Put Out into the Deep

A New School Year Begins With New Challenges and a New Curriculum

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Back to school is always an exciting time of year for children and parents. There are all the new “things” many students enjoy, like new sharpened pencils, that fresh box of crayons, new notebooks waiting to be filled with what they will learn. Our Catholic Academy and Parish School children will enter the doors of our schools throughout Brooklyn and Queens on September 8, eager to begin a new chapter in their young lives. 

But for a second year now, children will be heading back to school amid the uncertainty of COVID. Fortunately, our Catholic schools successfully managed the challenges last year, and children were able to learn in class, in person, for the entire school year. It was a successful academic year for our schools, and many have seen enrollment increases as a result.

Prekindergarten teacher Stephanie Brosnan helps student Cillian Coaker with an assignment Sept. 17, 2020, at Maria Regina School in Seaford, N.Y. (Photo: CNS /Gregory A. Shemitz)

We plan on building on that success this next school year, using a layered approach of preventive measures to battle COVID and its variants that include mask use, vaccination promotion, physical distancing, improved ventilation, reinforcement of handwashing, and respiratory etiquette, cleaning, and disinfection.

For those parents who are not yet comfortable with sending their children into a school building, the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens is offering the only remote learning option in New York City. Our St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Online Academy is offering a K-8 curriculum, with live and asynchronous instruction that includes religion. The class sizes will be small and students will be able to interact with each other during class through group work. This exciting online academy is proof that educators in our Diocese rose to the occasion, and responded in a pandemic to provide an educational option for all students and parents.

As I reflect on Catholic Education in our Diocese since I arrived, I think of our strategic plan, Preserving the Vision, which began in 2008 to ensure the future of Catholic education. One way to succeed in that plan is to evolve and respond to the times we are living through. Our goal is always to put our Catholic identity first and foremost in all that we do. To that end, this school year we are introducing a curriculum in response to the difficulties we have witnessed in our communities and in our Nation.

Within the last year, the significant increase in overt acts of hate and racism is alarming. Racism manifests in many ways, however, it stems from the belief that one race is superior to another. This mindset leads to discrimination and prejudice directed at specific racial or ethnic groups. While society has progressed in respecting all, we can look at any media source, and even within our own communities, to understand that this critical work is far from over.

Along with visible acts of hate in violence, vandalism, and physical attacks, we must also consider the subtle racism built into our systems and institutions — that negatively impact individuals at the margins of our society. Bias and discrimination are a significant threat to the goal of equality. The need for action within our hearts, communities, and the Church has never been more urgent.

As witnesses to the Catholic faith, we are called to join our brothers and sisters in the fight for equality. Denouncing racism is only the beginning of a journey toward equality and justice for all individuals. We are called to open our hearts to others and engage in meaningful conversations. And we will strive to achieve that as part of Catholic education throughout Brooklyn and Queens even more so this school year.

“The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the social teachings of the Church call upon us as believers to go beyond tolerance. Tolerance might be the beginning, but it is not the end.” These important words were shared by our Holy Father, Pope Francis and through the lens of this message, we have focused on the process of reimagining Catholic social teaching within our Catholic Academies and Parish Schools.

Pope Francis’ words mirror our understanding that living the Gospel and carrying out social justice are part of a continuum. We must constantly strive to improve our understanding of the fulfillment of the Gospel message through our words and actions.

In this regard, the Diocese of Brooklyn, in partnership with the Catholic Academies and Parish Schools, has begun to implement a religion curriculum centered around deepening student understanding of the Gospel through the lens of social justice. This process began with adopting updated standards to reflect a desire to bring rigorous and vibrant religious education into each classroom.

These standards focus our intention as institutions created to share the love and knowledge of Christ. Each theme draws on the pillars of Church teaching in developing student understanding of the tenets of our faith, moral formation, Scripture, Sacraments, the Church community, and social justice. Social justice is intertwined throughout the themes to reinforce the concept that the Gospel message cannot exist solely in our words. The actions of the faithful and our Church must also be a living example of the love of Christ.

Principals throughout the Diocese have participated in professional learning that will allow them to lead their schools through difficult conversations surrounding race, tolerance, equity, and justice. As leaders of the faith, it is important for them to have a strong foundation to support staff development. To further these conversations, the Diocese will also incorporate social justice activities developed through the themes of Catholic Social teaching.

Each month, teachers will be provided with lesson plans, resources, and book suggestions that promote conversations around social issues and our responsibilities in addressing these issues. Social issues are introduced in an age-appropriate manner through literature, art, and activities. Teachers will also be receiving professional learning opportunities to support the growth and further development of this social justice curriculum.

It is our hope that conversations begun in our kindergarten classrooms will continue to deepen and develop each year. We are working to build a generation of servant leaders, who are globally focused, and socially conscious individuals driven to share the love of Christ with others.

As we begin this new school year, we put out into the deep to strengthen our resolve to overcome the many challenges our school communities face. We pray to St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of students and teachers, who believed that learning is all about the student making sense of the world. That is ultimately our goal — educating students who will leave our schools with the courage to always stand up for what is right, with the help and grace of God. May the Lord continue to bless all our Catholic Academy and Parish School communities.