Monday, June 27, 2005

Your School’s Web Page!

Practical Suggestions for Savvy (and Busy!) School Administrators

In the mid 1990’s, it was “cool” if your school had a web page on the internet. Many high schools like ours had students design them. We didn’t really know what to do with them other than to add some links and post some pictures. In short, school web sites were a kind of technological novelty item.

Times have changed. I would argue that the school web site is now an essential tool for the efficient administration of your school. It should serve two primary functions: to market the school to prospective families, and to serve as a means to effectively communicate with your current families. Keeping both of these purposes in mind will help you develop your site into something that can make your life simpler as an administrator, ease some of the administrative burden on your secretary, and provide real services to your families.

Marketing to new families

Your site is perhaps the most important piece of your school’s public marketing plan. Families new to town often use the internet as a way of screening schools prior to making a decision. In Montgomery Al, where our school is located, there is an Air Force base which rotates several hundred officers each year. Typically these officers receive their new assignment months before they relocate. I spoke with an officer’s wife, who said that in the interim, she and other spouses spend hours and hours on the internet, learning everything they can about the new city, the neighborhoods, and most importantly, the schools.

What kind of information do newcomers need to help them make a decision? They want information about tuition and fees. (Some schools seem reluctant to put this on line, but I don’t understand why--they would give this information out over the telephone if asked.) Prospective families want an overview of the academic program (like most schools, we have a curricular guide but have wasted an enormous amount of paper reproducing it instead of putting it on line, where it’s now far more accessible). Families want a feel for the campus itself and its facilities (we’ve included on line “tours”). They’d like to know about the athletic program. Their kids want to know what the uniforms look like (better to provide pictures of students in uniform than simply a written uniform policy). How might a new family apply to our school? Are applications available on line? If a family has questions that aren’t answered by the site, is there an email address prominently displayed to whom these questions can be addressed? There ought to be a place, easy to find, that provides answers and services to these families. And where-ever this place is on your page, I suggest adding two additional links as a means of marketing your school: first, a set of academic statistics that may impress (for a high school, as an example, the % of scholarships, the number of Merit finalists, the % going to college, etc) and second, quotes from former or current parents and students about your school and its teachers. When someone writes to compliment us, I ask if I can include this on our web page. I’ve made a point of posting comments from other military families who have come and gone. These testimonials are impressive to anxious parents, trying to make the right choice for their child in an unknown city.

The good news is that it costs very little to do all this, less than a single advertisement in the local newspaper (with a shelf life of only one day) and ultimately more appreciated, since the page is answering real questions for parents, rather than presenting them with a zippy line or a cute picture. For this reason, I believe when schools don’t use their web sites very consciously to serve prospective families, they are wasting their advertising dollars.

Communicating with current families

The second purpose of a school’s web site should be to effectively communicate with current families. I have a pretty simple test for this: Does our site cut down on the number of phone calls to our school secretary? If your secretary is like ours (and most school secretaries are), she has too much to do already. Answering the phone is especially time consuming. Most of the time, she is asked routine questions (What time is the basketball game tonight? How to I find your school? What’s the school address? How do I get in touch with teacher X?). These questions can all be answered on a well designed web page, if you can slowly bring your families around to use it. The more useful it is, the more they will use it.

So with this “secretarial test” in mind, here are 4 critical components for your school¹s web page, all of which should be prominent links on your front page:

• Most importantly, an up to date, on line calendar, which includes dates and times of all school events, including games, practice times, PTO meetings, when report cards go out, holiday and early dismissal times and anything else you can think of! There are many inexpensive (and some free) on line calendars which are easy to use and which your school secretary should be placed in charge of keeping current. She likely keeps a calendar any way for mailings; all I am suggesting is that she switches calendars (the on line calendars can be printed off, too, if the school still wants to mail them home). Our school actually keeps two calendars--an academic calendar (which the secretary controls) and an athletic calendar (which is the responsibility of the athletic director). These calendars are accessed far more than anything else on our page. For parents, the information is essential.

• A “contact” link which lists email addresses to every faculty and staff member in your school, and on which a simple click on that faculty address will automatically launch the user’s email program. I am hoping I need not argue too strenuously for the importance of email addresses for every teacher! From an administrative efficiency standpoint, email takes the school secretary out of the “switch-board” operator mode, shuffling messages back and forth between parents and teachers. For teachers, email solves the problem of “telephone tag” since for most of a teacher’s day, he or she is in the classroom. It can also be used to communicate grades on a more timely basis than the 4 or 8 week progress report. Parents might say to a teacher “If my child starts going poorly, please let me know” but teachers, even good ones, forget to do so, which often leads to hard feelings. I advise our teachers to ask back from that parent “Please email me whenever you’d like, and I’ll be happy to give you up to the minute grades.” It’s possible, if the web page makes those addresses available to parents easily.

• A “school news” page. This will be one of the few links that will need frequent updating--probably once/week (see below). Here you would post announcements, congratulatory notes, scores from games--creating, ideally, a kind of “around the hallways” or “insider’s view” of the school.

• Finally, I suggest a link on the front page which invites families (or anyone else interested in the school) to provide their email addresses to a school list serve. These list serves are cheap to use but infinitely valuable to school administrators because they require zero maintenance (vs. typing in everyone’s email addresses and trying to keep track of all the address changes--a sure way to drive your secretary to drink!) and because they allow you to send out a message to targeted groups of individuals in your community, depending on either their relationship to you--students, parents, alumni, board members, etc.--or their particular area of interest. What a tool for administrators! As an example, there was a rumor circulating last summer that a much respected coach had resigned. Misinformation was being swapped around, getting everyone upset. I was able to instantly send an email that squelched the rumor to the 250 persons who signed up for the list serve and expressed an interest in athletics. Do you need to send out a reminder for an important parent meeting? Clear up a confusion about a calendar date? Invite your alumni to a school event? Send out a link to pictures of a ball game or school play? Notify parents of updates to your web page? The possibilities are endless. All I have to do is create a single email message, check the intended audience and hit “send”.

