As the 2022-2023 academic year begins for Diocese of Orange Catholic schools, campuses across the county welcome back students and their families with this year’s theme of “Journeying Together in Discipleship”.
“We really want to join the Universal Church in this idea of meeting people where they are and companioning them on this journey, with the goal of creating disciples,” said Diocese of Orange Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Dr. Erin Barisano. “There is this renewed sense of joy, and I think people are ready to be joyful again, to experience that joy and share it with one another.”
After more than two years of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, this school year looks to be the first in recent memory that will begin with a sense of normalcy, and that includes gathering as school communities.
“I’m excited for those continued practices for our community as a whole, for our children and for our families,” said Stella Costello, principal of St. Irenaeus Parish School in Cypress. “We thrive on community in our Catholic schools. That’s what makes us very special.”
SANTA MARGARITA CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS HEAD BACK TO CLASS ON THURSDAY, AUG. 11. PHOTO BY STEVEN GEORGES/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
At the heart of those in-person gatherings is a return to Mass, a key part of the community-building and faith formation aspects of Catholic education.
“This really brings into sharp focus the mission of Catholic schools, which is to be the evangelizing arm of the Diocese,” said Diocese of Orange Associate Superintendent of Educational Programs, Dr. Brad Snyder.
“We’re there to promote the faith, and we’re hoping that as we get back to Mass, the families are re-engaging their parishes at the local levels to make that connection.”
For some Diocesan schools, this new academic year begins with a recently renewed accreditation, an extensive effort for school staff that was made more challenging while navigating COVID-19 and was without any leniency.
But Orange County Catholic schools rose to the occasion, with a strong Catholic identity on display, alongside academic excellence, both key in providing a well-rounded environment for the students.
“What really [shined] through in the report was the Catholic identity,” said Tom Waszak, principal of St. Edward the Confessor Parish School in Dana Point.
St. Edward’s celebrated its 40th anniversary beginning in September 2021, which was the first time the school community was able to gather in person since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, Waszak and his staff implemented a new teacher-mentor program to support the influx of new teachers entering the school.
And like many of the schools throughout the Diocese, both St. Edward’s and St. Irenaeus introduced a social/emotion learning curriculum to support the mental health of students as they transitioned back into in-person learning.
“They were resilient in their academic performance and caught up fairly quickly, but it was the social-emotional adjustments that were challenging,” said Waszak. “Having a program in place has helped us address those concerns.”
Both schools will kick off the new year with campus improvements, as St. Irenaeus’ church building has received an interior renovation, while St. Edward’s is looking forward to an October completion of a new parish ministry building.
These new upgrades will be enjoyed by more students, as across the Diocese, enrollment numbers continue to increase, with more than 90% of families who enrolled in Orange County Catholic schools during the pandemic months choosing to remain in Catholic education.
“The learning for these students and the opportunities that they are given have just been remarkable,” said Barisano. “There’s such a success story there that we are really proud of, including the work that our teachers have put in.”
A return to in-person meetings for principals across the schools has been a welcome addition, providing a much-needed platform for support.
“At the Diocesan level, we’re focusing on building back that sense of community, and we’re starting with our principals,” said Diocese of Orange Associate Superintendent of Curriculum, Spirituality and Accreditation, Dr. Denise Valadez. “We think it’s important to bring those in-person meetings back.” Added Waszak, “Between the Diocesan level of support and the principals, we really connected in ways that we hadn’t prior. It’s practical, and it’s also very supportive, personally and professionally.”
With a new school year typically comes a level of excitement and anticipation, and this year is no exception. As the familiar expands into a “new normal,” schools are ready to partner with families by putting community, collaboration and Christ at the forefront.
“Catholic education is truly a labor of love, and I know that none of the people who are here would be able to do that without the fact of knowing that we are the body of Christ,” said Costello. “That is what brings us together and gives us strength. It’s not something that we do for the fame and fortune. It is because we know this is what grows our Church. Working with dedicated and committed teachers, administrators and our schools is what continues to help us to grow.”