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By Anneliese Esparza

 This year, diocesan schools found new ways to celebrate Catholic education during Celebrate Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 31 to Feb. 6). 

 “The rationale behind [Catholic Schools Week] is just to talk about the culture of Catholic schools. This year’s theme is Faith, Excellence and Service, and [these values are] something that we pride ourselves on,” said Samuel Torres, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese.

 “It’s one thing to teach students math and science and English and history ... the other part is to teach that, and then have them beginning to understand, why was I even born? What is God asking me to do with this knowledge?” said Torres of the unique mission of Catholic schools.

 While each school celebrated Catholic Schools Week differently, the underlying theme was to recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of Catholic education. Here’s what four schools from around the diocese did to make the week special for their students.

Resurrection Academy (Fontana)

 Like many diocesan schools, Resurrection Academy usually kicks off Catholic Schools Week with a special Sunday Mass. This year, though, the Mass was held outdoors with social distancing and live streamed for those who couldn’t attend in person.

 “It’s a community celebration, even if we are going to wear our masks and watch social distancing,” said Madeleine Thomas, Resurrection Academy’s principal. 

 Each day had a new theme: Celebrating the Parish, Celebrating Community, Celebrating the Student, Celebrating the Nation, Celebrating Vocations, Celebrating Faculty, Staff and Volunteers and Celebrating Families. The themes were chosen by National Catholic Educational Association, an organization which has been promoting Catholic Schools Week for 47 years.

 On each day of the school week, Resurrection Academy students were invited to wear a different costume; for example, students dressed up as superheroes on Monday and saints on Thursday. 

 During the week, students did activities related to that day’s theme. For Celebrating Vocations, students wrote letters of appreciation to Bishop Alberto Rojas and local priests; for Celebrating Community, students donated blankets, clothing, toiletries, and non-perishable food items for the homeless. Students and their families dropped off the items outside the parish or school office to limit contact.

 Resurrection Academy concluded Catholic Schools Week with a drive thru goodie bag pick up with treats for the students. 

 “The goal [of Catholic Schools Week] is really to celebrate who we are, and to showcase [to] our students the importance of Catholic education ... it’s not just the academics that the students excel in, it’s really standing out with those Christian values. That’s why we emphasize service, we emphasize prayer, we emphasize that we are a faith community ... our central focus is God,” said Thomas.

 “We need to stand out, we need to be different ...  not in an arrogant way, but in a Christian way,” she added.

Sacred Heart Academy (Redlands)

 At Sacred Heart Academy, students weren’t able to keep the annual tradition of an eighth graders versus teachers volleyball match, but they did get to hear from a Major League baseball player about his inspirational journey to the big leagues.

 Chicago White Sox pitcher Bernardo Flores, who is the school office manager’s nephew and the cousin of a Sacred Heart seventh grader, spoke to the students about achieving your dreams by perseverance and hard work.

 Flores struggled academically in middle school but turned things around after hard work and seeking help from teachers. He attended USC on a baseball scholarship and ultimately made his major league debut in 2020.

 “When [Flores] realized he needed to excel [academically], he asked support from his teachers and got tutoring, which is an excellent message for our kids to hear, that we are here for you. We want to partner with our parents, and we want to help our kids be successful,” said Angela Williams, Sacred Heart Academy’s principal. 

 Another Sacred Heart tradition during Catholic Schools Week is a student talent show, which was held virtually this year. Students filmed themselves sharing their talents and the clips were combined into one video. 

 For Williams, Catholic Schools Week is all about recognizing the uniqueness of Catholic education. “We’re excited to be able to celebrate the privilege of [having] a Catholic education ... we know that we create leaders, in the Church and in our local communities, who are morally grounded because we can talk about God every day and we can immerse God in every decision,” she said.

 “We want our kids to be academically successful, but I think really the most important thing is that they are connected to their Catholic faith and living the values,” she added.

Notre Dame High School (Riverside)

 At Notre Dame High School, events that involve assembling large groups were replaced by online events, such as a live streamed presentation by an alumni guest speaker.

 “We obviously wanted to continue our traditions, because that was the most important thing this whole year. Every event that comes up on our calendar, we’re like, OK, how do we create this virtually? How do we keep the tradition?” said RaeAnna Ashton, Notre Dame’s principal.

 At many schools, Catholic Schools Week is an opportunity to not only celebrate what makes them unique, but also to recruit new students. 

 Instead of hosting in person recruitment events such as open houses, Notre Dame reached out virtually to prospective students from their feeder schools – Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Riverside), St. Catherine of Alexandria (Riverside), St. James (Perris), St. Edward (Corona), St. Thomas (Riverside), St. Hyacinth (San Jacinto) and St. Francis de Sales (Riverside).

 The week before Catholic Schools Week, Notre Dame student ambassadors did virtual pop-in sessions to eighth graders from their feeder schools, sharing why they enjoyed attending Notre Dame. During Catholic Schools Week, itself, the school held an info session for parents of prospective students.

 In past years, Notre Dame offered a two-day event to eighth grade students from the feeder schools, a leadership camp one day and a retreat the next. While that didn’t happen this year, the school still wanted to keep one part of the tradition: giving the students a Notre Dame sweater that had the year they would graduate high school on it.

 “We got all of their sizes already, and when they come on that Friday, they’ll drive by and just pick up their sweater,” said Ashton.

Aquinas High School (San Bernardino)

 Aquinas High School tried to make things as close to normal as possible during Catholic Schools Week. For example, instead of attending a large in person rally, the students watched a video performance put on by the school’s cheerleaders, who performed outdoors spaced out from one another. 

 In the past, Aquinas would hold open houses on Saturdays when middle school sports were on campus. “There’s already a bunch of kids on campus, all we do is get them to steer through the open house with their parents ... This year we don’t have that luxury of already having those kids on campus,” said Aquinas principal Chris Barrows. 

 “It’s a little more challenging [to recruit virtually], but at the same time, I think it creates an opportunity to get more people in who maybe wouldn’t be on campus ... Like most things during this pandemic, it creates a new challenge, but it also creates opportunity as well, because we’re reexamining the way we do everything, and it gives us a chance to rewrite the rules a little bit,” he added.

 Barrows said that Catholic schools’ emphasis on faith sets them apart from other schools. “It’s virtually impossible ... to teach kids to be the best version of themselves without addressing faith,” he said. “Catholic schools allow us to really address the whole person.”

 Barrows hopes that Catholic Schools Week gave students a sense of community and belonging, despite being physically separated from each other. “It’s easy for [young people] to possibly feel alienated during this time, and even our families and some of our teachers. More than anything, I think Catholic Schools Week celebrates community,” said Barrows.

 “I think that’s the most important thing to come out of Catholic Schools Week, not just this year, but every year, that we are a part of something bigger and that we’re all there for one another and that we love one another, and through our faith and our ability to share our faith, that we can accomplish an awful lot,” said Barrows.

Anneliese Esparza is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Martha Church in Murrieta