Web page upkeep without breaking the bank

To keep a web page useful and up to date requires time. Fortunately, as a school administrator, you have an enormous amount of free time to become HTML experts and work on the school’s web page each day. Right? Ha!

As a cheap alternative some schools have allowed well meaning, initially enthusiastic souls, perhaps even students, to design their web page and try to keep it current. The problem with this approach is that the initial interest of the designer inevitably wanes, the task of keeping all the links up to date becomes overwhelming, and predictably, the links become outdated. Could any of us imagine sending our parents information in the mail that was dated six months ago? Yet that is what many of us do by not keeping our web pages up to date. Perhaps as little as five years ago, with the internet still regarded as a novelty, the public would have forgiven us. Now, with the internet seen as an essential tool, poor web page maintenance is regarded as a sign of administrative ineptitude.

The opposite extreme is to pay a professional firm to create and maintain your school¹s web page. However, if your intent is to keep your site updated continually, this will cost your school thousands and thousands of dollars--perhaps the equivalent of a full time teaching position each year. For us, a school of 260 students, that is unthinkable.

I suggest a third way, with minimal costs, if you follow these suggestions:

• First, keep things simple. There’s a lot of glitz for web pages out there, most of which becomes annoying to frequent users of a site (Flash animations, the overuse of frames, sappy music, etc.). These things ramp up your start-up costs, require more knowledge to use and make your sites more complicated for the user. You don’t need them.

• Second, don’t over-commit. Limit the number of links that must be constantly updated. On our school’s front page, there is only one link that requires knowledge of html code and gets updated frequently (our “school news” page). Everything else on our web page except athletics (see below) -- financial information, admissions procedures, directions to the school, etc. -- is relatively static, requiring only once or perhaps twice a year updating. Don’t make the common mistake that many schools make: designing web pages which they don’t have the time or resources to keep up.

• Third, divide up responsibilities for your web site. It is our secretary’s duty to keep the academic calendar up to date and the athletic director’s responsibility for the athletic calendar. A teacher or student can keep the “school news” section updated weekly. In addition, we have a wonderful father, interested in sports and whose hobby is digital photography (I bet you do, too). I’ve given him access to our athletic pages, and he takes team pictures and game photos and then posts them on our site. The kids love it. The school maintains control of the front athletic page and the hierarchy of links, but as one moves down the hierarchy to specific teams, our volunteer maintains those pages completely. He enjoys it, and because we have narrowed his responsibility to his area of interest, he is willing to keep the links current, in contrast to a volunteer who may be asked to “keep the web site up” and gets overwhelmed.

• Fourth, get help to set up your original template (a parent, a student, a teacher). This template will require little updating, once set. It’s important, however, that you maintain ultimate administrative control over the “look” and the links on page one of your web page. You may want to hire a professional to design a school banner for your site if a skilled volunteer isn’t available. This will be the first impression of your school to the outside observer, and aesthetics matter. We aim for a simple, clean look on our front page.

• Fifth, purchase Adobe “Acrobat”. Acrobat will allow you to add content to your web page with very little extra work. All of us have things like newsletters, curricular guides, cafeteria menus, application packets, etc. which we produce on paper to give to our families. Acrobat will allow you to re-create all of these things in a .pdf file which can be placed on line for anyone in the world to access. Going back to the “secretary test”, what forms does she constantly give out to people through the office? At our high school, prospective teachers need application packets, students need “good driver” discount forms for car insurance, athletes need physical forms, families need financial aid forms, teachers and coaches need purchase requisition forms, prospective students need school applications—just to name a few. You probably have these on a computer file already. Acrobat will let you easily recreate these forms (no re-typing or re-formatting) for access on line, thus cutting back on your office traffic and providing a real service to your families (and your beleaguered secretary). Acrobat is not expensive, and you will quickly recover your money by mailing fewer things and using less paper.

Our School Web Page: What We Use and How Much it Costs

I don’t pretend that our school’s site is one of the best examples of a school web page out there. I’ve been deeply impressed by the quality of other school sites around the nation, many of which are far superior to ours. However, ours works well for us, and I reference our page here as an example of the suggestions I have made through-out this article.

Our school site is at We use the following tools:

1. For the on line calendar program, we use a service at, which costs $2400 for a non profit institution to purchase 20 on line calendars. (You’ll only need one or two of these calendars. Our diocese purchased this for all our schools, so we only had to pay for a fraction of this). It may be possible for you to work a similar deal with schools in your system. Prior to upgrading to this calendar, we used a free on line calendar program for over two years, available at It worked reasonably well.

2. For the list serve, we use a service at This service is free if you intend to send less than 200 messages/month, and $30/month for up to 20,000 messages. I suggest signing up for the free service initially, and once you begin to build the base to a significant number of families, upgrading to the monthly service.

3. Most of the documents on our page were created by Microsoft Word or Publisher (available with Microsoft Excel and MS Outlook in a suite of tools for only $150, using academic pricing) and then made internet-ready by using Adobe Acrobat (for another $150). It will be the best $300 you spend all year.

4. You may want to get a professional to design an original banner for your page, or you may simply know someone that is proficient in Adobe Photoshop and is willing to make you one (my 12 year old son designed ours!). If you use a graphic designer, it should cost no more than $300-500. Don’t buy Photoshop, as it is expensive. Unless you intend on spending a lot of time creating and manipulating images, you probably don’t need it.

