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Flourishing in Faith-Based Schools—From a Non-Religious Perspective

Last year, we asked parents a few questions about what they found valuable about their children’s experiences with Partnership Schools in New York. Academics, personalized attention, an orderly environment, and a welcoming community certainly came up in their comments—along with several remarks like these:

Yes, they get a good education, but they also get a relationship with God. It is big for me.

Catholicism is not my religion, Christianity is, but the fact that they still pray here. The prayer in school is what I am excited about.


The most obvious difference between Catholic schools and public or charter schools is that Catholic schools teach spirituality, in the context of a religious tradition. It’s worth asking: What’s so valuable about spirituality and religion in the context of a child’s school day?

After all, the parents quoted above, like many working class Catholic school parents, report picking up extra jobs and sacrificing in order to afford Catholic schools. Educators as well make economic sacrifices to teach in Catholic schools. Advocates for public funds to allow all parents—not just the wealthy—to choose faith-based schooling have to navigate sensibilities that often feel like the third rail of American policy discussions. And our network, like many Catholic educational institutions, engages in significant philanthropic fundraising efforts—all in order to provide an education that, at its core, has just a few key features that could not be implemented in American charter or public schools: spiritual practices, religious traditions, and a Catholic understanding of what is true, real, and good.

In short, most of the partners of Partnership Schools—parents, educators, and supporters—go to great lengths to ensure that children receive not just an academic education, but spiritual formation. For those of us within the faith, asking what value children get from faith-based education is like asking a fish what he thinks of the benefits of water; it may be difficult for us to articulate the merits of something that is a transcendent focus of our worship, an intrinsic part of ourselves, and as essential to the world we want for our children as air.

Sr. Francis Tran greets a student at Immaculate Conception in the Bronx in 2019.

But there is a case to be made to those outside religious communities that providing children robust access to religious and spiritual practices has merits even non-religious folks might find useful. And that case may be even more important to make for faith-based schools now, given the accelerating tendency of Americans to disaffiliate from formal religious identity.

As Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee reflected last winter, all schools, public, independent, or religious, teach values—whether or not they acknowledge it and teach those values explicitly. The values in Catholic schools come, we hope, from our faith. And in the same article, Kathleen noted the practical benefits of learning those values, citing research that suggests, among other findings, that “Catholic school graduates are more likely to be civically engaged, to vote, to volunteer, and to give to charitable causes than their public school peers.”

Values are certainly a crucial part of Catholic teaching. But spirituality and religion encompass far more. A non-religious organization sums up that “more” succinctly: UNICEF notes that “Whether or not they are members of established religious communities, all children have a sense of awe and wonder that can lead them to connect with and derive meaning from the world around them, including the natural environment.” UNICEF goes on to suggest that “the profound influence that spirituality and religion can have on children’s development and socialization offers the potential to reinforce protective influences and promote resilience.”

To cultivate awe and wonder; to make meaning of the world, and in the process to promote resilience—these seem like the very aims of a full education. And recent research from Harvard’s Human Flourishing Project supports the contention that both personal spiritual activity, such as prayer and meditation, and communal religious practices have positive benefits. Dr. Yin Chen, Prof. Tyler VanderWeele, and others found that children raised in spiritual or religious environments are better able to handle the dangers of adolescence: they are 12% less likely to suffer from depression, 33% less likely to use drugs, and 47% more likely to have a sense of mission and purpose, among many other findings.

In fact, the Human Flourishing Project’s Prof. VanderWeele published an article in The Journal of Positive Psychology & Wellbeing this year that just may be the most concise roadmap to navigating this turbulent year—and that uncannily summarizes practices that Catholic schools have long practiced with students each day. The practices VanderWeele highlights include:

  • Gratitude
  • Savoring and recognizing the good
  • Imagining your best possible self

Daily Catholic prayers in every school are, among other things, communal and individual exercises in gratitude and in recognizing the good. And discussions of both sainthood and vocation are, at their core, about habituating students to recognize and cultivate what is both unique and best in each of them. VanderWeel also notes research commending the benefits to wellbeing of:

  • Acts of Kindness
  • Volunteering
  • Religious Community

That secular scientific research supports the benefits to children of practices that Catholic schools engage in every day gives those of us in Catholic schools all the more reason to devote time to those ritual activities, and to embrace them not just as a duty but the wellspring of our very being.

Students from Our Lady Queen of Angels-East Harlem “Pray with the Principal” during remote learning in Spring, 2020.

Of course, we don’t believe just because science suggests it’s beneficial to do so. We believe because we can’t do otherwise; because both spiritual and religious activities are requisite for being fully ourselves. As VanderWeele himself notes, “given the focus of religion on the transcendent, it is perhaps remarkable that participation in religious communities affects so  many human flourishing outcomes in the present also.”

In his first papal exhortation, Pope Francis urges: “Instead of imposing new obligations, (Christians) should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.” Harvard’s Human Flourishing Project is shining the light of research on a banquet that students in Catholic schools get to partake in every day. Amid the challenges and crises of our current times, how much more should we enjoy that banquet with our children—and find ways to invite even more children to join in.

Beth Blaufuss is the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.