MOUNTAIN TOP – A new academic year is underway for thousands of Catholic school students across the Diocese of Scranton.

As children and young adults return to their studies, they are returning to 19 schools that prioritize strong academic programs, a commitment to faith and a family-centered community where love and respect abound.

Students from Saint Jude School in Mountain Top walk through the halls of their school.

At Saint Jude School in Mountain Top, students, faculty and families work together to create a special environment.

“The kids that are in my class, that have been here since kindergarten, are all very close,” seventh grader Hannah Fauerbach said.

Dedicated teachers play an important role in the success of each school.

They plan interactive STREAM activities, connecting science, technology, religion, engineering, arts and math, in lessons for all grade levels.

“We have a lot of activities in social studies, literature, English and science,” seventh grader Leah Smith said.

“I feel like they know each kid individually and they get to know their kids and they care about their children and my kids see that and they connect with the teachers and they have a special bond,” parent Rebecca Cabrera explained.

It is clear Christ is the reason for Saint Jude School.

Through artwork on display in the hallways, He is the unseen – but ever present – teacher in each classroom. Students are invited to become His disciples by praying daily and celebrating Mass weekly in neighboring Saint Jude Church.

“In the morning and in the afternoons we have prayers and then after lunch we have prayers,” seventh grader Elizabeth Bilbow said. “They really emphasize just how much religion means to us.”

“During Lent, every Friday, we do the Stations of the Cross and not many schools do that kind of stuff anymore so that just sets us apart,” fifth grader Robert Marcalus added.

Parents are also actively involved in the school.

Take for instance Saint Jude’s Field Day at the end of the 2022-23 academic year.

More than 70 parents volunteered to participate. There is never a project too big or too small that parents will not tackle.

“Things get done. Things come together. People want to make things happen and make a great place for our kids,” parent Jill Carone said.

The Diocesan Annual Appeal directly benefits all 19 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Scranton, including Saint Jude School.

Your gifts help each student learn that God is present and active in their lives.

With enrollment growing at Saint Jude School, Sister Ellen Fischer, school principal, says so do requests for tuition assistance.

“The (Diocesan Annual) Appeal is so important because the reality is, there are other families who want a Catholic education for their children, and the reality is sometimes they can’t quite afford it,” Sister Ellen said. “Donations to the school in various ways assists with making that a reality. We have to serve all God’s people.”

By your financial support of the Diocesan Annual Appeal, Saint Jude School can continue to be that warm, welcoming environment where even more students can come together to learn about and glorify God.

“We’ve got Saint Jude Spirit and we’re not afraid to show it and no one else can copy it!” sixth grader Rachel Atwal said.

(OSV News) – As they open their doors for a new academic year, the nation’s Catholic schools are enjoying overall strong growth, along with a firm commitment to mission, experts told OSV News.

“Our school system has grown two years in a row,” said Lincoln Snyder, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Students at Saint Jude School in Mountain Top participate in daily prayer.

Based in Leesburg, Virginia, the NCEA, an organization which traces its origins to a 1904 conference held in St. Louis, represents close to 140,000 Catholic educators serving 1.6 million students.

Snyder told OSV News that Catholic schools in the U.S. on balance experienced a bump in enrollment amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 3.8% growth from 2021-2022 and 0.3% growth during the 2022-2023 year.

In addition, “most retention rates are pretty high,” said Snyder. “Dioceses last year retained 93% to 98% of students who came (during) COVID.”

The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, for example, has seen a three-year rise in enrollment, with the overall student population – now at 18,400 in 41 diocesan schools – up 10% since the 2020-2021 academic year.

Snyder attributed such sustained growth to factors that transcended the pandemic.

“By all indications, families who came to Catholic schools were very happy with the community and they established relationships” with the schools, he said. “Once people have children in a positive environment, they tend not to change it.”

At the same time, some Catholic schools saw an uptick in numbers due to straightforward demographic shifts, he said.

While declines “tended to be in the Northeast and the Midwest … most of our growth was seen in southeastern Florida, and some in the (U.S.) Southwest,” said Snyder.

“We’ve recovered from the pandemic and then some,” said Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools and secretary of education for the Archdiocese of Miami. “We have the highest enrollment in eight years, up about 3.6% year over year.”

One formerly closed school – St. Malachy in Tamarac, Florida – has even reopened for the 2023-2024 academic year after a 14-year hiatus, he said.

Rigg cited an influx of new Florida residents as one factor in enrollment surges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida is the nation’s third most populous state, as well as the fastest-growing one.

“Substantial numbers of people move here from the northern U.S., and we have continuous waves of immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean, the majority of whom identify as Catholic,” he told OSV News.

Christopher Pastura, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, agreed. He said Florida’s “robust school choice programs” also have worked to fill classrooms.

