Inside The Heights, exclusive school for conservative DC Catholics

The New York Times takes a look at the school where Rick Santorum sent two of his sons:

Are your jackets on, boys?” Joe Cardenas inspects his charges in a first-period freshman humanities class, sees that they are all appropriately blazered and standing tall, bows his head and begins the morning Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee …” Only when they have finished the prayer do they take their jackets off. They sit and open copies of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the 14th-century English romance.

Mr. Cardenas teaches at The Heights School, a suburban Washington boys’ school affiliated with Opus Dei, the Catholic organization of which he is a member. By the standards of more famous Washington private schools, like Sidwell Friends or Georgetown Preparatory, The Heights is poor, little known and young — it was founded in 1969. But since then it has become the popular school for a small clique of Washingtonians: conservative Catholics.

Although he has made being a home-schooling dad part of his identity, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has sent two sons to The Heights. The school, for boys in grades 3-12, has also educated the sons of the Republican senators Mel Martinez and Chuck Hagel; the former F.B.I. director Louis J. Freeh; Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage; and Kate O’Beirne, an editor at National Review.

Conservative Catholics are drawn to The Heights for its single-sex community, in which the faculty is male, and for its fidelity to Catholic teaching. More than that, parents say, they are glad to have found a community of like-minded families. Here they find a respect for church teachings that is absent even from most parish churches, where many communicants openly disagree with the pope on contraception, abortion and other topics.

“I’ve got just one job as a dad,” says Pat Kilner, a general contractor whose four sons (he also has five daughters) have attended The Heights. “And that’s to get these kids, who are gifts to me, to heaven, so they can be in the eternal presence of the Lord. And none of my kids has left the church.”

Read more.


  1. ron chandonia says:

    Numerous references in this very short article to sexual behavior: celibacy, abstinence until marriage, even condoms (absence thereof) in Christmas stockings. Presumably this is what a NYTimes writer sees as the essence of Catholic orthodoxy. Is this how the school sees it as well? Or do the students experience the richness of Catholic theology and consider full range of moral choices confronting contemporary Catholics–the range detailed in Faithful Citizenship, for example? I suspect the writer did not even ask.

  2. “Conservative” catholics. Everything is seen through the prism of political discourse.

  3. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Really? In the whole article, I counted the number of sentences that referenced sex and came up with four.

    Seems to me, it’s much more about the curious practices of Opus Dei and the desire of some parents to keep kids away from the more destructive elements in the wider culture — which, let’s face it, includes rampant sexualization at a shockingly early age.

    Dcn. G.

  4. ron chandonia says:

    I counted six sentences. But I counted ZERO about any other Catholic moral concern, unless you include following the dress code.

  5. Exactly. I prefer “faithful”.

  6. Faithful. Exactly.
    Before you know it, my wife and I will have to soon research Catholic high schools in New York, and we would love to send them to an all boys Catholic school–that is, a ‘conservative’ one like this. Will have to see if Opus Dei runs any schools out this way.

    Good on them, those Opus Dei folks.

  7. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Start saving your spare change, and clipping coupons.

    According to the Heights website, tuition is as follows:

    Tuition and Fees, 2011-12
    Upper School: $21,000
    Middle School: $19,325
    Lower School: $15,775

    Dcn. G.

  8. In my daily life, I have come across, both in business and personal, a number of graduates from the Heights. All of them, are extremely intelligent, well rounded and faithful to the Church.

    It may be an expensive school, but it seems to work and work well.

  9. Ouch.

  10. That blows my mind; our younger son attended a Catholic high school from 1992-1995. The tuition was $500 a year. I’m sure it’s gone up by now, but still. We were in the Lincoln Diocese at that time, and that was pretty standard for their high schools. There was tuition assistance for those who couldn’t afford the whole amount, or had multiple kids there at the same time. It wasn’t a “prep” school, there were kids there who weren’t necessarily college bound; but we couldn’t complain about lack of orthodoxy or academic focus. I don’t necessarily see eye to eye with the way that diocese does everthing, but that was one part that I feel they got right, and it was much appreciated.

  11. WIMPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    My OFM high school required coats on all day except for physical ed.
    The rule was 90 degrees… the coats could be taken off in the unairconditioned school only if the temperature was above 90 degrees. The ties were hand tied and the collar buttom was never loosened.
    I appreciate the training.

  12. I have sticker shock from that. Wow.

  13. Aaron Streeting says:

    That’s not far from the average for the Washington, DC area Catholic High schools.

