Catholic education is a gift experienced every day by thousands of students and their families in schools across the Archdiocese of Washington. Catholic Schools Week is a perfect time to highlight and celebrate this gift.

As a Catholic school parent, I have celebrated this weeklong event over the years. But this year was different as I was blessed, as Secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of Washington, to visit schools during Catholic Schools Week. What I heard and saw on my “field trips” confirmed what we know well from data and experience – a Catholic education is a gift that enriches not only our students, but their families, the Church, and society.

Take Cindy and Greta, two seniors at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington. I spoke with them as we walked out of their 8 a.m. class on government. (A topic sure to wake anyone at that time of day!)

After chatting about what they had learned in class, our conversation turned to what it meant to be a student in a Catholic school. Without hesitation, both seniors shared how their Catholic school is a community of faith and learning that nurtures their academic, human, and spiritual growth. Their principal, Katy Dunn, and their teachers were demanding yet caring, they told me. Their learning community was, to them, a family away from home, teaching them to go beyond themselves in service to others. Without knowing it, these students were ambassadors for the gift of a Catholic education!

My next stop was a spelling bee with middle schoolers at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, one of four city schools in the archdiocese’s Consortium of Catholic Academies. Talk about making learning fun! We held our breath as nervous, but determined, students searched their young minds to spell words like “IMMENSE,” and “ADVANTAGE,” and “CELEBRATION.” As they stretched their minds in a fun-filled way, they were being prepared for lifelong skills of reading, writing and speaking. A Catholic education was equipping them for a solid future in high school and college, for their vocation and career. School spirit was strong here encouraged by an award-winning principal, Michael Thomasian, the archdiocese’s Principal of the Year whose leadership focuses on academic rigor infused with faith-filled expressions of Catholic identity that permeate the school’s activities, walls and classrooms.

Catholic schools in this archdiocese are vibrant communities where faith-based education of the whole student is changing the lives of young people for good and for the future.

And as my visits concluded, I knew the experiences of the few students I had the privilege of meeting was true for thousands of other students across the archdiocese. I was so grateful for our pastors, presidents, principals, teachers and staff who daily serve as vital agents of the New Evangelization, extending the mind, heart and love of Jesus Christ in classrooms, school assemblies, and hallways.

A Catholic education is a gift on so many levels and for so many reasons. And we are grateful to parents and families who daily entrust their children to a Catholic school. Each child is a gift to our schools who become, in turn, gifts to the community and to the Church. So, I encourage you to share this gift with friends, colleagues and neighbors. A simple word of thanks to a pastor, principal or a teacher will be much appreciated. Encouraging a friend, co-worker, or neighbor to consider a Catholic school for their child goes a long way in sharing this gift.

Catholic Schools Week is, first and foremost, a celebration of our students. It is also a fitting moment to say “thank you” to pastors, school presidents, principals and teachers who are devoting themselves daily to a faith-based education that lasts a lifetime. Ultimately, their dedication to integrating Gospel values in rigorous academic programs and formative extra-curricular and service activities makes it possible for a student in a Catholic school to encounter Jesus, the one teacher of us all. And that is a priceless and lifelong gift beyond measure.

Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., serves as Secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of Washington.