5. We use the free html editor which comes with the Netscape browser to make minor modifications to our site. For only $80-100 (academic pricing), you can purchase Microsoft Front Page, which allows you to create and modify web pages with very little knowledge of html.

6. Finally, our web site is hosted for free by the company that runs our T-1 internet line to the school (the T-1 line is decidedly NOT free). It’s likely that whoever provides internet access to your school will also host your page cheaply if they don’t already. If not, you can have your page hosted by a variety of reliable internet providers (AOL, Compuserve, Earthlink, a zillion others) for only $20-25/month.

If you did these things, then, it would cost you anywhere from $600 to $1000 dollars to get the necessary software to start, and another $30-55/month for monthly service to run a page similar to ours.

Concluding Thoughts

From the time we improved our web site along the lines I have outlined, we’ve noticed the following trends: Office traffic has slowed (OK, only a little). Routine phone calls have decreased (no kidding). We don’t shuffle pink “message” slips around the school anymore. Mailing costs have declined. I wish I could say our paper usage has diminished, but I’m sure it would be worse if we didn’t have so many documents accessible on line. We’ve been able to do more advertising, because our budget goes further with the cheap marketing our page provides. Parents are happier, because they feel like the school keeps in better touch than our previous once/month mailings. Our teachers, via email, are more accessible to parents for questions about their children. And the happiest person of all? Not, not you. The school secretary! But if she’s happy...

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Well Managed Classroom (Grades 7-12)

All of us from time to time have difficulties with the disciplining of our students and the management of our classrooms. After all, we spend a lot of time with our students—much more than parents spend with them Monday through Friday!—so it is natural there are good days and bad days. If you find that the bad days are beginning to become an uncomfortable pattern, then it may be worthwhile to consider the following advice taken from veteran teachers over the years:

1) Over-plan your classes. Far better to have too much to do than too little! If you end class early or take “time off”, you’re telling students that the subject matter is only as important as you define it to be, rather than communicating to them that the curriculum is important in its own right and that class time is valuable. You want your classroom, subconsciously in students’ minds, to be a temple to the curriculum, not a place to visit with friends. Over the long haul of a school year, that subconscious perception matters a great deal!

2) Establish a sacrosanct routine for the beginning of your class. One clever foreign language teacher I know writes a journal question on the board every day before class. Students come in, read the question, take out their journals and begin to write. Over the course of the next few minutes as kids settle, the class has become quiet, writing. The teacher then asks them to put away their journals and pray the Our Father or Hail Mary in Spanish. After prayer, they review their homework. All this takes about 10 minutes, and the teacher has to give out very few directions. In my classes, the bell rings and I immediately ask if there are any “special intentions” for prayer. After prayer, I immediately ask question #1 on the quiz (students know to have their paper out and ready to go by then). If teachers delay starting class on time, they will be trying to put out small brush fires the rest of class, and if each beginning is different from day to day, the teacher will find himself becoming hoarse giving directions and answering the same questions repeatedly.

3) Watch the transitions. Whenever the class changes gears (and it should change gears several times in a class period) there is a chance that kids will lose focus and the class will lose momentum. For example, when doing group work, give out directions BEFORE students move their desks around and ask if there are any questions.

4) Establish routine procedures for recurring tasks. The less you have to say, the better. Rather, let the routine speak for you. If testing or quizzing requires desks to be moved, ask students to do this before class starts each day, into the same formation. How do students turn in their homework? What are the rules for talking in class? Where is the homework assignment given (it should usually be written at the same place on the board each day). How are quizzes and work returned?

5) Vary it up. Are students active or passive? Even the best students find it difficult to passively take notes for an entire period. Vary it up every 20 minutes or so. Note-taking is fine, as a PART of the lesson. Cooperative learning should be part of your weekly routine. There should be frequent quizzes, an occasional skit, a short blip from a movie, perhaps a friendly competition or debate every once in a while. New teachers often spend too much of their time preparing for the material and not enough for the delivery.

6) Establish physical proximity—It helps to head off a brewing disruption if the teacher eases over to the trouble spot in the middle of discussions, or lectures, or group work. Most of the time, the teacher need not say anything. Move around the classroom, and be aware, at least subconsciously, that each of the students in the class is with you. Don’t remain rooted behind a desk or podium.

7) Establish a practiced non-verbal warning. When a childhood friend was “pushing it” with his father, his father began to fiddle ceremoniously with his belt, which told my friend he was close to getting a spanking with that belt. That usually worked! One teacher I know has an index card, which he uses to write down names for time after school, that he always wears in this front shirt pocket. When a student begins to get noisy, he begins to take out the index card, which usually has the desired effect. For some teachers, it’s just a look that tells kids, “that was your last chance”. Whatever it is, cultivate it.

8) Act, don’t threaten to act—Look at the following sentence you might hear in a classroom: “If you keep talking, I am going to…” Never say that! If you warn students over and over about what you’re going to do, they will take that as their cue to do whatever you’re telling them not to do until you REALLY mean it. If you have to keep “shushing” kids, then the first ten times you do it doesn’t matter. Speak directly, and if kids don’t respond, act.

9) Discipline sooner than later. If a kid is talking in a class just before a morning break, you’ve given him the “look”, he continues to talk, have the student stay after class to pick up the room before leaving. If before lunch, holding them for 5 minutes may do the trick. Fifteen minutes after school the next day is the standard minor penalty at the high school.

