When Baptists Felicia and Ethan Carr began searching for a
high school for their eldest son, they had a clear vision of
what they wanted: a top-notch college preparatory program
with stellar academics. But the Carrs sought something else,
"A lot of schools focus on the brain; we wanted a school that
also focused on the heart," said Felicia.
The search took them from private schools to faith-based
institutions and, finally, to a Catholic school. Their son
Christopher is now a junior at Bishop O'Connell High School
in Arlington, and his younger brother, Nicholas, is a
Catholic high schools long have developed the minds and
nurtured the spirits of Catholic teenagers. Yet in
classrooms, pews and bleachers, a number of non-Catholics,
like the Carrs, join their Catholic peers. Nationally,
one-fifth of Catholic secondary school students are not
Catholic, according to the National Catholic Educational
Association. In the four Arlington diocesan high schools,
non-Catholics account for, on average, 13 percent of the
student body. Seton in Manassas, a junior and senior high
school affiliated with the diocese, has a handful of
What leads families of other faiths, or no faith, to bypass a
secular private high school or a free public school in favor
of a Catholic one? Diocesan high school tuition is an average
of nearly $4,000 more for non-Catholic students, and most
offer no sibling discounts.
For many parents, the answer lies in concern for the inner
life of students - their focus on the heart - at Catholic
Beyond the three R's
Families from different faiths choose Catholic schools for
reasons "beyond class size and beyond the academics," said
Virginia Colwell, principal of Paul VI Catholic High School
in Fairfax. "They are looking for something more, for a
school that has their moral values and their beliefs. They
want their children to be exposed to values in the classroom
every day, not just at home."
According to Vatican II's Declaration on Christian Education,
the proper function of Catholic schools "is to create for the
school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel
spirit of freedom and charity."
It is this Gospel spirit that cultivates the value-focused
environment that appeals to non-Catholic parents, said
O'Connell Head of School Joseph Vorbach. "Parents know that
fundamentally this is a program grounded in a value system,
and they find that very appealing. It has to do with our
mission that education is rooted in the life of Christ and
focused on the whole person. Even if they are not Christian,
they find that attractive."
But most non-Catholic students are Christian, "and many of
these parents look at us as part of their faith formation for
children - the fact that we can teach ethics in the classroom
and can use the term 'God,'" said Colwell.
That was true for the Protestant Price family. Sam is a
junior and his sister, Rachel, is a sophomore at Bishop
Ireton High School in Alexandria.
"I wanted the kids to receive a solid education and to avoid
the pitfalls of public school," said their mother, Krista
Price. The family home-schooled through eighth grade, so she
felt a smaller school would ease the transition. Most
importantly, though, "we wanted a Christ-centered school,"
Mutually deepened faith
As Orthodox Christians, Maria and Ruairi Murray decided to
send their son Patrick to Seton for a number of reasons,
including the school's academic rigor, its conservative feel
and Christian environment.
"It was important to us for him to see
peers who are
struggling to live the Christian life, that it's not just an
ideal but an everyday struggle, because it is for each of
us," said Maria.
However, the Murrays ensure their son understands the
distinction between Catholicism and their own faith.
"As parents we have great comfort in knowing that our son is
in an educational environment that will reinforce much of
what he learns
in the Eastern Church," said Ruairi.
"With that said, there are some key differences. Being
cognizant of these differences and why they exist is
something that we have and will continue to make Patrick
The differences can also enrich a family's own Christian
"The Catholic faith element has been a positive influence for
our whole family," said Krista. Questions sparked by
religion-class topics often "motivate us to go back and
research what we believe," she said. "As a family we've had
some great discussions. And it's helped us be less judgmental
in how people go about worshipping God."
Sam, who's considered becoming a minister, agrees with his
mom and said he's been inspired by his Catholic classmates.
"Some (fellow students) want to go into ministry, and whether
it's as a missionary or a priest or a nun, I've found that
pretty cool that we are different denominations but all want
to serve God," he said.
Baptist Myles Sherman, a sophomore at Saint John Paul the
Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, believes the effects
of his high school experience will ripple outward beyond the
"I've gotten to see the world in respect to God and how I can
use what I've learned here to influence what I do outside of
here," he said. "(I've learned) how to deal with people who
have different views, to help talk to non-Christians - not
just by telling them they should read the Bible, but by
showing them through reason why we should worship God."
There are some challenges for non-Catholics, though.
"It was a little awkward at times for (Sam), like when
Catholic students went to confession or he went to Mass,
because he'd never experienced anything like that," said
But students and parents are quick to say they've felt
welcomed and that students and faculty are eager to offer
practical guidance, such as when to stand and when to sit
At every Catholic high school in the diocese, all students
are required to take the same religion courses and
participate in faith-based activities, such as schoolwide
Masses and prayers. Of course, they don't partake in the
Eucharist or confession, but in every other way "they are
part of the spiritual life of the school," said Vorbach.
The students also enhance their Catholic peers' academic and
spiritual formation, bringing to the classroom their diverse
backgrounds and spiritual practices, said Colwell.
She said a Jewish student helped classmates better understand
The Chosen, a novel about two Jewish friends, by explaining
Jewish beliefs and traditions.
Father Edward J. Bresnahan, Ireton chaplain, said
non-Catholics can "elevate the dialogue in religion classes"
because they have less knowledge of Catholicism than cradle
Catholics and often ask more questions.
"And a strong Christian witness from a Protestant can also
inspire Catholics to be better Catholics," said Father
Gregory S. Thompson, chaplain at O'Connell.
The Gospel lived
The majority of students in Catholic schools share the same
faith, but non-Catholics are just as treasured. "While we
must be unapologetically Catholic, Catholic schools are not
simply here for Catholics; we are here for everyone," said
"Our basic premise is that all are welcome," said Sister of
St. Joseph Karl Ann Homberg, assistant superintendent. It is
not the schools' mission to convert non-Catholics, but rather
to evangelize in the sense of animating the Gospel through
words and actions. Some students may be drawn to the Catholic
Church, she said, but for others it is an opportunity to
awaken and deepen their own beliefs.
"When students are exposed to good role models, to faculty
and students who are actively living the faith, their own
faith and beliefs can be revitalized."
Non-Catholics at Catholic high schools
Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria: 15 percent
Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington: 18 percent
Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax: 13 percent
Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries: 7
Affiliated with the diocese
Seton School in Manassas: 1 percent