  14. pagansister says:

    Why would anyone choose to wear the cilice, the spiked garter thing that could puncture the skin? Celibacy? OK, that many Catholic men choose to follow, and apparently 1/3 of the Opus Dei have decided that is for them—but a spiked garter? Really? How does that make you a better Catholic?

    As to attending a single gender school, a Catholic teacher I taught with sent her daugher to an all girls Catholic high school and her son to an all boys school. Some feel that children do better in a single gender school. But I’m not sure I’d advocate Opus Dei to my male child as a great way to live the faith. That’s just me.

  15. so do they have an expensive conservative school for girls?

  16. naturgesetz says:

    “Why would anyone choose to wear the cilice, the spiked garter thing that could puncture the skin?”

    As a substitute for abstaining from meat on Fridays. ;)

    Seriously, though, the need for penance is difficult to grasp and explain, but Jesus spoke of fasting — a form of physical penance — as something that would be part of the lives of his followers. In the Sermon on the Mount he says, “When you fast …” not “If you choose to fast ….” Matthew 6:16. We also have the example of his own saving act, in which his death on the cross was preceded by scourging and crowning with thorns. So developing the thought of St. Paul, who wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church,” (Colossians 2:24) we see physical discomfort as something which can be intentionally united to Christ’s redemptive work and thus be of value for the salvation of God’s people.

  17. naturgesetz says:

    Correction: the quote from Colossians is 1:24, not 2:24.

  18. Deacon Steve says:

    But Paul’s suffering was not self inflicted pain, but the pain of suffering arrest and being ostracized in the communities where he was preaching at times. To equate what Paul talks about as suffering for the sake of others with self-inflicted physical wounding is comparing apples and oranges.

  19. A Heights Alum says:

    I’m not sure my alma mater is exclusive, or even really conservative. Traditional might be a better adjective. Not all my classmates were Catholic, though one did convert after graduation, and I hardly think back then that all of us were politically conservative – we were more interested in Pink Floyd or U2 than politics. But our teachers all tried to teach us to be gentlemen, intellectually curious, and honest. It was a small school, with little money, and most of us were from typical middle class DC-area families, often the sons of government workers, and not a few were on scholarships. Yes, Latin was taught in high school, and we read Homer and recited Shakespeare and had daily Mass (optional in high school). But I’d say it was the teachers who shared their love for literature, history, nature, Creation and human society. Certainly it was a very Catholic school, in the best sense of the word – we were expected to treat everybody with respect and the love that Christ has for all of us. We were lucky to be closely associated with the Missionaries of Charity – helping in their summer camps for disadvantaged youth, weeding and landscaping their garden at their home for unwed mothers, and renovating the house that became Gift of Peace. Yes, we wore jackets and ties, and properly, but that was hardly punishment when it was standard work attire in DC, and it certainly didn’t prevent us from having fun during recess or on field trips. The ability to attend Daily Mass certainly may have contributed to the vocations of those alumni in the priesthood or seminary (I’m not aware of any ordained to the diaconate yet), but it also probably prepared most of us for our lives as considerate friends and loving husbands. I don’t think that we’d have been impressed by someone with wealthy or famous parents, but rather by our classmates who could play Billy Joel on the piano at lunchtime or who had unintentionally hilarious Latin translations or got leading parts at the nearby girls’ schools’ plays. I think it speaks well of the school that many alumni or relatives have come back as teachers or to support school activities; a tribute to kind, considerate, moral, and ultimately fun teachers who challenged, encouraged, and cajoled us into being more ourselves.

  20. For a Catholic family with 4-6 kids, the cost of educating them in Catholic schools is a major challenge. The per student cost in primary school grade k-8 averages in this area about 4500 per pupil. However, if one is considering sending them to Catholic schools, you have to consider the cost of high schools as well since few parents want to have their kids forced to public schools while the majority of their friends continue on to parochial high school. Here the average cost is about 12,000 a year per pupil. The local parish does not really support this cost to any extent as they use to do so the burden falls totally to the parent. For some families, this could mean having as many as three kids in high school at the same time or an annual bill of 36,000 which could continue for something like 6 years with somewhat lower amounts for another couple years. At the same time, your taxes are paying for the local public schools which you are not using. Full school choice for every parent should be the norm in this country. Every time a student leaves the local Catholic school and goes to the public school, the full burden for this student is added to their local costs and in some cases, without the Catholic schools, major building projects would be needed. With full choice, every parent could choose private or public schools and which public schools they want their kids to attend and bring true market improvements for all kids. When the same kid goes to college, they do have freedom to choose which school and that includes Catholic schools and here the funding comes from many sources including the government. Not sure why this is the case in college, but not in the lower grades other than the power of the teachers union and their payments to the Democratic Party to block any form of true open market competititon.

