I was raised as a public school kid. After graduating college, I spent 22 years as a teacher and administrator in the Miami-Dade school district, the fourth-largest in the country. I was a high school principal of a small city, 3,000 students. I wasn’t surviving, I was thriving.
How did I end up here, principal of a preK-8 parochial school? Because God has a wicked sense of humor.
I loved public education, and I was good at it. But there comes a point when you realize a very important piece is missing. A key, if you will.
In the five years I was a high school principal, I attended seven funerals of students, none of whom died by natural causes. Yes, we had tragedies, but we also had wild successes: Kids going to Ivy League schools. Kids from families who spent their lives following the crops up and down the East Coast.
I was able to give these kids good advice. But there was a line I could not cross: I could not talk to them about their ultimate purpose and why they were here.
I could not explain to them that they were on the third rock from the sun for a specific reason. I could not tell them there was a God bigger and badder than any problem they might have.
That all changed in 2001, when my pastor asked me to sit on the search committee for a new principal for the Catholic school my children attended. That’s when the wicked sense of humor kicked in. Twelve years later, God and I are still laughing.
My immersion in Catholic education happens to coincide with a resurgence in Catholic education in Florida. All over America, Catholic schools are still disappearing, despite the high-quality education they’ve delivered for generations to students from all walks of life. But not in Florida.
Thanks to school choice scholarship programs, Catholic schools in Florida have rebounded, and even started growing again. This fall, 240 of them will serve 86,000 students – which would make them the 10th largest school district in Florida if they were under one administration.
Parents turn to us because they appreciate the academic rigor, character education and positive outcomes – from college enrollment and persistence to self-discipline and good citizenship – that solid research shows Catholic schools deliver. School choice makes schools like ours accessible to students of modest means. And we know our state is benefiting as much as our students from their success.
My awakening didn’t start with a burning bush, or a lightning bolt out of the blue. It started the way God usually starts, with that still small voice in the pit of your stomach or heart. I could exchange my profession for a vocation. I would have the freedom to help develop healthy minds, bodies, and spirits.
I still work with kids who live at or below the poverty level. Not all, but a good number of my 500 students participate in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program that last year served 107,000 low-income and working-class students, including 16,000 in Catholic schools. Their average family income last year was about $25,000.
The students in our school come from over 25 different countries. We don’t celebrate any specific heritage; rather, we have a Heritage Celebration every October where we celebrate our differences. It is our differences that make us stronger.
Part of the mission of the church is to educate ALL. For years the church has provided some of the best education in the United States, from primary grades to the Golden Dome of Notre Dame, regardless of the socioeconomic class the child comes from.
We are proud of that mission. We are also proud to live in a state that allows parents to choose from so many options.
I know school choice is sometimes the focus of heated debate. But as an educator, I know that not every learning environment is right for every child. And as a parent, I know nothing is more important than having a say in where and how your child is educated.
Tom Halfaker is principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish School in Miami.