10) Discipline without anger. A former principal of mine once said, referring to freshman, that they were like “puppy dogs needing housebreaking”. One can be angry at a puppy dog, but it is wasted energy—being angry won’t affect his behavior the next time! Puppy dogs need training, and to the extent we mete out consequences dispassionately and consistently, we can train them.

11) Keep it simple. Let’s face it, teaching is an incredibly complex task, and there’s no need to make it more complicated. Here are my recommendations:
a. Pick, in your mind, one day/week you will spend with kids after school for minor disciplinary measures for the cases you cannot hold them immediately.
b. When students begin to act up in class, give them a warning, non-verbally if possible.
c. If students continue, give that student “time”. If it’s just before a break or lunch, give that time at the end of class (you can talk to them while they erase your boards, vacuum rugs, take paper out of desks). If it’s not before a break, give them “15 minutes” time on your designated day.
d. Write down the students name and a brief note to yourself why that student is doing time (talking, chewing gum, etc.)
e. Follow-up! Nothing destroys the credibility of a teacher faster than assigning time after school and having the student miss it with no consequences. Word spreads among the students quickly. If a kid misses time, talk to the kid the next day, doubling the time. If the student misses time again, call their parents, and add on to the doubled time. How consistently you do these things will determine the effectiveness of your discipline.

11) Know the procedures for the “big stuff”. Fortunately, 99% of the discipline issues we have in Catholic schools aren’t about the “big” stuff. They’re about being late for class, uniform issues, talking too much in class. Some behavior, however, warrants an immediate referral to the administration:

a. For cursing at a teacher or another student or other crude, overtly rude behavior

b. For refusing to be quiet such that the class is being repeatedly disrupted. This assumes the teacher has already (that day, not some day in the past) given the child a non-verbal or verbal warning and given that student time, but the talking continues. An office referral should never be the first recourse unless these steps are followed.

c. In the case of a fight, send a student to get the principal or another nearby adult to assist. Don’t leave the fight yourself, and do what you can to break it up. An adult witness is going to be important in the resolution of the matter when the principal investigates. Again, fights in our school are rare.

12) Remember that disciplining students is part of our ministry as Catholic school teachers. Don’t allow yourself an attitude that brands kids as “horrible” or “evil” or “terrible”. Some kids need more of our attention than others, but those are precisely the kids who one day will be the most grateful for the education they received. This retelling of a familiar parable brings the point home:

“And so it happened that a young man asked Jesus, “Good Lord, what must I do to become a more professional Catholic teacher?

Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? You know the guidelines: Vary your classes, give frequent assessments, turn student’s work back on time.”

The young man beamed: “I have done these things since I was hired”.

Jesus, eying him, said: “There is one thing further you must do. Take the child who is most troublesome to you, and treat him like your only son.

At this the young man walked away sad, for he was a busy man.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

So You Want to Teach Religion in a Catholic High School?

(Advice for a New Teacher)

I'm meeting with a young man tomorrow whom we hired to be a religion teacher in our high school. It's our first meeting and I would like to give him good advice for becoming an effective Catholic high school religion teacher. He's excited at the opportunity, zealous to serve the Lord, and well educated in the faith. We are blessed he is with us, but he needs good mentoring, as all new teachers do.

I should be able to give him decent advice. At the age of 23, with a graduate degree in theology from Notre Dame, I walked into this same school--eager, idealistic, ready to change the world. That was 19 years ago. I met my wife here, became principal at age 27, was principal for 13 years, and I'm now the school president. My oldest son just graduated from high school, a fact which makes me feel old! Through it all, I've taught theology at least part time each semester, because more than any thing else, teaching high school kids thrills me, challenges me, and humbles me.

So what should I tell this young man? What are the secrets to being effective as a religion teacher in a high school? It's interesting that I've never thought through that question formally. So everything that follows is not particularly well developed, but here's what I told him.

1) Be yourself.

I'm reminded of St. Francis' admonition: "Preach the gospel, and if you must, use words". Nothing matters more in our teaching of the faith than who we are as people, and few things will cripple us more than trying to be someone other than ourselves with the kids. Teens recognize phonies instantaneously, and dismiss what they say either out of disdain or (worse) apathy.

The temptation of a new teacher, especially a young one, is to "role play" as a teacher, and let this role pre-define who he is with teens. Well, in fact we DO play a role: It's not "Johnny" to the kids, but "Mr. Smith". We can't cheer at the high school games like we might have cheered at the college games (my wife taught me this quickly!), nor can we be our students' "best friends". But despite that role, we can still be ourselves within it. We should allow kids to see our sense of humor, we should be able to relax around them, banter back and forth about hobbies, opine about athletic teams, tease and cajole. Nothing has more power to change a classroom dynamic or improve my relationship with teens than if I laugh with them about a joke they've told, or a silly prank they've pulled. It's strange, but they don't expect laughter from a teacher. Be willing to be yourself.

2) Be professional.

We're at an initial disadvantage as high school religion teachers. Too often in their young lives as students, they've had religion teachers who have treated religion as touchy feely nonsense, or had textbooks with cutesy pictures and little substance (a friend once called it "butterfly theology"). I asked my middle school age daughter what she has learned in religion, and she told me, with a derisive smile, "Love God, love each other, love God, love each other, love God, love each other..." So when students come to your class, you've got a credibility problem, right off the bat.

The temptation is to BLAST them right out of the water academically, just to show them that theology "is TOO as important as Math". But this isn't the way. Rather, make sure that what is being taught is substantial and factual, make sure that home work requirements are consistent with what other subjects require, that assessments are frequent and fair, that work is graded in a timely fashion, and that classes are well prepared and taught from beginning to end (nothing destroys the "value" of the subject matter in the students' eyes more quickly than teachers "shutting down" early. The message is the subject matter is important only when the teacher defines it to be so, rather than the teacher being in service to the subject matter). In short, teach religion as professionally as you can, as well as the best Math, Science or English teacher you've ever had. The kids will follow.