“Florida has moved to a 100% choice scholarship program, so everybody has access to that regardless of income,” Pastura told OSV News. “It’s helped our low- and middle-income folks be able to afford a Catholic school education.”

Making Catholic education accessible to students with disabilities also is key, said Andrew McLaughlin, secretary for elementary education at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“We are really pushing for full inclusion for children with disabilities, rather than have separate schools for them,” said McLaughlin, whose schools have seen strong growth and — in contrast to national trends — little learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by standardized testing.

“Ensuring every school can support students with identified special needs is a vital part of our Catholic mission, to serve all who wish to come to our schools,” said Rigg.

Along with expanding access, school administrators with whom OSV News spoke are focused on addressing both mental health and school security concerns.

While their students are not immune from national increases in mental health challenges — a trend highlighted by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a 2021 advisory — Catholic schools, equipped with psychological and spiritual resources, can provide a strongly supportive environment for students and families navigating such issues.

“Often we hear families say, ‘Thank God this happened in a Catholic school, because there is a community of care,'” said Rigg. “(The) community will rally around a family in crisis.”

School security also is a priority for Rigg, given the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17.

“That weighs heavily on the psyche of everyone in South Florida,” said Rigg, whose safety investments include on-site police officers, cameras and enhanced standards for ensuring campus doors are locked appropriately.

But the biggest draw at many schools is the fundamental nature of Catholic education itself, said experts.

“When you create the type of Catholic culture that people want to be part of, you don’t have to worry about enrollment,” said Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The preK-12 school draws students from dozens of area ZIP codes, drawing from “a really broad area” and functioning “a lot like a regional school,” he told OSV News.

Admitting that St. Agnes had “almost closed in 2007” due to financial struggles, Ferdinandt said the school revisited its roots — and bore fruit as a result.

“We’ve got a very clear mission, and we serve Catholic families that are really serious about engaging their kids in education, and making sure their kids get a chance to learn what we as Catholics really believe,” he said. “If we’re going to call ourselves a Catholic school and not be serious about teaching the faith … then we’re just private schools with a religion department. We worked hard for a lot of years to establish an extraordinary student and faculty culture (of Catholic education), and with that came the success of our school.”

“Our first role as Catholic schools is forming disciples,” said Snyder. “We are a ministry of the church, and we want to form children who love Jesus Christ.”

EAST STROUDSBURG – When Bob and Josie Brown first heard that they could turn their Pennsylvania taxes into Catholic education scholarships, they admitted being a little skeptical.

It almost sounded too good to be true.

“The application process was very easy. I had a few concerns at first and made some phone calls to confirm that our donation would be distributed as intended,” Josie said.

Pennsylvania allows qualifying individuals and businesses to use their tax obligations as need-based scholarships for Catholic school students through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program. In many cases, individuals and businesses can receive up to a 90-percent tax credit!

“There are very few opportunities we have as taxpayers to direct how our tax dollars are spent. This EITC program literally allows me to direct a portion of our tax payments directly to our local Catholic school,” Josie explained. “I genuinely believe our Catholic schools are a worthy recipient of these funds and I was pleased to have been able to participate in this program.”

Both Josie and her four children have benefited from a Catholic education.

“I am forever grateful as a student and a parent to have had faith at the foundation of learning in my home and I am proud to help in some small way to the continued efforts of schools to provide this for future generations,” she added.

Any individual or couple where at least one spouse owns or works for a for-profit company in Pennsylvania can participate. Non-profit employees that own at least one share of stock in a business that operates in Pennsylvania may also participate.

The Diocese of Scranton Catholic School System partners with the Central Pennsylvania Scholarship Fund to administer the program. The Scholarship Fund requires a minimum contribution of $3,500 to participate.

“We are so grateful to a number of businesses and individuals who donate to our Catholic Schools need-based tuition assistance program through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. It’s a wonderful opportunity to support Catholic education and receive a 90% tax credit,” Jim Bebla, Diocesan Secretary for Development, explained. “If one makes a $5,000 gift, for example, they can receive a $4,500 tax credit on their business or personal income tax return. And the donor can also claim the remaining $500 on their federal income tax.”

The Diocese of Scranton is now looking for help spreading the word about the program.

As the owners of RGB Custom Home Builders in the Pocono Mountains, Bob and Josie Brown are happy to be among many people who are laying the ‘foundation’ for the success of this initiative.

“This is the very best way to make a donation to your local Catholic school.

Assuming you are paying taxes to the state, please consider this program,” Josie said. “It is easy and exponentially increases any donation you are able to make. If you are unsure ask to speak to someone who has done it before.”

Eligibility is first-come, first-served and money for the individual tax credits runs out quickly. Anyone interested in this giving opportunity is encouraged to apply in July and August by contacting Jim Bebla at (570) 207-2250 or email

JESSUP – After dedicating 94 years to Catholic school students in the Diocese of Scranton, two long-time principals retired at the end of June.

