Chicago area faith-based schools teach beyond the books

When the world is hurting, we are taught from a young age to find a way to help. So when news of the devastating November tornadoes reached the students of Cardinal Joseph Bernadine School in Orland Hills recently, it didn’t take long for the youngsters to go into action.

“As we speak, our students are not only working to raise money for some of our students’ relatives who lost everything in the tornadoes, but also for a family who recently lost their home due to a fire,” explains Religion Coordinator Mary Vlaming of Cardinal Joseph Bernadine School. “It’s just part of the nature of our school’s mission to help when we can.”

Indeed, while changes in curriculums and requirements for Illinois schools fill the news these days, it is the work of many of Chicagoland’s faith-based schools that deserves a bit more of the attention. As teachers at many public schools frantically teach through the fast-paced curriculums of subjects such as math and science, the staff at faith-based schools throughout the area are realizing the need to teach their students more.

“Many of us struggle to live a faith filled life by letting too much of the secular world into our influence,” Vlaming says.  “As a faith-based school, our teachers and staff model a Christ-like attitude every day. We share in a community of faith at our liturgies every week, we open every school day with prayer and no matter what, social service is at the core of everything we do.”

Sheryl Meyer, executive director of Luther North College Prep in Chicago, says it’s about living values.

“For example, our theme for this year has been service, so our students will be spending much time looking at homelessness in Chicago and seeing what they can do out within those neighborhoods. In this school, we not only care about people out in the world, but we also truly care about one another, and that can make quite a difference within a student population.”

In fact, Meyer says that this underlying principle of caring for others can change the entire atmosphere of a school and cut down on social difficulties such as lack of self-esteem or bullying amongst students. Infusing these faith-based principles throughout a daily curriculum is something that many teaching professionals say is essential in the development of a student’s overall wellbeing, spiritual health and the often delicate religious formation.

“We meet the kids where they are at, and that does not mean just academically,” Meyer says. “Lots of kids come in here as nonbelievers … and that’s OK. We live through the Gospel rather than insisting that it’s something they should believe in. We give them the space to learn and make the choice on their own.”

And while making this choice can be challenging, young people seem to thrive in being surrounded by supportive faculty, staff and fellow students throughout this stage of life. To further help support their students’ faith lives, Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst came up with the idea of “Faith Families” about three years ago.

“It’s really about surrounding our students with people they can count on,” says Principal Cathy Linley of Immaculate Conception. “A lot of schools talk about being a family, but we give our students constant ways where they can not only be a faith family within their own school, but also within their family, their community and their world.”

From pairing older students with younger students to help with their reading studies or faith families joining together for monthly meetings, relationships build stronger every day.

“I see the most difference in our older children and how they act within the faith families we have set up,” Linley says. “I always stress to them how important they are to the younger kids and how the choices they make and the behavior they demonstrate impacts everyone.”

Of course, this faith-based impact becomes even stronger in a student’s life when it is taken outside of the classroom. “The sophomores are currently studying the Book of Kings, dealing extensively with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem,” explains Rabbi Zachary Silver of Chicagoland Jewish High School about a recent trip the class took to visit the Baha’i Temple. “The underlying question during this year of study is, ‘What defines sacred space.’ Seeing the masterpiece of the Baha’i Temple continues to foster conversation in class and students are encouraged to incorporate this experience into their own lives, as they articulate their own understandings of sacred space.”

Students at The Frances Xavier Warde School also thrive during the time when they can take the ideals of faith to others within the community. In fact, each student at the school is asked to volunteer for at least three hours during the school year, with seventh- and eighth-graders asked to volunteer 15 hours of service. “Service to the community and beyond is part of our every day,” explains Clare Hurrelbrink, religious coordinator at The Frances Xavier Warde School’s Old St. Patrick’s campus. “We are committed to our goal of reaching 5,000 service hours as a school.”

Vlaming says, “It’s time for a brand new day.”

“It’s about transforming from the perception of an “I” based world to a “We” based world, where we can do all things through Christ.”

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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