3) Aim toward sense, not sensation.

Implied in goal #2 above is a mistake that religion teachers make too frequently: they aim directly at the heart instead of the head. I believe effective high school teachers should aim at making sense and teaching content, and take the long view that the context of our teaching-- namely, a Catholic Christian community of adults who take their faith seriously, where prayer is frequent, opportunities for service abound, and yes, where religion is taught as a serious academic subject--will take hold of the heart. Designing exercises aimed directly at eliciting an emotional response discredits the class in a teenager's mind, and almost certainly in a teenage BOY'S mind.

In my mind, many textbooks and many theology classrooms suffer from a kind of schizophrenia about this exact issue: Is it my job, as a religion teacher, to lead kids to conversion? I don't think so, strictly phrased. It's my job as a teacher working in a Catholic school community to lead kids to Christ, and as a person who is specially trained in theology, it’s my job to be particularly active within this community to foster practices that advance that goal. But my responsibility in the classroom toward this goal is the same as a Math teacher's: teach content!

One of the Catholic tradition's greatest strengths is our intellectual tradition. The underpinning of our tradition is "knowledge precedes love". That's why in some Christian traditions, one can become a Church member during a 10 minute altar call, but Catholics require a one to two year RCIA process, with lengthy instruction in the faith. Sadly, few Catholics know our intellectual tradition deeply enough to appreciate it. Years later, will they become like the seed placed in rocky soil, sprouting quickly but dying for lack of good roots? Our job is to give them roots, and that comes first through making sense.

4) What they say is more important than what you say

Here's what I mean: A wise mentor once told me that a common fault in religion classrooms is that teachers are "answering questions that students haven't even asked themselves yet". More simply, we should aim to be exceptionally good listeners. Most of us as teachers are better talkers than listeners! Listen carefully to the questions students ask, and treat these questions like they were GOLD. So, for example, rather than imposing a tightly structured, systematically sound, theologically accurate outline onto a "Catholic doctrine" class, for example, try to begin by asking students to write out any and all questions they have about their faith, and find a way of answering these questions in a systematic way. Work inductively when possible, rather than deductively. You'll find that much of what they've asked can be incorporated into a systematic outline, anyway, but you'll be answering THEIR questions as you go. Just be sure they recognize their questions as you go along!

5) Make it real.

Every book ever written about effective teaching has said as much, but here's your unique goal as a high school religion teacher: EVERYTHING you discuss needs to have a practical application, a connection to current events, a place in contemporary discussions, some information that can used, debated or discussed. In my view, a sound high school religion class talks a lot about current events, lyrics to songs, a T.V. show or current movie, an event at the school –all aimed to connect make the content to something “real”. Compare, contrast and critique these things in light of what the Church believes, and allow (without trying to “force” the issue) the attractiveness of the Church's ideas, God’s grace, and the pull of the Catholic school community to "win" hearts over the long haul.

6) Stay close to the Lord

Thoughout your career, you will experience crises of confidence, exasperation, frustration, unreasonable parents, troubled teens, bad classes, poor liturgies. You will be misquoted, misrepresented and for some periods of time, mistrusted. But you will also get the unparalleled gift to see the world with wonder again, through the eyes of young people. You will be made a confidante by a young person seeking advice, feel the joy of a weak student who does well on an assignment, cheer for your students in athletic contests, beam with a near parents’ pride as your students graduate. In other words, to borrow a line from our armed services, “It’ll be the toughest job you’ll ever love”. To keep yourself rooted, to keep your ideas fresh, to be the kind of faithful person our young people need to see first hand in a world with such cause for cynicism, stay close to the Lord, both in your daily prayer and in the reception of the sacraments. If you do, the Lord will bless you in your work and you will go to bed each night exhausted, but with a smile on your face.

Vouchers, Pell Grants and Universities

The Pell Grant program was instituted by the federal government in 1972. It provides tuition assistance to low income families whose kids want to go to college. If families meet certain income criteria, the federal government gives the university or college a specified amount of money, depending on where that child chooses to go. In effect, the Pell Grant program is like a voucher program in every way, except that it’s used not for K-12 schools, but for post secondary schools.

In the academic year of 2000-2001, over 3,880,000 students from low to moderate income families received used a Pell Grant to go to college. This number reflects almost one quarter of all undergraduates in this country. Together, these families receive almost 8 billion dollars in aid. The average income of families receiving Pell Grant subsidies is only $14,000/year (compared to an average of 52000/year for all other undergraduate families). It’s absolutely clear that without the Pell Grant, these students would not be able to go to college. (American Council on Education: Center for Policy Analysis, 2000)

Every university in the country—both state universities and religious institutions—Evangelical Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic—allow their students offset tuition costs by receiving money through the Pell Grant Program.

The Pell Grant program is among the most universally praised federal programs. It has passed constitutional tests from those who claim that federal money is being used to subsidize private or religious institutions. Despite the dire predictions of anti-voucher forces that vouchers will compromise the independence of schools, burying them in regulations, evidence from the Pell Grant program instituted 30 years ago is that colleges have not been strangled of their independence, nor has their mission been compromised. Indeed, because our colleges can now afford to accept students of lower incomes, the racial and economic diversity of campus life has been enhanced. Millions of past recipients, because of the Pell grants, have been enabled to live as productive and educated citizens.

If Pell grants are good for universities, vouchers can be good for K-12 schools.

