How Independent Private Schools Can Save Catholic Education



Paul and Patricia (Pat) Hundt are co-founders of Aquinas Academy, one of the first independent Catholic schools in the United States. Aquinas is a private school operated by Catholic lay people, dedicated to instilling traditional Catholic values in students from Pre-K3 through 8th grade.

In 1991, with the help of several Catholic families, Paul and Patricia launched Aquinas Academy in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We spoke with them about why they believe private, independent Catholic schools are vital for the intellectual and spiritual formation of today’s Catholic youth, as well as for the future of Catholicism — especially in the United States.
Was starting a private school something you had always intended to do?
Paul: No. But when our oldest, Peter, was ready for high school in 1991, we were concerned whether the Catholic schools in our area were right for him. We wanted Peter, as well as his younger sister, Mary Beth, to receive an exceptional academic education. We also wanted them to grow in their understanding of and love for the Catholic Church, to be formed in the fullness of the Catholic faith. But we found that the Catholic schools in our area were being run virtually the same way as the secular, public schools, so why bother with the trouble and expense of sending our children to any of the existing Catholic high schools?
Pat: Something that really brought this home was our nephew’s experience at one of the best Catholic high schools in the area. By the eighth grade, he had a basic understanding of the Catholic faith and he lived it. He wanted to go to a Catholic high school and with our financial help, was able to do so. Unfortunately, even though he did well academically, we found the atmosphere in the school was not conducive to the development of the human virtues and of Catholic spiritual formation. We did not want that result for our children.
It’s quite a leap from being dissatisfied with the local schools to starting one of your own.
Pat: Maybe it wasn’t so much a leap as responding to a little push from God. When Peter was in sixth grade, he went on a weekend retreat with the Legionaries of Christ at their Edgerton, Wisconsin school for boys; the students were primarily from the Legionaries’ Catholic schools in Latin America. Peter’s not very effusive, but when he came home he said, “Mom, the kids in that school are the nicest kids I ever met.” He kept saying, “I want to go to that school.” So, he went to the Legionaries’ school for one year.
Paul: When it was time for Peter to come home, we asked one of the priests, “Peter’s had this wonderful experience. How can we continue this?” And the priest said, “Well, start your own school.” When we said, “How do you do that?” he said, “You just do it.” That’s how the school started. We found a number of other parents who had similar serious concerns regarding the education of their children, and started putting the pieces together. There were plenty of challenges, but we found answers to all.
What do lay people know about organizing a school? How did you go about it?
Paul: To begin with, organizing a school requires people of faith — faith in God, faith that their good work will be blessed and faith in themselves so that they can move forward, and take action on their common-sense ideas. This rather describes a successful Catholic entrepreneur. Of course, when starting a new project, people appreciate sound advice, a road map, and guidelines. These things are now available for independent Catholic school startups, in a manner not unlike the many franchise systems which have transformed the U.S. and world retail economies.
Pat: One such example is the National Consultants for Education in Atlanta which, for a fee, provides advice on textbooks, teacher training and systems for monitoring teachers and schools. The objective of NCE is to help establish a challenging Catholic curriculum along with the integral formation of the theological and human virtues. The NCE motto is “to teach the mind, educate the heart and form the will.” It is vitally important that teachers and staff understand their role, not only to pass on knowledge, but to develop leaders with conviction and a love of their Catholic faith. Another source of help is the National Association of Independent Catholic Schools (NAICS) in Sacramento, which has 59 member schools.
What was the main challenge you faced?
Paul: What you need first of all is commitment, a sense of total dedication. And you will need a financial angel (better yet, more than one), someone with funds and a willingness to make this a reality. I believe there are quite a number of people in this country like that, and I’d like to talk to them about starting schools in their communities.
What were the other challenges you faced in getting started? And how did you find the answers to them?
Paul: There are six main challenges that have to be overcome, and you have to solve them all before you can open the doors. First of all is location. Very likely a new school will start in rented quarters somewhere, perhaps in an unused school or some other suitable building. There will probably be municipal requirements that will have to be met.
