Faith & Life



By Cathi Douglas     1/23/2015

Many Orange County parents are in the enviable position of being able to select the Catholic grade schools and high schools their children will attend. Making the right choice depends on parents asking the right questions:


What is the school’s mission statement?

A prospective school’s mission statement can determine if the school provides a Catholic education that teaches the Gospel and models the actions of Jesus Christ, said Carol Reiss, principal of Serra Catholic School in Rancho Santa Margarita, the nation’s largest Catholic K-8 school.

“Parents must decide which road to travel—faith formation, academic excellence, or both,” says Sally Todd, the Diocese of Orange’s associate superintendent of schools. “Sometimes just walking in the door, parents will know they’ve found the right school.”

Knowing the school’s faith life is important, agrees Ray Dunne, principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School. “How is faith shared and taught?”

What about academic reputation?

Parents must learn about the school’s academic rigor, reputation and record of successfully preparing students for college, Dunne notes. But colleges want to admit students who are well-rounded through their involvement in extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, drama, foreign language, music and club activities.

Do teachers have credentials? Are small-group settings available for children who need extra attention? Does the school offer a positive discipline program that rewards students for good behavior on a regular basis?

Does the school offer a learning style that suits your child?

“The parents’ best role during school visits is to listen, look, watch, take a tour, and even have the child ‘shadow’ another student for part of the day,” Todd advises. “Every single one of our schools is different.”

Discovering if the school is flexible enough to accommodate a child’s individual learning abilities and challenges is critical to the student’s success, Reiss says. “Is the school willing to teach all students, and do they acknowledge and respond to students’ individual learning styles and needs?”

What about coed versus gender-specific schools?

All-boys or all-girls Catholic schools can be an especially good choice, administrators agree, depending upon the student’s personality and learning style.

“Single-sex schools aren’t for everyone,” Dunne says. As a past principal of all-boys Servite High School, he knows that larger coed institutions like Santa Margarita and Mater Dei high schools are well-suited to students who are socially acclimated, while individuals seeking targeted education do well in smaller, gender-specific schools.

What programs should parents ask about?

“Extracurricular activities are important because college preparation is in the back of parents’ minds,” Todd says. “Our schools are noted for addressing the whole child, with elementary schools often offering art, music, sports and extended-care programs.” Inquire about after-school and other activities the school may offer in the arts, community service, foreign language immersion and technology, Reiss advises.

The college application process is so rigorous that students must have well-rounded high school careers, Dunne says. “That gives our students the chance to balance a multitude of things, as they must do in college and in life, emphasizing teamwork, cooperation, interpersonal relationships and time management.”

How are individual students’ special needs or requirements addressed?

Parents should be honest about their child’s needs—nutritional, emotional, spiritual and physical—when considering a school, Todd says. “Parents must ask what special accommodations can be made for the special needs of their children.” Vigilant communications with school administrators can help develop the child’s individual life-learning program.

“More and more, there is inclusion of special needs students taking place in Catholic schools,” Dunne notes.