Monday, June 20, 2005

A National High School Catechetical Curriculum?

Spurred on by concerns about the quality of high school catechetical materials, the Bishops’ Committee on Catechesis began several years ago by evaluating the high school textbooks. Now it proposes a national catechetical curriculum for high schools. As a Catholic high school teacher for twenty years, I support the bishops’ intent to improve catechesis, but I believe that standardizing curriculum and textbooks is the wrong way to accomplish this intent.

On the one hand, both of these initiatives make sense: for several years now the “Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism” has been evaluating religion textbooks like the cart before the horse—how can textbook series be evaluated without an agreed upon curriculum that these textbooks are supposed to support? It is not enough to say that current textbook evaluation efforts are designed only to measure conformity to the catechism and not their alignment with a particular curriculum. That begs the central question: Since textbook publishers and teachers must aim their materials at a certain age level, what is the age appropriate level that specific portions of the Catechism ought to be taught?” The Catechism agrees it is important that students read Scripture contextually, but are the implications of a contextual reading appropriately discussed in 5th grade classrooms or late in high school? For over five years, we’ve been evaluating textbooks like this question doesn’t matter. A national, sequenced catechetical curriculum would provide a rational context within which textbooks could be truly evaluated.

Still, it won’t work. School populations are different, teachers are different, and programs are different. One size does not fit all! The three high schools in my diocese of Mobile, Al, are a good example of the problem with this approach. McGill-Toolen and my school, Montgomery Catholic, have similar percentages of Catholic students (about 75-80%). However, McGill resides in Mobile, with a large Catholic population typical of Gulf Coast communities, whereas we’re located in a largely fundamentalist town (Montgomery, AL), with only 5% of the population Catholic. Not surprisingly, this affects our sequencing of classes in the religion curriculum. McGill begins its program with 9th grade Scripture and is able to quickly distinguish literalism from contextualism, and thus how Catholics and Baptists read Scripture differently. Were we to launch into this controversial subject as the introduction to our high school religion program, not only would our non-Catholic families in be scandalized, it is likely that many of our Catholic families would be also offended, influenced as they are by the predominantly fundamentalist culture here. So we do not tackle these issues explicitly until the junior year; prior to that time, we work to open students toward contextualism by studying Church history, Sacraments, symbols and rituals. Not only are students more ready to read Scripture contextually by then, but also their parents know us and trust us enough to know we’re not trying to ruin their children’s faith.

Also in Montgomery is St. Jude Institute, which is a part of a Catholic complex founded in the1930’s to evangelize non-Catholics and minister to the needs of the poor in west Montgomery. The City once included a hospital and low cost apartments, but still maintains a high school, a Social Service Center, and a developmental center for the mentally and physically handicapped. Because of its historical mission, the high school is less than 10% Catholic. In the proposed curriculum, the bishops have sacraments taught in the junior year. Were this to become the norm, St. Jude students would be asked to participate in school wide Masses they likely do not understand for over two years.

This theme could be echoed in different ways throughout our country. But there are other questions as well: Should the amount and quality of prior religious training influence how a high school program is structured? Does it matter, in selecting textbooks to support the national curriculum, whether the school is comprised of students of high reading abilities vs. schools with struggling readers? Will it make a difference if we’re choosing texts for a high school CCD program, which meets 26-30 times a year, or for a high school classroom, which meets 175 or more? Does the training of the teacher make a difference in the depth of the textbooks he or she should select? I think we can all agree that these things matter!

A national curriculum and a single catechetical series, then, will not address the unique needs of local students. The principle of subsidiarity from our social teaching tradition argues against trying to micro-manage remotely from above. Flying over farmlands at 1000 feet, all crops look the same. It’s not until we are on ground level that we can discern the differences between the rich man and the poor man’s fields. As a religious educator, it’s my job to fully understand the needs and abilities of my students, and then choose which sequence and which textbooks bring them to the fullest knowledge of Christ, his Church and his teachings over the course of their high school careers.

Still, I recognize the bishops have both a right and a duty to insist I am teaching the faith well, and frankly, until recently in my diocese (as in most dioceses), we’ve had no real data which indicates whether or not religious educators like me are doing their job. The success of teachers in other disciplines can be measured by student performances on ACT or SAT tests, or A.P. tests, or in some cases, high school exit exams. But in theology, with the exception of the ACRE assessment used in some dioceses, there is simply no hard data. Students may like me, their grades may be exceptional, parents may be happy with me, but is there any thing I can produce that gives my bishop or his representative EVIDENCE that I have transmitted the faith well to my students?

This, then, is where I think our bishops should focus their efforts: in designing a national religious education assessment for outgoing seniors. Rather than continuing to analyze each new textbook or to create a single curriculum, the bishops should define what they expect a graduating senior to know about their faith and then authorize a national test to measure how well they know it. Is the ACRE assessment, put out by NCEA, sufficient? If not, design something else. Let schools sequence the curriculum however they believe it best, let teachers choose whichever textbook series they want, but in the end, insist on accountability by an annual test, and then keep track of scores from year to year. If a school does consistently poorly, then it’s pretty clear that something is wrong and things must change.

The data these tests generate can be analyzed by diocesan offices of Religious Education in a way that accounts for differences in the program. One would anticipate, for example, that school scores would be higher than parish catechetical programs. Presumably, schools with a higher Catholic population would score higher than schools with less Catholics. Programs with a higher preponderance of better readers may do better than other schools. In other words, the results can be contextualized by diocesan offices and judged within this context, even while we agree the ultimate goals of a 9th-12th grade program are the same.

