Putting a Catholic voice in schools

  • June 25, 2010
john kostoffTORONTO - When he was in Grade 8, John Kostoff had a choice to make: attend a prestigious high school with a longstanding tradition in academics and sports or an up-and-coming, smaller Toronto school run by the Holy Ghost Fathers.

Kostoff had seen a newspaper photo of a child from Nigeria holding a sign reading “Thank you, Neil McNeil.” That sealed the deal for Kostoff, who chose Neil McNeil High School because of the school’s active involvement in helping survivors of the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War.

Today, Kostoff is the director of education at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. In his new book, Auditing Our Catholic Schools: A Process of Discernment, Discussion and Action, Kostoff discusses Catholic identity in schools and gives some suggestions on how to refine the mission and goals.

Kostoff wrote the 79-page book, published by Pearson Education Canada, after hearing from educators who were asking him about potential “signposts” for Catholic education, given the changing educational landscape over the years.

“The purpose of an audit is not to find errors and weaknesses, but rather to affirm the good that is happening in our schools and to decide what we can do better,” writes Kostoff, who has spent 33 years as an educator.

An audit would allow school administrators to pause amid the busyness of the school’s day-to-day activities and look at what schools are doing to be “authentic Catholic voices.”

“In this age of accountability to the secular requirements of education, we need to consider carefully what constitutes accountability in our mission as Catholic schools. We do not merely exist to offer an alternative approach to the secular menu of schools,” Kostoff writes.

“Rather, as Catholic educators, we need to provide a radical and significantly different view of education, of the students who attend, and of the role of community, as well as a Catholic understanding of the world and our relationship to it.”  

The process of auditing involves looking at whether a school is fulfilling its spiritual mission in addition to meeting its academic goals such as test scores, admissions and scholarships, said Kostoff. Catholic identity is reflected in schools through sacramental norms, parish relationships, policies and procedures.

The book is divided into different sections, with some guidelines and checklists, rating the school’s Catholic culture through examples such as daily classroom prayer, social action, Church teachings and how Gospel values are integrated into the curriculum. The checklists also take note of the school’s expectations and outcomes.

“Those in Catholic schools must see their work as more than a professional endeavour; they should regard their role as part of the ministry of the Church,” said Kostoff.

Religious vocation education is one of several categories suggested as a marker for Catholic schools.

“If schools don’t talk about vocations as life decisions, then where would (students) find that information? They certainly aren’t finding it in the media, MTV or the culture,” said Kostoff.

“If schools are either embarrassed or don’t have the resources to raise questions, then where will we get the next generation of leaders to minister to our community because they’re sitting in our classrooms right now but they may now know that’s what they should be discerning.”

Kostoff said his main message is for schools and the Catholic community “to stop periodically from time to time and assess where we are (and ask) ‘Is this where we want to be? How do we know that?’ ”

Although resources can be stretched, it’s important to invest in building up a school’s Catholic identity, Kostoff said.

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