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School of Faith teaches teachers faith formation

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John Leyendecker poses with St. James staff members in 2017 with Jerusalem in the background. Pictured from left are Leyendecker, Melissa Spainhower, Jen Meiners, Karen Wiesman, Sherry Kembre, Carol Feldman, Clare Fox and Emily Ramsey. (Courtesy Photo)
John Leyendecker poses with St. James staff members in 2017 with Jerusalem in the background. Pictured from left are Leyendecker, Melissa Spainhower, Jen Meiners, Karen Wiesman, Sherry Kembre, Carol Feldman, Clare Fox and Emily Ramsey. (Courtesy Photo)

Educators in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati are learning to teach what they believe.

Since its inception four years ago, 17 Catholic elementary schools, including three high schools, have embraced School of Faith, a program aimed at providing personal faith development to teachers and staff.

“You can’t give what you don’t have. We are helping faculty and staff be in a deeper relationship with Christ and the church — to have that so they can act on the things they encounter in their classes,” said John Leyendecker, Cincinnati mission director of the Kansas City-based program.

Leyendecker stresses the Catholic faith should be an inherent element in Catholic schools. “These teachers and staff become more involved, more knowledgeable, more into Catholic teaching and the Catholic faith. They can share that with the kids in the classroom, with other teachers and the people in their everyday lives. This is about having an encounter with Christ and nurturing that through discipleship and going deeper into the faith.

“Generally,” Leyendecker said, “the attitude coming in is that it’s another thing they have to deal with.” To overcome that roadblock, Leyendecker said the information is not “fed to people” but focuses on developing relationships with one another and students. Force feeding “has been a failure in the church, overall. That’s why we’re in the position we’re in. Catholics are not engaged in their faith, and not evangelizing. One of the things we do to overcome that is we take teachers and staff on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

“The schools wanting to get involved with School of Faith (it is not mandated) provide themselves the opportunity to go to the Holy Land. The principal or someone else can go (first). It develops a tremendous amount of goodwill. and at the beginning. fans the flame, so to speak,” Leyendecker explained. “It lets them know we are investing in them.”

“We focus on the fact we are imparting knowledge of the faith, but it is so much more than that,” Leyendecker said. The program connects teachers with other teachers, then teachers with their classes and their families and people they encounter in their everyday lives.

The first schools to participate and continue the program are: St. Ignatius Loyola, Monfort Heights; St. James, White Oak; St. Andrew/St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Milford. Others have since joined: St. Jude, Bridgetown; Our Lady of the Visitation, Green Township; Immaculate Heart of Mary, Anderson Township; St. Margaret of York, Deerfield Township; and La Salle High School, Green Township.

The newest group includes: St. Bernadette, Amelia; St. Peter in Chains, Hamilton; St. Bernard, Taylor’s Creek; St. Clement, St. Bernard; St. Peter, Dayton; and St. Susanna, Mason; along with Chaminade-Julienne High School, Dayton, and Alter High School, Kettering.

Principals rave about the opportunity to elevate teachers and staff to more fully embrace and understand the tenets of the faith.

Jeff Fulmer, principal at St. James, White Oak, said: “We have teachers on our staff that probably weren’t going to Mass on Sundays; probably not living the faith, didn’t understand all of the elements of our faith and I think that’s true at other places, too,” said Jeff Fulmer, principal at St. James, White Oak. “For me personally, it’s ‘Why has this never been explained to me this way? Why has it taken me 35 years to hear it like this?’”

“The underlying goal,” Fulmer said, “is teachers reaching the kids; the kids can reach their families, and we can change the families. What I’ve witnessed is our teachers are much more comfortable talking about their faith tradition and living out their faith. When I visit classrooms now, I hear and see things we’ve done in School of Faith — leading a prayer or having a conversation. When they teach about the Holy Land they can say, ‘This is what it’s like; I’ve seen it; it’s there.’”

Funding the program varies from school to school. In every case, the archdiocese pays a third and the School of Faith program pays a third. At St. James, the school raises a third over and above the school budget and raises money for trips to the Holy Land. With teachers and staff numbering about 44, it costs $100 per person. That and the Holy Land trip are funded through parishioner donations and other funding opportunities.

School of Faith has been funded by the CMA for the archdiocesan share through 2018, according to Sean Ater of the Office for New Evangelization. “This past year we received additional funding from the One Faith, One Hope, One Love capital campaign. Going forward the funding will come from both CMA and 1F1H1L (though the bulk will come from 1F1H1L),” he said.

Fulmer oversees a state-recognized School of Excellence with an enrollment of 556. “I personally think School of Faith has drastically changed my life and has the potential to really change the culture of our school and what we’re doing with our kids,” he said.

The program involves visits from Leyendecker — generally during teacher/staff in service days. He introduces Bible passages or other topics for discussion in small groups prompting deep conversations. Sometimes, Fulmer said, “people are crying over something, or telling about something that happened in their lives, just sharing what their belief has been, or how they’ve become closer to God. The Bible study really focuses on questions that reflect on whatever the passage is. A lot of times, it connects to your life experiences.”

At La Salle High School, Principal Aaron Marshall said: “We have 80 different staff members so you could get 80 different opinions about this. But, they, by and large, have accepted it. I do not know of anyone who has said, ‘I don’t like this.’ Even if we step aside from the School of Faith and we just talk about growing professionally, whatever your profession is, you have professional time. Here it is set aside once a month to grow professionally. I’m a big believer that the only way you get better (in any profession) is to sharpen your saw; sharpen your skills to learn the more. We need to all grow in our faith. School of Faith helps us professionally, personally and spiritually. If we grow spiritually, and deepen our faith, that makes us better people and better employees.

At Our Lady of the Visitation with 765 students, Principal Holly Aug said, “All of this is intertwined with some of the basic teachings and doctrines of the Catholic Church. We have people on
our staff who did not necessarily attend a Catholic university. They haven’t heard this information in a while. School of Faith brings everybody up on the basic teachings of the church that maybe they learned at one time and have forgotten. It’s keeping the Catholic faith alive and its basic teachings and doctrines alive so that we are all on board about our church.

“One day, John had us pray for each other and we broke off into pairs and we talked about our concerns or examples of gratitude in our lives. The challenge is bringing this back to our classes. You have to make it come alive for whatever age group you’re teaching — to learn how to pray for each other. The upper grade teachers then got the kids to try break out into pairs and pray for each other,” Aug said

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