We in religious education don’t like tests which “measure” our students’ faith, and I can predict loud objections from my colleagues to the very IDEA of a national catechetical test: “There’s more to being a person of faith than what a pen or pencil test can show”, “What about piety? Service? Virtue?” To be sure, a national test would not measure these things. But it could be a reasonable barometer of how much religious knowledge our students have, and surely, that’s a large part of what we aim to impart, even if not the only part. And I would also say to my colleagues: “Consider the alternative.”

A mandatory national curriculum would be a real mistake for our Church.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School's Class of 2005

MCPS's 130th graduating class!
Originally uploaded by fnwchs.

Here's the 130th graduating class from Montgomery Catholic. I was very close to this class, as I was their principal in their freshman and senior year, as well as the fact my son was a member of the class and as a result, we've known many of these kids since kindergarten. May the Lord bless them richly all the days of their lives!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Notre Dame Bound!

Originally uploaded by fnwchs.

My son will be attending the University of Notre Dame in the fall. As a ND alum myself (1984, M.A, 1985), I am thrilled and grateful to God.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Practical Ideas to Help Catholic School Principals as Financial Stewards

We Catholic school principals are often torn: On the one hand, we know that some of our families really struggle to pay tuitions and fees; on the other hand, our faculty are underpaid and we need more money to offer the kind of programs that keep our schools competitive. In my mind, this dilemma requires us to be careful and frugal, but also creative in how we handle money for our school. It does us well to remember that we are not a “for profit” institution, so when we raise prices, add fees, or require certain processes be followed, we are not doing it to make money for ourselves! Rather, we are acting as responsible stewards of the limited resources God has given us for the benefit of all.

What follows, then, are some practical suggestions on handling money, and how many schools can both save money and increase revenue.

I. Suggestions for Principals , “Do’s and Don’ts”:

1) DON’T take the chintzy route with financial software for your school. The difference in quality, training offered and technical support is striking, and will either make your life much easier or harder. Your time is important, and accuracy even more so. There’s too much good stuff out there.
2) DO set up a monthly reporting mechanism to the Board and report this religiously to them. It is good protection for you as principal, but it’s also a practical way for YOU to monitor expenses given the daily demands on your time.
3) DO make use of “designated funds” that are not part of the operating budget. Someone gives you $5,000—what do you do with it? Is it within the Council/Board’s purview? Designated funds don’t affect operating budgets.
4) DO insist—INSIST! --that you as principal are the only person in the school that can legally obligate the school for any monies (generally through purchase requisitions which you approve—signing checks is too late, since checks are for bills we now owe). Also insist that ALL monies raised in the school’s name must run through school’s books (no independent Booster Club, Band, PTO accounts, etc. These can all be placed in designated funds, which you can assure these groups you will not spend). This is a Southern Association rule (4.9 under the “accreditation standards for non-public schools” which says “Any funds generated by school or student activities are under the control of head of school”.)
5) DON’T allow extra-ordinary fundraising to pay for ordinary expenses. Target a specific “non-operational” item for each fund-raiser. Even if you can’t afford to do this, target something your operational budget must pay for anyway and remove it from operational budget (like new technology), so that there is a tangible “product” that your volunteers can feel proud of helping you get. Use designated funds for gifts.
6) DO learn to use excel spreadsheet if you don’t know already—it will save you an extraordinary amount of time creating budgets, keeping track of salaries, etc. It’s not hard to learn, either. Each year after the first, you simply have to update things.
7) DO develop a financial aid assessment process so that you can measure financial need objectively for tuition assistance, using some third party source. But also include a question that asks THEM to tell you how much money they think they need.
8) DO keep a running 5 year history of tuition rates, % increases, salary rates, % increases, enrollments, % increase or decrease, inflation rates, % increase as a reference before beginning budget processes. It helps to have a history in front of you in making decisions about how much salaries, etc. should increase.
9) DO hold report cards for delinquent accounts. It works, most of the time, and I’ve found it to be a “necessary evil” to help families stay up to date. For the hard cases, if delinquency notices are ignored, call parents and give a dead-line. If they skip the deadline, tell them they must meet with you before their child can return to school. We don't do parents a favor (nor their kids!) by allowing them to live irresponsibly.
10) DO think creatively with clubs for raising money. Aim them for fund-raisers that provide services parents would spend money for anyway, and vigorously support fund-raisers that draw in money from folks other than parents!

II. Ways for Schools to Save Money (without cutting programs!)

1) Consider alternate scheduling, depending on your type school. Catholic High runs a trimester schedule, in which students take 5 periods/day. Full time teachers teach 4 of these periods. That means a full time teacher teaches 12 trimesters of classes/year. In a 6 period/day semester schedule, teachers teach 5 periods a day, or 10 semesters of classes/year. (If teachers teach 6 periods in a 7 period day, they equal a trimester system, but consider the effect on teachers and students!) Moving to a trimester schedule not only relieved the daily load on the teachers and students, but helped our budget!
2) Two part time teachers are cheaper than one full time because of benefits. I also believe part time teachers often have more time to prepare classes than some full time teachers….look at scheduling issues that may discourage interest in part time teaching in your school.
3) Consider catering lunches with local fast food/delicatessens instead of cooking it yourself. It’s cheaper on the school and doesn’t require headaches usually associated with running a full service cafeteria.
4) Consider selling books to families rather than renting. They recover some costs by re-selling books at the end of the year.. If selling, consider on line vendors in which parents can purchase books similar to if they were purchasing at (in addition to this being less burdensome on staff, it saves the school money because the school does not eat unused inventory costs)
5) Always receive 2-3 bids for a job, and make sure the companies know they’re bidding against each other. It’s common sense, but competition is good for us!
6) Set up maintenance schedules for A/C and heating systems (for replacing filters and unplugging condensation valves…) for mowers, etc. to avoid unnecessary service call expenses.
7) Publish a running “wish list” in every monthly newsletter to parents and alumni—things someone may be willing to donate to the school or to a classroom.
8) Consider a quid pro quo arrangement for families needing financial aid. Most would prefer this anyway. For example, a single mother who is a LPN administers our drug testing program. We pay her a set amount by check, she signs that check back over to us and we count it as a tuition payment. We have done similar things with an A/C repairman and an electrician. Everyone wins.
9) Re-think current hours for staff members of school. I know a school that lost 40 students but still wanted to retain its “specialty teachers” (art, music, etc.), yet there wasn’t enough money. At the same time, the school had a poorly run after school care program. They decided to make the specialty teachers part of the after-school program and offered them a contract from 9:30—4:30. Everyone wins.
10) Look at how you communicate with families. Postage costs eat schools alive! Get all families on an email list serve for communication to families with a single “send” button at almost no cost (20/month or so). Consolidate all mailings into a once/month comprehensive newsletter to avoid multiple mailings. Look also at using T-1 lines for (computers) to serve doubly as phone lines. Bundling into one service saves the school significant monies.

