Watch now: How one Lincoln school is looking to revitalize Catholic education | Education

Dorothy S. Bass


Ionic columns, barrel vaults and capstones are not words you might typically hear tossed around by second graders in the 21st century.

So it warmed the Rev. Jamie Hottovy’s heart to watch students from St. Teresa Catholic School in Lincoln confidently answering questions about the Ancient Greek and Roman influences on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s architecture during a tour this past school year.

Catholic Liberal Education

Rev. Jamie Hottovy points out the columns on the Temple Building on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus during a St. Teresa Catholic School second grade field trip last school year. A new curriculum called Catholic Liberal Education is being piloted at the school.

Just look at the Temple Building with its columns, the priest pointed out.

Or Memorial Stadium and the debt it owes to the Roman Coliseum.

The field trip coincided with a unit on Ancient Rome and STEM the second graders were studying, just one of the new features of an educational approach the Diocese of Lincoln is piloting at St. Teresa.

It’s called Catholic Liberal Education, a new — or rather “old” — curriculum based on the liberal arts and sciences and the classical method of learning cultivated by the church for centuries.

Beauty, truth and a deeper understanding of the faith are an especial focus of the curriculum, which has been touted as the “gold standard” of education and a way for Catholic schools — which have long faced enrollment concerns — to renew and revive their central mission.

“It’s all about coming to Christ. That’s first and foremost,” said Hottovy, the pastor of St. Teresa until this month, when he was reassigned to parishes in Lawrence and Deweese.

Rev. Jamie Hottovy

Rev. Jamie Hottovy

The curriculum, elements of which teachers tested out this past school year, will be introduced in phases over the next few years at the school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students near 37th and Randolph streets. If all goes well, it may be introduced to other schools in the diocese, officials say.

“It’s more of a return to what Catholic education always was in the past,” said Matthew Hecker, chief administrative officer of the Diocese of Lincoln’s schools. “(It’s) the Catholic education that is responsible for things like the training of St. Thomas Aquinas, responsible for the training of and formation of musicians like Mozart and Beethoven and artists like Michelangelo. I don’t think God quit making those kinds of artists. I think we quit forming them.”

Matthew Hecker

Matthew Hecker

The first phase, which will start in August, will focus on history, language arts and religion, with nature studies, science and math to follow.

The lower grades will study the Age of Antiquity — Ancient Greece and Rome — and will be introduced to literary fairy tales, in addition to stories about the early church.

As students progress, they’ll track the history of Western Civilization and Christendom from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and also American history.

Third graders will read stories about King Arthur and the saints of the medieval period. Lessons in Latin will also be incorporated at the school.

Students in junior high will revisit many of the topics introduced in earlier grades but on a deeper level, including studying the emergence of democracy and other forms of government.

Science and math curriculum will include more experiential learning, including nature journaling and observing how mathematical principles play out in real life.

“You can learn about Newton’s laws in a textbook, but you can learn about them by engaging in them,” said Sister Mary Cecilia, the principal at St. Teresa.

Sister Mary Cecilia

Sister Mary Cecilia

The curriculum also includes the study of sacred art and architecture. In addition to the field trip to UNL, students visited churches in Omaha this past school year.

Fourth graders will still learn about Nebraska history, and lessons about other peoples and civilizations outside the West will still be taught.

But make no mistake, Catholic Liberal Education will be a new approach for teachers and students.

For one, it places less of an emphasis on textbook learning and more on primary sources. And while school officials say students still will be prepared for a 21st century world, teachers are expected to be more discerning with screen time.

The use of discussions, such as Socratic seminars — which involve students asking open-ended questions and working through the answers collectively — is encouraged, too.

Bishop James Conley first approached school officials about implementing Catholic Liberal Education at St. Teresa in the spring of 2021, Sister Mary Cecilia said.

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It was classical education that, in part, led to Conley’s conversion to Catholicism when he was a student in the Integrated Humanities Program, a classical literature program at the University of Kansas.

And St. Teresa already had a strong track record in the arts — especially its strings program and Hottovy’s interest in sacred art and especially architecture, which he studied in college before entering the seminary.

The school has worked closely with the Institute of Catholic Liberal Education, a national organization that offers teacher training, professional development and classroom materials. 

Staff from the institute have provided webinars and on-site training for teachers, many of whom will be traveling to the institute’s national conference next month. 

While officials say the change will not affect tuition, the shift has not been entirely smooth.

When officials announced that St. Teresa would implement the new model, some parents — who felt they had not been properly consulted — raised questions about the rollout of the program.

Others wondered if teachers would be properly supported.

In response, school leaders held a town hall meeting to address concerns. A committee of parents was also formed.

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“I think in large part when people see the results of this, many of those concerns will go away,” Hecker said.

The classical approach to education has been on the rise in the past two decades or so, Hottovy said. 

While many schools across the U.S. and internationally are using the curriculum, St. Teresa is the first school in Lincoln to fully make the shift to the model. St. Peter’s  in Lincoln is also listed as a member on the Institute of Catholic Liberal Education’s website.

It’s been in use elsewhere in Nebraska, including St. James Catholic School in Crete and Christendom Academy in Omaha.

Hecker said other schools may be invited to adopt the curriculum if it goes well at St. Teresa, but stressed that it would not be a top-down mandate.

The curriculum is in line with state standards, and the same yearly assessments will still be administered, Hottovy said.

While the pandemic hit Catholic schools hard, Nebraska fared relatively better than other states. St. Teresa, which has about 280 students, did see a drop in enrollment during COVID-19.

Sister Mary Cecilia is hopeful that Catholic Liberal Education will reverse that trend and lead to a revitalization of Catholic schools. 

“We’re not looking to change everything,” she said. “But we’ve got new families coming because of this. And I think we will continue to have more families come as this grows.”

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