Pat: You also have to decide on curriculum, which will have a strong impact on the teaching staff you will need. Which grades will your school include? Because of the ages of our children and those of other families interested in starting a school, we began at the high school level, and started with 9th and 10th grades. Our teachers have primarily come from the young orthodox Catholic colleges. They are very well formed in the faith, have a strong Catholic philosophy, a strong sense of mission. For them, teaching isn’t just a job, it’s a calling.
Paul: Sooner or later you will need other staff, a principal and perhaps administrative people; a janitor or maintenance person. For the first few years we were able to handle these functions through volunteer work of parents, and we still have strong and continuing parent involvement.
Pat: You need students, of course. For the most part, ours have heard about Aquinas through word-of-mouth, which of course is the best form of advertising. We now have a web site ( and have developed several brochures that we use for recruiting.
Paul: And, of course, you will have a continuing need for money. The guideline we’ve heard is that about 80% of the operating budget should be covered by tuition, but we’re not there yet. Tuition covers about half our expenses, and fundraising by our families provides another 25% or so. The rest comes from our financial angels, and we’ve received some outright gifts
What about ongoing challenges?
Pat: Well, many parents are convinced their children are brilliant, and some think their kids deserve special attention, so it’s very important for the school to gently bring those parents to accept reality, while at the same time delivering a strong message that the school is the best place for their children.
Another challenge has been the ongoing development of our staff. We spend precious funds on staff development; every new teacher attends a week-long program at the NCE Institute studying the philosophy and pedagogy of integral formation. Spiritual retreats and classes in the faith are encouraged. We’ve been very successful at retaining our teachers.
Paul: We’re proud of the problems we have not had. We’ve never had any kind of moral problem, never had a legal problem, never had a cash shortfall (never a late payday or an unpaid bill), and finally, we’ve never had a problem with academic results — as a matter of fact, our students have always scored very high in standardized tests.
How has the school grown and changed over the years?
Pat: Our enrollment has grown every year, right from the beginning. Probably the most significant change was our decision to switch from a high school to a grade school. This was decided and announced in 1997 and became effective a year later. We then started with kindergarten kids, adding more and more grades as we had need, and now operate a complete elementary school, pre-K3 through 8th grade.
Paul: We had some location problems in the first few years, and finally solved those by buying a suitable parcel of land and erecting our own school building on it. Our building has 11 classrooms on a 68-acre campus, and we have plans for extensive future expansion, including a middle school, a high school, a chapel, and many athletic and other facilities.
What results can you report? What are you most proud of?
Pat: Well, we’re now approaching a total of 400 students who have attended Aquinas since its founding. That includes 47 high school students. Even more important than the numbers is what I’d call the “student attitude” at Aquinas. We receive very rewarding feedback from the kids, who reflect very positively the mission of the school; it’s obvious they have good grounding and understanding of our Catholic faith. They say things like “I love my school,” and “I love my teacher.”
Paul: We’re also gratified by the fact that three of our former students have chosen to accept Catholic vocations. One young man will soon become a priest, and two young women are pursuing consecrated life. All three are vigorous in giving credit to Aquinas for their choice of vocations. In addition, two of our former teachers will make final professions in the community of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in July.
After 17 years you must have drawn some definite conclusions and formed some strong opinions, not only about your own school, but about the whole concept of independent Catholic schools. To begin with, in your view, what problems does America face that can be addressed by such independent schools?
Paul: Well, it’s no secret that we Americans have serious deficiencies in our educational system. To cite just one example, nearly one-third of all U.S. school children have serious reading deficits, and it is estimated that at least 20% of U.S. adults (33% in some geographic areas) are functionally illiterate.
Throughout the last century, the U.S. economy not only sustained our global dominance but provided satisfactory employment for the marginally literate. Today, that economy is being replaced rapidly by an increasingly complex information-based economy that rewards only those who have the skills to serve its rapidly-changing needs. There are fewer and fewer places in the workforce for the illiterate, and anyone who can’t read will find it nearly impossible to realize the promise of the American Dream. How can a nation where education spending is nearly twice the average of those in European Union countries produce such woeful results?
Pat: As a nation, we don’t seem to be doing any better in teaching moral values to our younger generations. About 30% of today’s children are born out of wedlock, an increase of 66% since 1980 and still climbing. And, there is now general acceptance of unmarried couples living together before marriage, the divorce rate is about 50%, and well over a million U.S. abortions are performed each year. These are terrible statistics.
