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The value of a religious education

I was raised Catholic, so when I told my parents I wanted to go to Cardinal Gibbons High School for my sophomore year, they were overjoyed. 

Of course, my parents had the means to make that happen. Many parents who are similarly inclined do not. For them, one option is the state’s opportunity scholarship program. 

One current student at Cardinal Gibbons is a recipient of that scholarship, and he explained to me how appreciative he is that it exists. 

“I’m just really grateful, and I think it’s a really big gift that I’m here, because it’s such a great school,” he said. 

The school asked me not to take photographs of him or release his name. They don’t want students or teachers to look at him differently. He is one of five opportunity scholarship students at the school. Only the principal and the business office know which students receive opportunity scholarships or need-based aid. Not even the assistant principals know. 

Cardinal Gibbons isn’t cheap. It costs $10,000 for students who are affiliated with a Catholic parish, and $14,000 for those who are not. 

The student I talked with went to a Catholic middle school, so he qualifies for the lower price, but the opportunity scholarship program only provides students with up to $4,200 a year. 

Jason Curtis, principal of Cardinal Gibbons, said that need-based aid is available for those who need it, even opportunity scholarship students. About 20 percent of the student body applies for need-based financial aid of some sort.

The aid is done through the Diocese of Raleigh, and the budget for need-based aid this year is about $1.3 million. But the school isn’t free to anybody. 

“All of our students will contribute something,” Curtis said. “No student here has a full ride.” 

Curtis said he is sympathetic to families on the issue of opportunity scholarships. He sees their struggles and desires to get the best education for their children. 

“I think anything that allows a parent to do something that they really want for their child, something they believe in, I think is good,” he said. 

Principal Jason Curtis (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
Principal Jason Curtis (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

Furthermore, he said that Cardinal Gibbons contributes to the state. According to the state Department of Public Instruction website, per-pupil funding from the state was $5,634 in 2014-15, the latest year for which data was available on DPI’s website. At $4,200, the opportunity scholarship is considerably cheaper. 

For the cost, Curtis thinks the state is getting a bargain by having students come to Cardinal Gibbons. 

“I believe that our school does offer a service to education in the state,” he said. 

The school graduates basically 100 percent of its student population, and 97 to 98 percent of them go on to a four-year college, according to Jeanette Hadsell, head of College Counseling at Gibbons. The school’s focus is college prep. The students who don’t go to a four-year college likely join the military or go to a two-year institution. 

She said that 70 percent of the students who go to a four-year college will stay in the state, and 70 percent of them will go to a UNC-System school. The single school that receives the most Gibbons students is North Carolina State University. 

The opportunity scholarship student I spoke with isn’t quite ready to apply for college yet, but he does know what his ambitions are. He is thinking about pursuing medicine and possibly becoming a virologist. 

“I really like studying viruses and the human body,” he said. 

The student plays soccer and is thinking about joining the biology club. More ambitiously, he wants to start a coding club for students who are thinking about having a computer science major in the future. 

And talking to him, it’s clear that he is thrilled to be at Gibbons. 

“I felt like this would be my second home, because I can achieve my dreams here,” he said. “I can be open with myself and achieve my dreams.” 

I graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 1998. When I attended, the school wasn’t the 200,000 square foot, state-of-the-art institution it is now. It is located on Edward Mills Road in Raleigh, presently, but in my day, it was on Western Boulevard, next to WRAL. 

The old Cardinal Gibbons High School on Western Boulevard (Photo Courtesy of Cardinal Gibbons High School)
The old Cardinal Gibbons High School on Western Boulevard (Photo Courtesy of Cardinal Gibbons High School)

We had one main building with classrooms and lockers, a library and office, a gym and a small cafeteria. Many of my classes were in trailers scattered around the campus, and much of my day was spent outside. 

The year I graduated, the school had between 600 and 700 students. It was small, but I knew just about everybody, not only in my class but in the school — at least to say hi to. It was a refreshing change from my freshman year at Leesville Road High School where I felt like I was being swallowed up by the large, anonymous crowds of students.

Cardinal Gibbons dates back to 1909, though back then it was called Sacred Heart High School. It was located on Hillsborough Street where Sacred Heart Parish had been, and it was connected to the K-8 school  — Cathedral School — which was founded the same year. 

In the 1920s, Sacred Heart High School became Cathedral Latin High School. The K-8 school became Cathedral Latin School. 

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Cathedral Latin High School moved to the location on Western Boulevard where I would find it decades later. It occupied a plot of land that previously housed an orphanage and a school where the student body were called the Crusaders, and the school colors were gold and green. Both of those would be adopted by the newly christened Cardinal Gibbons High School. 