Jeffrey Lyons, principal of Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in East Stroudsburg and Ellen Murphy, principal of La Salle Academy in Jessup, each ended a distinguished career in education on June 30, 2023.

“I have always believed that I was blessed with the best job in the world while working in three wonderful Catholic schools in the Diocese of Scranton,” Murphy said. “There is nothing more important in our world than our beautiful children and the time I spent with them enjoying their laughter and happiness are moments I will cherish forever.”

Mrs. Ellen Murphy

Murphy dedicated 42 years to Catholic education. She started her career as a teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Carbondale where she later served as principal. She continued her administrative role as principal at Sacred Heart Primary/Elementary School in Carbondale and for the last 13 years served as principal of La Salle Academy.

“I knew each day walking through the doors of our school, filled with so much love and happiness, that it would be a great day,” she added. “Watching the excitement and pride in the eyes of our children while reaching that moment of understanding and working through their unique challenges were the moments I knew, that, together with my faculty and staff, we were doing great things for our children.”

Mrs. Shaina Aquilina

Shaina Aquilina assumed the role of principal of La Salle Academy beginning July 1.

“La Salle Academy is comprised of faith-filled, hardworking and dedicated faculty and staff, students and families, and I am honored to be able to serve this incredible school community in a new capacity,” Aquilina said. “I have certainly been blessed with the opportunity to continue building upon the successes of the school that occurred under the direction of Mrs. Ellen Murphy and Mrs. Maryanne DeMark.”

Aquilina most recently served as the junior high math teacher at La Salle Academy but has also served in various capacities throughout the Diocese since 2016. She has led numerous professional development sessions focused on training teachers in technology, data analysis and STREAM instruction. She also revised the Teacher Induction Plan for the Diocese, which is used for all first year teachers and those new to the Diocese.

“As a former math teacher, I have always valued the ability to analyze data and use it to inform my instructional approach. As a Diocese, we are fortunate to have access to NWEA Map Growth Data to assist our educators in driving our instruction, differentiating our lessons and communicating with the families of our students,” she added. “I am eager to work closely with our faculty to utilize this data in a way that targets individual students’ areas for growth and assists in urging every student to attain his or her fullest potential.”

Mr. Jeffrey Lyons

After more than a half-century serving the Notre Dame School System, Lyons has also decided to move onto the next phase of his life.

“It is almost impossible to think of Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School and not think of Mr. Lyons as he has dedicated 52 years as a teacher, dean of students, and principal,” Kristen Donohue, Diocesan Secretary of Catholic Education/Superintendent of Catholic Schools, said in announcing his retirement. “Mr. Lyons not only shared his love of Catholic education, but sparked that same excitement in his students, teachers, staff and school community.”

Lyons started his career as an English teacher and then Dean of Students at Notre Dame High School. After 19 years in the classroom, he was appointed as principal of Notre Dame High School, a position he held for the last 33 years. Lyons never truly left the classroom, as he managed to teach one high school class each year.

“It is not often that an individual has the opportunity to impact generations of families but Mr. Lyons has done just that,” Donohue said. “Mr. Lyons prioritized time for students to pray and give thanks to God for the many blessings they have in their lives, while also balancing a rigorous academic schedule. This inseparable combination not only set Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School apart from any other schools but also emphasized Mr. Lyons’ true servant leadership.”

Bryan Scotton assumed the role of principal of Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School beginning July 1.

“I’m very excited to embrace this new role as principal,” Scotton said. “It has been a joy teaching at Notre Dame and I look forward to supporting my current coworkers and helping to provide the best Catholic education possible for our students. I know there will be challenges but knowing there are such great teachers and students makes those challenges manageable.”

Prior to being appointed principal, Scotton served as music teacher and coach of cross-country and track at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School. Prior to joining the Diocese of Scranton Catholic School System, he was a religion teacher, curriculum coordinator for the religion and history departments and head of campus ministry at Mater Dei Prep High School in Middletown, N.J.

Scotton says he has many goals as he takes on his new leadership role.

“I think I will look forward the most to collaborating with teachers and staff to build upon the traditions that make Notre Dame unique, continue to grow the initiatives that we have already begun, and begin new journeys to make Notre Dame even better than it is. There is so much support and creative energy already at Notre Dame and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”

SCRANTON – For many young people, their birthday is cause for celebration. Due to high inflation and financial challenges, however, not every family is able to afford the ‘extras’ associated with a big bash.

Catholic school students from five elementary schools in Lackawanna County recently came together to make sure no local child will be without a proper celebration for their big day.

During different retreat days held in Lent, students at each school brought in items to create 188 “birthday bags” filled with boxed cake mix, icing, sprinkles, candles, balloons and a disposable cake pan.