  21. Joe the Amused says:

    You must have gone to Thomas More Prep.

  22. our country needs a strong quality public school system. a system of only private schools could lead to a segregated schools in many areas that could lead to a segregated society. also, there are many problems with public schools but they do have an obligation to educate all students. For example, how many private schools would accept students with disabilities? By federal law, public schools must provide an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to all students with disabilities. In New York, public schools pay for special education private school students as well. How many students in private schools are homeless? By law, public schools cannot turn away homeless children. In fact, just this past week, a homeless student on Long Island won a major national science competition.

  23. “To equate what Paul talks about as suffering for the sake of others with self-inflicted physical wounding is comparing apples and oranges.” I agree with you. And I also don’t think it is the same as things such as giving up meat on Fridays, or fasting (as we do it on Ash Wednesday, not starving oneself), or giving up television. These are mortifications which don’t harm anyone; probably do them some good. But some of this other stuff is just weird, in my opinion.

  24. David_J_White says:

    I graduated from a Jesuit high school in Ohio in 1980, and by the time I graduated tuition was about $1000 a year, which, at the time, was a real sacrifice for my parents. To give some perspective, my tuition the following year, my freshman year at the local state university I attended, was actually less than my high school tuition had been in my senior year.

  25. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Ditto, David.

    When I graduated Catholic high school in 1977, tuition was about 900/yr. When I attended a state university that fall, it was about 800/yr. Plus books.

    Both those figures today, of course, are significantly higher.

    Dcn. G.

  26. David_J_White:
    “I graduated from a Jesuit high school in Ohio in 1980, and by the time I graduated tuition was about $1000 a year, which, at the time, was a real sacrifice for my parents.”

    I bet your parents said it was worth every penny.

  27. Fiergenholt says:

    Dcn Greg:

    When you look at this post and add the information you placed about clergy salaries in an earlier post; you get a fascinating conclusion. The annual tuition/fees to attend “The Heights” is almost as much as the Archdiocese of Cincinnati pays its priests on an annual basis.

    This whole mess must be “market-driven.” If demand is great and supply is limited, who knows what the market will bear.

  28. Hey look! Opus Dei! Opus Dei! Scary Catholics! What, were you expecting to actually learn anything about the school? They beat themselves!

  29. heightsmom says:

    Like most of the parents of Heights students, we made sacrifices to send our sons there. It was worth every penny. And, though some who are not familiar with the cost of private education in the DC area may be shocked at the tuition, keep in mind that The Heights is not a diocesan or parish school. There is no subsidy provided by hundreds or thousands or millions of fellow parishioners/Catholics. The school is young, and so are its alums. The endowment is modest. And The Heights needs to pay its teachers enough to allow them to support their (often large) families in the metro DC area. Tuition at The Heights, though higher than that of diocesan high schools, is lower than that charged by schools like Georgetown Prep, Landon, and St. Alban’s.

  30. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also about sex. But more importantly, about keeping one’s fidelity to God and honesty being more important than one’s desire for pleasure.

    If they’re reading Green Knight in high school, it’s a good school.

  31. Heights Teacher says:

    I teach at The Heights (and am not a member of Opus Dei). A few things caught my eye in this article, and the discussion following.

    1. The NY Times article does seem to mention sexual matters often, especially for so short a piece. Perhaps the tie-in to Rick Santorum is the key. Sen. Santorum is lambasted by some for his views on abortion, homosexuality, etc. Hence, the article back-doors a critique of the Senator with a discussion of his sons’ high school and the school’s conservative (and Catholic) views on sexuality.
    2. The article also makes it seem as if there are only conservative Catholics attending – and the headline of “exclusive” is a bit of a misleading. Sure, there are orthodox Catholics, and many, at the school. But we also have non-practicing Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, non-Denominational, etc. There are really smart kids, sons of high-powered DC lawyers, and kids from huge (and not-so-well-off) families. Alums send their kids there, and more than once have families moved to the area in order to send their sons there. It’s a special place.
    3. Price of tuition. Yes, eye-raising for many, but The Heights is actually less-expensive (as mentioned above) than other similar schools in the area. The real question is what people pay, not what is charged for tuition – a lot of families are helped with financial aid. And again, for the teachers who are trying to raise a family in one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation – we’re grateful that the school tries to pay a just wage.

