — with an Oct. 11 start, and a fitting conclusion on the Feast of Christ the King on Nov. 24, 2013 — certainly is a generous amount of time in which to understand, renew and cultivate our true identity as Catholic Christians.

In our Catholic schools here in western Oregon, our students are reminded daily as they enter their school buildings of what is most important in all of their lives:  a sincere and viable relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. This is communicated in the beautifully framed words that greet each student, every teacher and all administrators, as well as parents and visitors upon entry to our Catholic schools:  “BE IT KNOWN TO ALL WHO ENTER HERE THAT JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THIS SCHOOL. HE IS THE UNSEEN YET EVERPRESENT TEACHER IN ITS CLASSES. HE IS THE MODEL OF ITS FACULTY AND THE INSPIRATION OF ITS STUDENTS.”

Reading this maxim daily and reflecting on its true meaning will be helpful to all of our students as they, too, unite themselves with the intention of our Holy Father as he states:  “We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the Faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope.” In our own archdiocese, Archbishop John Vlazny is calling on all of us to an authentic renewal of our relationship with the Lord through personal conversion and as such, we have a valuable opportunity to unite all of our intentions as Church, “church of the home,” and I would offer “church of the school.”

As our Catholic schools are always an experience of “faith seeking knowledge,” we are no less committed to an appropriate rigor of academic pursuit. This is not in opposition to our strong Catholic identity, but an essential component of the education of the whole student — body, mind and spirit. Our Catholic schools have an important role to play in our civic society and are complementary to other forms of education — not in opposition. But we seek a truly integrated curricular experience which also places our faith in every nook and cranny of the Catholic school building, mission and culture. I am truly proud of all of the efforts of our Catholic schools to develop excellent and rigorous curricular benchmarks and standards, and with putting modesty aside, our Department of Catholic Schools is certainly a key player in this endeavor. In my office, Dr. Julie Vogel serves in the role of Director of Instructional Services and Accreditation, having previously served as principal of St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie, and previously as a professor in the University of Portland School of Education. She maintains a huge “instructional toolbox” which can be overwhelming! This year Julie is guiding our elementary schools in a three-tiered implementation of curriculum planning. Our teachers, principals and trainers are receiving professional development. 

Everything we do must be relevant, not in the trite sense of the word, but rich with depth, and rigorous for our students, and age appropriate. This new process keeps everyone focused on learning. Learning is also the focus of our demanding  Western Catholic Educational Association school accreditation process. Again, the learning process is not experienced in an isolated manner; rather, WCEA evaluates every one of our elementary schools and some of our high schools who employ the same protocol on a six-year timeline with a strong focus on the formation of the whole student: spiritually, academically, socially, emotionally and physically. The planning and accreditation, together in a wonderfully integrated manner, form a significant foundation for success in all of our Catholic schools. In our schools, we highly value the aligning of our instructional practices to the latest research on teaching and learning, and creating a spiritually and intellectually rich mosaic of culture and learning. The beneficiaries? They include our church, our families, our students and our American society.

The writer is superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Portland.