“Each grade brought in something small to contribute and created the completed bags that we then donated to local food pantries,” Liz Devine, elementary school guidance counselor, explained. “The students also created personalized birthday cards to go in the bags.”

Second through eighth grade students, 811 in all, participated in the Lenten retreats and help to create the birthday bags. The schools involved in the project are Saint Mary of Mount Carmel School in Dunmore, La Salle Academy in Jessup, Our Lady of Peace School in Clarks Green, All Saints Academy in Scranton and St. Clare/St. Paul School in Scranton.

“Our retreat was based on the passage from the Bible of Jesus feeding the 5,000,” Devine said. “We read the Bible passage and reflected on it. It was pointed out to the students how the boy in the story only gave a meager little meal to Jesus and Jesus created His miracle and even had extra left over.”

The day also included small group team building activities, prayerful introspection and guided imagery reflection.

Devine says many of the students recognize there are people in their own community who do not have enough money for regular meals, never mind a special birthday celebration.

“Catholic schools in the Diocese of Scranton distinguish themselves not only by their academic excellence but by how they incorporate a faith-filled duty to serve others,” she added.

Each school selected the local food pantry in which to donate the birthday bags created.

The recipients include Catherine McAuley Center in Scranton, Saint Ann Parish food pantry in Scranton, Saint Patrick Parish food pantry in Scranton, NEPA Youth Center in Scranton, Queen of Angels Parish in Jessup, and the Montdale food pantry.

In reflecting on the project, Devine considers it a big success because it “challenged the students to give of themselves to others, even in the smallest way!”

SCRANTON – Throughout the Diocese of Scranton’s 155-year history, teaching the Catholic faith to its young people has been one of its most fundamental missions.

To ensure Catholic school education will continue for decades to come, the Diocese of Scranton is launching “Our Faith. Our Students. Our Future.” – a new strategic growth planning process.

The process will build upon the many successes the 19 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Scranton have seen over the last few years and proactively address challenges along the way.

“As we examine our current state, we are poised and ready for this planning process and see it as an opportunity to make our extraordinary Catholic school education in the Diocese of Scranton available for generations to come,” Kristen Donohue, Diocesan Secretary of Catholic Education/Superintendent of Catholic Schools, said.

Over the last several years, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Scranton have distinguished themselves in several different ways. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students, families, educators, administrators and priests worked together to be innovative and became a benchmark for other schools to follow.

“In the safest learning environment possible, schools not only opened their doors for in-person education, but did so with compassion,” Donohue continued. “We continued to focus on allowing each student the opportunities to grow to his/her God-given potential. We continued to monitor academic growth through regular assessments, using this data to provide responsive and appropriately rigorous, differentiated instruction.”

It is from this position of strength that Diocesan Catholic schools will plan for the future.

“I am hopeful that when this process is complete, we won’t simply set goals and objectives for our 19 schools for the next five or 10 years,” the Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, Bishop of Scranton, said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to make Catholic education affordable and accessible to a new generation of students who we will welcome into our schools.”

Bishop Bambera is hopeful the strategic growth planning process will give everyone a voice in shaping the future. Whether it is through surveys, interviews, working groups or simply praying for the planning process, the bishop is hopeful everyone will participate.

“I want to stress that we are not going into this process with some preconceived ideas or plans to change or to reorganize our system. We did that already,” Bishop Bambera added. “Instead, we need to assess the current reality, we need to define what our priorities are and we need to continue to do everything we can to develop a strong, financially sustainable vision for our Catholic schools allowing them to remain vibrant and strong.”

For the last two years, enrollment in many Catholic schools has increased, so one of the challenges ahead is examining best practices for recruitment and retention of students and school families in order to continue seeing increases in enrollment.

Likewise, overall financial stability, addressing aging infrastructure, and recruiting and retaining dedicated teachers and administrators will be critical.

“We need to face our challenges with the same strength, creativity and confidence seen throughout the past four years,” Donohue noted.

The areas of focus for the strategic growth planning process will align with the National Standards and Benchmarks of Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools: vibrant Catholic identity; academic excellence; governance, leadership and engagement; and operational vitality and financial stability.

The timeline for “Our Faith. Our Students. Our Future” will be divided into phases and take between one and two years to complete. The first phase involves data collection and analysis. The second phase focuses on the development of the strategic plan itself and the third phase involves implementation.

Bishop Bambera said the planning process will allow our Catholic schools an opportunity to grow, learn, change, improve, and move closer to the vision that God has for us.

“It’s important for us to look at where we are, to take this moment and be proactive, to reflect, to think, to pray and to plan for how we can be better – and how we can take where we are – and really carry it into the future,” he said.

Additional information and updates on “Our Faith. Our Students. Our Future” will be available on the Diocese of Scranton website as the process progresses.