His Volkswagen Golf jammed with his three young children, their backpacks and car seats, Thomas Burnford headed off to St. Peter’s Catholic School in Olney, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. He watched as fourth grader Lucy, second grader Sam and first grader Molly happily dashed off to join their classmates on the first day of school on Aug. 29, and he took a moment to find the school’s principal and thank her.

Then Burnford steered toward his job in Arlington, Virginia, where he is the new president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Thomas Bumford, new president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.
Thomas Burnford, new president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.

“It was such a joy to see and feel the excitement of both the teachers and students,” said Burnford, who began his new job earlier in August, after serving as the NCEA’s interim president since last December.

For the past 10 years, he had served as the secretary for education for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Reflecting on how being a Catholic school parent helps him in his work, Burnford said, “It’s great for me to see the fruit of Catholic schools in my own home, as I do the work of the National Catholic Educational Association. The association exists to serve its members, which are the 6,500 Catholic schools (across the country), and to be the national voice for Catholic school education.”

“When it comes down to it,” he said, “everything we do at NCEA, and everything done at each and every Catholic school, is for the kids.”

When asked if his own investment in Catholic education is paying off through its impact on his own children, Burnford said emphatically, “Sure!” and he added, “What strikes me is the way the kids talk about their teachers. It’s so clear they know their teachers love and care for them. Teachers are on the front line, day in and day out, and we all need to honor them and thank them.”

Now part of his job is sharing the good news about Catholic education, which he said that he and his wife Angela have done on a personal basis, recently encouraging two friends and neighbors to send their kids to Catholic school, which they now do. “Parents are the best advocates for Catholic schools,” he said.

Just as he had as an administrator for the Archdiocese of Washington when he regularly visited Catholic schools in the city, suburbs and rural countryside, Burnford is now doing the same on a national scale.

“I just visited three schools in Kansas. Tonight I go to Kentucky, to visit another three schools,” he said, adding that the day after that, he was scheduled for another trio of Catholic schools, this time in Delaware. The goal is to witness the special charism of each school unfolding in the classrooms, and then talk to principals, teachers and superintendents about their joys and challenges.

“These schools are a tremendous gift to both the country and the Church,” Burnford said. “When I served in Washington, I got to see the commitment and work of teachers, principals and pastors, and now it’s such a privilege for me to see this around the country, the same commitment, the same passion and the same quality work, just in different states and in a wonderful variety of schools.”

As the 2016-17 school year begins, he said “the outlook is very good” for the nation’s Catholic schools, with about 2 million students attending 5,300 Catholic elementary schools and 1,200 Catholic high schools across the country. “There are 150,000 committed Catholic school teachers who work together to make God present through these schools,” he said.

A key challenge facing Catholic education can be seen in statistics on the NCEA’s website, which show that the number of Catholic elementary and high schools across the country have declined by about 1,000 in the past decade – an average of about 20 Catholic schools in each state – and overall enrollment over that time period has dropped by about 400,000 students.

Burnford noted that Catholic school enrollment is growing in some parts of the country, including in California, Nebraska and Florida.

“Overall, the national enrollment numbers have been declining, but there are great signs of hope, as we share best practices to build enrollment and proclaim the values of those schools to the Church and the country,” he said.

The best practices, he said, include parishes and Catholic schools, and members of their communities, working together to proactively plan for the future, to identify and build on strengths and address challenges, instead of such efforts only being taken after crises like declining enrollments and rising deficits mount.

“School leadership has the responsibility to look down the road, engage stakeholders and build for the future,” Burnford said.

Catholic schools have also adopted innovative programs, like the growing Cristo Rey model, which provides a college preparatory education with work study to enable students from low-income families to gain professional experience and earn money to pay for their Catholic education.

More Catholic schools are utilizing the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or STREAM (adding religion and the arts to the mix) curriculums, and the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate Program. Regional schools and multiple parish sponsorship of Catholic schools have helped make them more affordable and accessible to families.