  32. If every parent were given the funding to choose their school, there would be a growth of various schools to meet various needs. Right now, the public schools do not really have much of an education program for gifted children and are much more set up to focus most of their efforts on the poorest students. Why is it that marketing programs work in almost every other industry, but we cannot consider them for our kids schooling? Makes no sense. As to special education, students would have funding required for their education needs and schools would be set up for them as well if they cannot function with other students. How many private school students are homeless? In many diocese there is special funding set up to help the needy and many are beginning to seek new funding sources to expand this program.

    But why is is fair to take the full tax money from everyone when a certain percentage of students do not attend the public schools. If the private schools shut down starting next September, there would be a major crisis in the public school system now having to find space and teachers for the huge influx. I think if we are committed to funding education for our kids, all kids should get the same amount of money for each of their kids and the schools should be open to everyone. If someone chooses to have religion included in their education system chosen, we should be protected from the government being able to deny this per the constitution as written. In many states, the first public education system was entirely made up of Catholic schools and you still see nuns who are on state paid retirement plans from this service. If the focus was on great education for the kids, this open plan would be the system used. If it is about keeping teachers unions alive, then we would have what we do now leaving the kids behind in ever larger numbers.

  33. Deacon Norb says:

    I have family members who live “Inside the Beltway” and I would have to agree with the comments provided by the folks who identify themselves as being connected in some way to The Heights. Living expenses — and thus salaries — are sharply different than anywhere else in the country. I love to visit the DC area but could never afford to live there.

    One last point: the daughters of the President and Mrs Obama attend Sidwell Friends School and while I have no actual figures to prove it, I would suspect that their tuition and fees are comparable — perhaps even higher — to The Heights.

  34. Deacon Greg Kandra says:


    I grew up “Inside the Beltway,” and never cease to be amazed at the cost of living there today.

    For comparison, a few other private schools, from their websites:

    Sidwell Friends: $31,900 (lower school) / $32,900 (upper school)
    Georgetown Prep: $28,200 (day student) / $48,100 (resident) – CATHOLIC
    Landon School: $29,900 (3rd-5th grade) / $31,000 (6th grade and beyond)
    Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart: $25,000 (9th-12th grade) – CATHOLIC

    I also checked my alma mater, St. Vincent Pallotti. When I went there 35 years ago, tuition was about $900/yr. Now, it’s almost $13,000. All things considered, that’s a steal. I have no idea how ordinary middle class families afford these kinds of prices today.

    Dcn. G.

  35. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    “Faithful” makes a value judgment and infers that those who attend other Catholic schools are somehow unfaithful. Maybe “orthodox” would be better.

    Dcn. G.

  36. Re: “Catholic Identity” of private schools:

    Having been on two occasions a participant in a committee that formulated a mission statement for a Catholic educational institution (one, a high school; another a college) I naturally gravitate to mission statements on school websites.

    I find it interesting that The Heights School does not mention specifically that they are a Catholic school, only that
    “The School’s Christian orientation and spiritual formation are entrusted to Opus Dei, a Personal Prelature of the Catholic Church.”

    In addition, this message from the headmaster on The Heights School website is interesting to me: “At The Heights, parents are helped to form their sons into the type of men they would want their daughters to marry—men who will be great fathers.” (Unique, I would say.)

    In comparison, Mission Statements of nearby schools state:
    “Georgetown Preparatory School is an independent, Jesuit college-preparatory school for young men (grades 9-12).”and “While the philosophy is uniquely Jesuit and distinctly Catholic, Georgetown Prep is open to young men of all religious backgrounds.”

    Connelly School of the Holy Child (Potomac) is a Catholic, college preparatory school, committed to the intellectual, spiritual, artistic, physical and social development of young women in grades 6-12. (A picture of a priest at Mass accompanies the statement.)

  37. pagansister says:

    Thanks naturgesetz, for the possible explanation of why some would choose to wear a spiked garter. Personally I think the men (in the examples above) have a desire to be hurt physically—which I don’t understand, even for one’s faith. You also said that fasting was a form of physical penance, yes, but does it draw blood? :o)

  38. Interesting use of “orthodox.” We are Orthodox Christians, big “O”, as in Eastern Orthodox, and we send our sons to the Heights, where the useful daily interactions with devout Roman Catholics actually makes us more secure in the Orthodox faith.

  39. So I assume critical thinking is consider evil by this cult. Yes, Opus Dei a cult. I thank God for the Jesuits because frankly, that is the only reason I remain a Catholic and I am grateful my boys were educated at Prep and were taught Men For Others and not for yourself and others well off like yourself. I have always been offended by conservative, cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose the teachings of Jesus especially when it comes to economic justice. I agree that there are many cafeteria Catholics on the left when it comes to abortion (which I oppose), however, they can’t hold a candle stick too the hypocrisy displayed by Opus Dei.

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