08/08/2013 06:06 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Public Schools: Follow the Pope

I'm not Catholic. I don't go to church. And it's part of my job to uphold the separation of church and state. So I never thought I'd be listening so closely to the Pope.

But as a principal in our public schools -- one of America's most long-established, far-reaching and, some would say, difficult-to-reform institutions -- I find the Pope's vision of institutional change to be compelling.

Here's a multiple-choice question for us: Choose the recent Pope quote that offers the strongest parallel to the reforms we need to see in schools:

A) "I want a mess...I want trouble."

B) "I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves."

C) "When the church does not come out of herself to evangelize she becomes self-referential and then gets sick."

D) "No one can remain insensitive to the inequities in the world."

E) All of the above.

The answer is E. Public schools, like the Catholic Church, need a new energy directed toward the world outside our walls. This is because, like the Church, our congregation attendance isn't what is used to be -- and if we don't adapt, we will no longer be able to take the longevity and universality of our institution for granted.

Yes, the public school congregation is shrinking. I don't mean in raw numbers, but as a percentage of American households. Census data show that we are living longer, and having fewer kids per family, with the result that an increasing majority of American homes do not contain school-age children. According to the 2010 Census, children between the ages of 6 and 17 live in less than 20% of homes. This is a startling statistic. And it's a problem.

When people have a direct personal connection to an institution--whether it's a church, a park, a museum or the military -- they value and support it more. When you don't have a personal connection, you value it less. The main link between families and schools is the child, and if most homes don't include school-age children, then our schools risk losing public support. We see this playing out now in many communities: funding challenges, the denigration of teachers, privatization efforts, voucher initiatives, draconian accountability measures, etc.

So, like the Catholic Church, public schools need new ways to positively engage the populous, new connections to the tax-base, to the citizenry that lives, works and strives outside our doors. If people aren't coming to church, the church must go to the people. Schools should follow the Pope's lead on this.

In what we study and how we study it, "we need to get closer to the people." From classrooms we must cast out "the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves." We must extract teaching cloistered behind walls, lest we "become self-referential and then get sick." We must engage our kids and communities in society's most urgent problems and refuse to be "insensitive to the inequities in the world."

This is the new public school evangelism: a call for the relevance of the word, a call to bring the school to the street, and to drive the street right through the school.

But this isn't really new. Reformers have been saying this kind of thing for a long time. And there exist some good models of this sort of schooling. King Middle School, in Portland, Maine, is one that stands out. I recommend visiting their website or visiting the school. They document and share their work well. And there's no special grant funding or charter status at King, just a lot of hard work to put community involvement and real-world problem-solving at the center of the curriculum. Amen.

If more of our churches and schools can get outside themselves, get closer to people, dispel the mundane, and engage the big questions, we'll certainly cause trouble and make a mess sometimes, but we will be healthier institutions contributing to a healthier society.