In 1999, Cardinal Gibbons moved to its current location and began to grow. Now it has 1,517 students, and there are 354 students in the senior class alone. Of those 1,517 students, 1,187 are Catholic and 330 are not. Here is the demographic breakdown of the school. 

Black: 40

Asian: 42

Filipino: 12

Hispanic: 110

Mixed: 71

Not Reported: 1

Pacific Islander: 3

White: 1238

Students eating lunch at Cardinal Gibbons (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
Students eating lunch at Cardinal Gibbons (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

“It touches and affects and forms everything that we do,” said Principal Curtis. 

As a Catholic School, there is tangible evidence of the role that religion plays on campus at Gibbons. The three tenets of the school’s mission are Faith, Service, and Leadership. Mass is offered every morning for those who want to attend. Students in every grade take theology classes. The morning I arrived, the day started off with a prayer over the loudspeaker that everybody was expected to stand for. 

There are schoolwide masses a handful of times a year, including during Holy Days of Obligation and during specific moments — like the start of the school year or during National Catholic Schools Week. There are also religious retreats available to students who want to attend in every grade.

But there is more to it than that. The religious element goes deeper, Curtis said. 

“It affects the discussions that we have, the discussions that you may have in science class,” he said. 

And there are also prayers before every class, sometimes led by students and sometimes led by teachers. It’s an opportunity not only for students to center themselves, but also for teachers to get a better idea of what’s going on inside kids’ heads. 

“You hear what they’re praying for, what they’re intentions are,” Curtis said. 

Sometimes the students are praying for sick relatives or about how stressed out they are at school. Sometimes they are talking about how grateful they are. 

“As a teacher, it’s that kind of moment where you get a little bit of insight into their life,” Curtis said. 

Julia Ryan is a 17-year-old senior who is an Exec on the student council. The school once had the traditional kind of student council, complete with president, vice president, treasurer and secretary. But eventually, everybody realized that structure was kind of silly. The treasurer wasn’t handling any money, and the secretary wasn’t taking any notes. So they moved to their current system, headed by four Execs. 

Ryan, a Catholic who came from a public middle school in Clayton, said she found Gibbons a relief. 

“Coming from public school, it was like I got a different perspective because I had never taken a religion class,” she said. “I had never been in school where you could freely talk about religion. So for me it was a freeing aspect.” 

A student art project depicting Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, both of whom have now been canonized (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
A student art project depicting Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, both of whom have now been canonized (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

Alexander Bates, another 17-year-old senior who is also an Exec on student council, came from a Catholic middle school. So he doesn’t notice the religious nature of the school quite as much. 

“Obviously you’re more inclined to come here if you are Catholic…but public school kids like it just as much,” he said.

Joan Troy, chair of the math department at Gibbons, has experience teaching in public school. She said the faith component at Gibbons is one of the big differences between it and public schools, but in a positive way. 

“You have an opportunity to share a part of your life that you wouldn’t choose to share at a public school,” she said. “And that develops stronger relationships, I think, and stronger community.” 

Jon Armfield is a teacher and wrestling coach at Gibbons. He’s taught classes like engineering, 3-D modeling, and programming. He is in his fourth year at Gibbons, coming from Panther Creek High School in Cary. 

One of his reservations about coming to Gibbons was the school’s Catholic nature. While he’s a Christian, Armfield isn’t a Catholic. 

“How do I fit into a Catholic community when I’m not Catholic?” he asked. 

Turns out the adjustment wasn’t difficult at all, and he said that incorporating religion into a school gives educators a better opportunity to connect with students and faculty. 

“I think what religion does is help build community,” he said. 

As a wrestling coach, in particular, he said that prayer can be important. It gives the team necessary reflective time before the competition starts. 

“Group prayer can be very powerful,” he said. “It can be very meaningful.”

One of the biggest differences between public school and Cardinal Gibbons, Armfield said, was the ability to try new things. 

“I thought it was difficult getting things done in a school system that big,” he said of his public school experience. 

Things are much more streamlined at Gibbons, he said. 

“Here, the difference is, if you want to start something…Cardinal Gibbons has been very helpful in saying, ‘How can we help you get it done?'” 

Part of his job when he came to Gibbons was to help initiate its one-to-one digital device program. The students all have Lenovo Yoga laptops. Armfield was part of a team that got that up and running and helped other faculty learn how to successfully integrate technology. 

He said that education often starts by telling teachers that technology won’t be as disruptive as they think. 

“Listen, this isn’t replacing the teacher,” he tells them. “This is just a tool.” 

Before the one-to-one initiative, Gibbons had computer labs, but now that all students have their own devices to use, it’s entering deeper into the digital era. 

Armfield said a key step that Gibbons takes with students is teaching them about digital citizenship. 

