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Faith-based schools look to raise academic bar

Across Florida, public schools are preparing for new standards and assessments that are expected to demand more of their students and teachers.

But they’re not alone. There’s a similar shift going on at the 62 schools in the Archdiocese of Miami. They enroll as many students as a mid-size Florida school district, and their students will one day be applying to the same colleges as their public-school counterparts.

For that reason, Kim Pryzbylski, the Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, told a gathering of education researchers and advocates in South Florida that as public schools are raising the bar, Catholic schools will, too. That means training teachers and preparing students for more challenging course work, much like public schools are doing in their first year teaching all students under the new Florida Standards.

“The rigor of those standards … and meeting the students’ needs is very different,” Pryzbylski said. “We have to look at educating our teachers in a different way, to prepare them to instruct the students.”

She took part in a panel discussion at the Fourth International Conference on School Choice and Reform in Fort Lauderdale that addressed one of the central challenges of faith-based schools.

They may set aside time every day for religious instruction and honor events on their liturgical calendar, but they still have to meet their students’ core academic needs. It’s a challenge that spans denominations, and one school leaders from a variety of religious backgrounds said parents expect them to meet.

Fawzia Mai Tung of the Islamic Schools League of America said Islamic schools are often organized by the communities they serve, looking to meet their religious needs but also parents’ academic preferences. It’s common for them to have a strong STEM focus, for example, to cater to doctors and engineers in America’s South Asian diaspora.

“Even though most of the schools started off because of religious reasons, the minute they become stabilized and highly functioning, they focus a lot on quality education,” she said.

The success of Islamic schools in America, she added, has also turned their teachers into sought-after “export commodities,” at a time when multiple Middle Eastern countries are shaking up their education systems and looking to recruit new talent.

Publicly available results attest to the academic strength of some Islamic schools. The most recent evaluation of the Florida tax credit scholarship program found the low-income students using scholarships to attend the Alazhar School in Tamarac posted some of the strongest learning gains of any school that participated. The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Kalman Baumann, the principal of an Orthodox Jewish school in Miami, said schools like his will often accept students of all income levels, which means they have to subsidize tuition for students who cannot afford it.

The rise of tax credit scholarships and other school choice programs has helped to ease that burden, allowing schools to invest more resources in recruiting qualified teachers for core subjects.

“It’s really been a game-changer in terms of the ability to offer a high-quality education within the school,” he said.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)