Paul: We Catholics have some well-known problems of our own. There is a severe shortage of priests and nuns, and there is a very low number of accepted vocations to the religious life. Among baptized Catholics, there has been a continuing decline in Sunday mass attendance to the current estimated level of well under 50%. In short, I believe our country has departed from the teachings of Christ and His church in a number of very significant ways. I believe we Catholics need to ask what is wrong and what we can do about it.
What advantages can independent schools offer a Catholic community?
Paul: Well, of course some diocesan/parish schools are achieving stable or growing enrollment, high academic and spiritual standards and good results. Naturally, there is no need to change or supplement those schools — “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But from what I hear, it seems clear that there are many young people who need to be in more effective Catholic schools than are available to them, and their parents and other interested lay Catholics in their communities could join together to create a great new era of formative Catholic education.
Pat: Today’s parents are often critical of what goes on in their kids’ schools. At the same time, many of those parents have skills, ideas and suggestions that would be very useful in running an independent school. I believe our Church should take full advantage of these human resources to help solve the Catholic educational needs of today. We face great financial, personnel, and societal problems — but we also have huge financial and human resources which, with prayer, organization and time, can reap magnificent results for all of God’s children.
Paul: In the past 25 years, two closely related phenomena have emerged to convey sound academics and the faith — home schooling and private Catholic academies. Both were unheard-of and almost-inconceivable factors 30 and 40 years ago. Today more than 1.3 million children, kindergarten through high school, are home schooled. And an estimated 25,000 kids now attend about 175 new private Catholic academies located throughout the U.S.
Where will the leadership and initiative come from to expand the role of private schools?
Pat: I am sure that there are many more lay Catholics who can and will step forward to organize and operate private Catholic schools, in full agreement with the teachings of the Church. Some are highly motivated to take action to promote Catholic formation based on their own education. I believe if there are not enough religious to lead school initiatives to do the job, Christ, through his Church, will turn to these devout and capable lay members.
Paul: Based on my own experience, I believe that nearly every community has a valuable and largely untapped resource in the same people who are changing the face of the American economy — American entrepreneurs. They have the skills, knowledge and contacts to organize and operate independent schools. And they, and other successful members of the Catholic community, have the financial resources to provide the start-up capital and continuing support for a private school initiative.
Pat: I am sure there is plenty of money in the hands of faithful American Catholics to bring this off. As of July 2006 there were 515,000 households in the U.S. having net assets in excess of $10 million. Since the U.S. is about 22% Catholic, that means there are 100,000 Catholic households in the U.S. with such resources available. It seems very likely that a number of them would take on a private school project.
Don’t independent schools just steal students from existing parish schools?
Paul: No. Independent schools tend to attract Catholic children who would otherwise attend secular public schools. In addition, 15-20% of the enrollment in our school has come from kids in non-Catholic families.
Pat: Many Catholics are enthusiastic about the increasingly popular government-financed school choice programs through which low-income families are given vouchers to be used to cover tuition at an approved grade or high school of their choice, including church-affiliated schools. I believe the diocese and parishes could provide their own vouchers for children of such lower-income Catholics to attend an approved Catholic private school of their choice. The diocese would focus on making sure each approved school is likely to produce well formed, well-educated young Catholics. Some parishes, especially those not having schools, now use a variation of this.
Paul: An education office at each diocese could establish and oversee the teaching of the faith in accordance with the magisterium. The diocese would create parameters for the continuing approval or non-approval of these independent schools. These parameters would certainly cover religious instruction and might also include the regulation of non-religious subjects with the goal of prohibiting that which would contradict the prescribed religious instruction. The objective is to assure teaching the maximum of truths of the faith, without contradiction or dilution, while giving the school operators ample room for the operation of the institution.
Any final remarks to add?
Pat: Only a word of solid encouragement: With the right frame of mind it is possible for you to do things you may not think could happen If you help operate an independent Catholic school, you’re doing God’s work, and He’s going to help you.
Paul: I think there’s no better way to summarize our thoughts and prayers on this subject than to quote the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan, who visited our school last September:
“You have a miracle here!” he said. “You have a pearl of great price, and I am with you all the way. We’re all in it on behalf of Catholic education, and you’ve just shown — it can be done, and that’s an inspiration and a blessing to me!”

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