“A good digital citizen would do things appropriate while on campus,” he said. 

Educators teach students how to properly behave on social media and in other areas of the internet. And students are allowed to have their cell phones throughout the day, something that Panther Creek forbade while Armfield was a teacher there for 6 years, though Armfield said Wake County Schools have come around on that issue. 

Students in class at the makerspace (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
Students in class at the makerspace (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

The school has a makerspace, complete with 3-D printers, and shop tools like a drill press and computer-operated routers and milling machines. Clubs use the classroom, including the robotics team which won two federal patents and has three pending. But anybody can come in and use the room whenever they want. 

“Instead of consumerism, it’s creationism,” Armfield said. “You don’t buy it. You build it.” 

Troy incorporates technology into her math classes, something that she said helps tremendously. 

“My kids can actually work out a math problem on their computers,” she said. 

The math curriculum at Gibbons follows the state curriculum, though Gibbons came up with its own textbooks for integrated math because faculty couldn’t find one they felt was good enough. 

Technology isn’t just used in the classroom, but also as a means of communication. Using remind.com, Troy is able to send out text messages to talk with students.

“Their assignments go out every night, and if I think there’s something I need to remind them of, I’ll send a text,” she said.

The text exchange happens without the students or the teacher knowing each other’s cell phone numbers. 

Quizzes are often done via computer in real time, with students racing each other to finish first with the correct answers. 

Troy said the relationship between teacher and student is still essential. Technology complements the learning, but it shouldn’t replace the role of an educator. 

“What I don’t ever want to see is blinders and people just looking at their screen,” she said. 

A lot of work at Gibbons is done in a group setting, with hands-on activities. I got to sit in on a chemistry class where students were conducting an experiment to see how elements on the periodic table react with various substances. Some bubbled when they interacted, others actually released smoke. The students seemed to be having a good time. 

The class is chemistry honors, taught by Katie Quigley, who used to teach at her old alma mater: Wake Forest-Rolesville High School. She said public school was much more paperwork based, whereas she got into teaching so she could interact with students.  

Katie Quigley, left, helping one of her students (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
Katie Quigley, left, helping one of her students (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

She was baptized Catholic but no longer practices. She said Gibbons affords her the freedom to nurture her students.

“For me here, it’s more about the whole student and being able to tell them I care about them,” she said. 

And education isn’t just about the classroom. There are many extracurriculars on campus, including sports, theater, student council and more. 

Julia Ryan, the 17-year-old senior, said she came to Gibbons expecting to focus mainly on theater but soon got swept up in all the options that are available to her. 

“Once I came, I’ve discovered so many other things. I still do plays, but it’s not even close to the main thing that I’m involved in on campus,” she said. 

And she said that Gibbons has given her a solid understanding of herself, so that she knows what she wants to do when she goes to college: journalism.

“I have an idea of what I want to do in college, and I’m so grateful for that because a lot of my friends are still floundering around,” she said. 

Students seek help at an IT help desk run by other students (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
Students seek help at an IT help desk run by other students (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

There is a debate raging in North Carolina over opportunity scholarships. In particular, some opponents of the program argue that private schools that receive public dollars should have some sort of public accountability, which they currently don’t have. 

Principal Curtis said that’s something faculty thinks about a lot at Gibbons. 

“I certainly understand, and we talk a lot about accountability here because we feel deeply accountable to our parents,” he said. 

And he said that more flexibility allows Gibbons to be responsive to real-world needs. Faculty at Gibbons will hear from colleges or alumni about what institutions of higher education are looking for. Gibbons can adjust to the feedback they’re getting. 

He gave an example: the school heard from professors at N.C. State who were saying that the business community was looking for interns as soon as students stepped onto campus. So, Gibbons is developing a business entrepreneurship program so that students will be able to take on the challenge of internships as freshman if need be. 

The Gibbons I attended was a far different school than the one I visited this week, and yet, somehow, it had the same communal feel. It’s that feeling I’ve always been nostalgic for. 

The cathedral of the Raleigh Catholic Diocese (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)
The cathedral of the Raleigh Catholic Diocese (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

The old campus I attended and its buildings are gone. In its place, the Raleigh Catholic Diocese cathedral — the seat of the bishop — is being erected. Whereas the high school was hidden behind a stand of trees, the cathedral is easily visible from Western Boulevard.

While things have changed a lot since 1998, a lot has stayed the same. Ryan said she has seen how Gibbons is different from other schools. 

“Gong to games and everything, you kind of see what other schools are like, and there is just this level of community and family that you never see at other schools,” she said.

I attended public school, and I have fond memories and received a good education, but I would be lying if I said there wasn’t something unique about my experience at Gibbons. And I think anybody at Gibbons would likely say the same thing. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.