‘Awesome’ National Catholic Educational Association conference returns to St. Louis

Courtesy of Catholic Education Office
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The 20th century dawned with the United States on the cusp of a technological revolution that put men on the moon and led to a land-speed record topping 763 miles per hour. The Wright Brothers took flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company, both in 1903, with Henry himself setting the land-speed record of 91.37 mph in 1904.

Also that year, in St. Louis, the Games of the III Olympiad came to the United States's fourth largest city in conjunction with the World's Fair Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Forest Park. Nearby Francis Field at Washington University hosted track and field, with "the" Francis — former St. Louis mayor and Missouri governor David R. Francis — officially opening the Games.

Against this backdrop, Catholic educators from around the country traveled to St. Louis for the very first National Catholic Educational Association convention. Catholic education was exploding across the U.S., with St. Louis as the epicenter under newly installed then-Archbishop John J. Glennon.

Fast-forward 112 years: Though airline hubs and Fortune 500 companies have moved on, St. Louis remains a leader in Catholic education under Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and the Alive! In Christ mission advancement initiative. The Archdiocese of St. Louis ranks as the largest school district in Missouri and the ninth-largest Catholic district nationwide. Almost 40,000 students receive education at 113 grade schools, 27 high schools and 10 special-education programs in the archdiocese.

Against this backdrop, Catholic educators from around the country will travel to St. Louis next April for the 112th NCEA convention. It's the 10th time St. Louis will host the NCEA, the first since 2003. Except for the 1920s and '30s, St. Louis has hosted a convention once in each decade since the lid-lifter in 1904.

"We have so many Catholic schools here ... it's pretty impressive," said Stephanie Welling, the associate superintendent for school personnel in the archdiocese. With Catholic schools superintendent Kurt Nelson, Welling is co-chair of the steering committee organizing the convention, which will showcase "what's going on in Catholic education here and how awesome it is," she said.

To describe Welling as "enthusiastic" would be an understatement. Her enthusiasm for the convention, St. Louis-style, is off-the-charts, as is Nelson's. They sprinkle conversations about the 2017 convention with words such as "fun" and "exciting." They and six other steering committee cohorts recently attended the 2016 convention in San Diego, where about 5,000 educators attended. Welling and Nelson expect about 8,000 here because of St. Louis's central location after Orlando and San Diego hosted the past two conventions.

"We're drive-able from so many places; the Midwest usually draws well," said Welling, who has attended 30 conventions and was involved in the past four here. "It's a lot of work, but really, it's more fun than work."

Nelson already has scheduled the 10 archdiocesan high schools, four grade schools and three special schools to be closed for the convention, and encourages parish and private schools to do the same. Teachers and administrators will get best practices in Catholic education from all parts of the country.

Welling described the convention as "an awesome experience and an awesome opportunity for people here to see a much boarder view of Catholic education than just the St. Louis perspective."

Nelson first experienced that broader view in 1999, at the convention in New Orleans, as a 30-year-old principal at a school with 150 students in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

"The first convention I attended, I looked around at the opening liturgy and realized, 'Here are thousands of people who know what I do; they know my struggles, they know my successes and they understand them,'" Nelson said. "It's really invigorating to be surrounded by people from all over the country."

St. Louis's Catholic school students will be front-and-center for that week in April, whether singing or reading in liturgies, just performing or displaying artwork. Students in San Diego used surfboards to create beautiful art work.

"Our focus is students, so we'll involve them as much as we possibly can," Welling said. "They're so talented."

And as Nelson said, focusing on students shows "why we do what we do." 

2017 NCEA convention

What: Annual convention

When: April 18-20, 2017

Where: America's Center, downtown St. Louis

Why: to share and celebrate cutting-edge, Catholic education in the 21st century

Information: Watch the video that the St. Louis delegation shared at the 2016 NCEA Convention in San Diego; visit archstl.org/NCEA17 

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