Developing a special niche to serve their school communities has been a factor in helping some Catholic schools thrive. In the Archdiocese of Washington, Sacred Heart School – part of the Consortium of Catholic Academies serving students in the center city of the nation’s capital – provides a bilingual English/Spanish immersion program for students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Parents and teachers helped develop a classical curriculum at St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, which has helped school enrollment grow. Another Maryland Catholic school, St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, offers a global learning program for its students, who have family roots in more than 50 countries.

The new NCEA president said one of his key goals is to help spread the message about the value of Catholic education, that Catholic high school graduation rates are 99 percent compared to 82 percent in public schools, and that math and reading test scores at Catholic schools are significantly higher than their public school counterparts.

Burnford noted that some dioceses have instituted welcome scholarships for first-time Catholic school students. Another sign of hope, he said, is that 25 states have enacted measures like tuition tax credits, educational savings accounts or vouchers, to increase educational opportunities for children. That means more families, especially those with low-incomes, can send their children to Catholic schools.

“These programs just make sense,” he said. The NCEA president also noted, “It’s simply unjust that families in many states don’t have access to the tax funds that come from everybody for education, to send their kids to the school of their choice.”

He said parents should be encouraged to learn about the issue, and “then work as voting citizens to support further parental choice legislation in their state.”

Burnford said Catholic schools also need to look at new models for tuition assistance. He pointed to many foundations that are supporting Catholic schools, especially to increase access for low-income families. In the Archdiocese of Washington, new Catholic school policies adopted through a widespread consultative effort led to a change in parish offertory assessments, so all contributing Catholics are in effect investing in Catholic education for the next generation, and funding for tuition assistance has increased dramatically.

The NCEA leader said Catholics and non-Catholics alike “see the value in Catholic education. They see the fruit of Catholic schools both in their own lives and in the lives of graduates.”

He noted Catholic schools “educate the whole child, spirit, mind and body… The mission of a Catholic school is fundamentally different than public or charter schools, because in Catholic schools, we’re providing children with an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, preparing them for success in this life and the next.”

About 16 percent of children attending Catholic elementary and high schools are Hispanic, according to Burnford, and another key challenge for Catholic schools is to welcome more students from that growing and vibrant population.

From Sept. 19-21, the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College, which has extensively studied this issue, will be hosting a National Summit on Catholic Schools and Hispanic Families. The NCEA leader said some Catholic schools are seeking to increase Hispanic enrollment by reaching out to those families in their communities, and also to nearby parishes serving them, to encourage them to consider Catholic education for their children.

Burnford said Catholic schools also face the challenge of changing social mores and laws on issues like same-sex marriage and gender identity. He warned those trends can threaten the religious freedom and Catholic identity of Church institutions like schools, which can face charges of discrimination when curriculum and personnel policies don’t change along with the shifting cultural values.

People of good will, he said, should “resist government interference in our right to believe and act in accord with the Gospel.”

The NCEA leader noted that “Catholic schools welcome and educate all children, and we treat all students with compassion, sensitivity and respect. We believe that every person has a fundamental dignity as a child of God, and that’s reflected in the policies and actions of our schools.”

In addition to being a parent, Burnford also has the added perspective of having recently been a Catholic school student himself. In the spring of 2014, he earned a doctorate in ministry from The Catholic University of America.

“I believe in learning  throughout one’s life, particularly in learning about the faith,” he said in an earlier interview.

Burnford finds hope and inspiration from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who is regarded as the founder of the nation’s parochial school system. The association’s top awards bestowed each fall are named for that saint and pioneer educator from the early 1800s, who was herself a parent.

Burnford has an old statue of her on his desk. “Each time I look at it, I recall her commitment to the faithful education of young people, and her commitment to hard work even in difficult times,” he said. “It encourages me to do my piece today and to follow on (her work). She in many ways founded Catholic schools in the United States, and now it’s our turn, it’s our time to grow these schools for the sake of the Gospel.”