III. Ways for Schools to Make Extra Money (without doing more candy sales!)

1) Examine such routine things as vending machine prices, lunch prices, concessions for games, ticket prices, etc. Most of us in Catholic schools charge too little compared to the market rates our families willingly pay once leaving our campus.
2) Give out financial aid liberally if you have empty seats. Filling the last five seats with families paying ½ tuition generates more income than insisting on full tuition with 5 seats empty. Also, giving out financial aid allows the school to raise tuitions more aggressively without worrying as much about the impact on less wealthy families.
3) Look at fee structures. Registration fees are routine in non-public schools, due typically in the spring. These are simply tuition add-ons. Also consider 11 month tuition payment schedule or having fees due in July during non-tuition months.
4) Re-consider the amount multi-child discount rates. Catholic schools are exceedingly generous! We give $1,000 off for each additional child. Thus a family with 3 children would pay 2,000 less than if each child was charged full tuition. Some schools give 50% and 75% off for multiple children, which is wonderful except that our faculties are often underpaid, which is always the rub. Especially if the school has a liberal financial aid program (see #2), cuts that deep may not be necessary.
5) If you are a school that sponsors many athletic events, consider a year round home pass for families to attend sporting events. If you set the prices correctly, you can both give a benefit to your most loyal fans while creating more net income for the school. Why? Because general public interest is higher in the Fall than in the Spring…families generally don’t go to as many sporting events in the Spring as they estimate in the Fall. Similarly, consider adding a “student activity fee” for all students which gets them into home games free
6) Start an annual fund for the school, however small, perhaps at first through a simple letter asking for donations. Consider doing this just after Thanksgiving, just before year end for tax purposes.
7) Ask an accountant or another financial planner who is a parent in you school if he or she would be willing to be a free “consultant” to anyone who may wish to make a planned gift to the school. Then advertise the school has someone available to discuss making a planned gift (through insurance, stock transfers, wills, etc.)
8) Consider running a summer school program open to the broader public. Tie it to a local day car center, in which kids can be transported from the summer school program to day care without need for parents. Day care issues are huge for working families over the summer.
9) Never cancel debt for families who cannot pay it to you at a certain time; instead, lengthen the payment schedule, or as a last resort, leave it as “when circumstances change, please begin to pay down on what you owe.” Even if they are no longer with you, write these families once/year and ask them to make some contribution toward their debt as a matter of good faith.
10) Consider what amounts to an “introductory rate” of tuition for kindergarten that is significantly less than regular tuition from first grade forward. Once a family commits to kindergarten, they are likely with you to the end. Consider this for all “entry points” into your school system—in the long run, the school will generate significantly more tuition revenue. Similarly, unless your school has long waiting lists, avoid any “new family fees” or heavy application fees that create a financial disincentive to come there. Registration fees, due for all families in the Spring, help you distinguish those truly interested and those spamming applications to multiple schools.

Our Church's Response to the Sexual Abuse Crisis

I am worried for our priests and our Church's future.

We have allowed lawyers to craft our response to the sexual abuse crisis, and so dioceses all over the country have created "Child Protection" policies to limit our liability when the next tragedy strikes. We're now doing background checks, running workshops for teachers and volunteers, and teaching children the difference between a "good touch" and a "bad touch".

However, we haven't attacked the problem pastorally. I believe the root of it is the fact that most of our priests live most of their lives completely alone. Gone are the days of yesteryear when rectories were full of priests, thus providing them with a kind of automatic community and built in opportunities for fraternity and fellowship. Now our parishes have typically one priest, living alone in a rectory, largely unaccountable and generally lonely. One young priest told me it was a terrible awakening: In the seminary, he enjoyed the friendships of so many seminarians , all of whom looked forward to the day they'd become priests. Then that day occurred, he was placed in the parish and suddenly, he was all by himself, realizing this was the life he'd chosen for the next 50+ years!

And yet, we're surprised, disappointed and angry when our priests become alcoholics or develop sexual problems.

No, this isn't an argument for a married priesthood. It could be that, but I'll let others argue that. What I AM arguing for is that we begin to rethink our model of priestly living. The parish rectory is an anachronism, designed for a time when people couldn't drive or talk on telephones. Instead, they'd walk to the parish, which was often the center of town life. But with cars, email, telephones, cell phones, etc. the idea of a "priest at every parish rectory" no longer makes sense. Instead, let us begin to insist that priests from surrounding parishes live together and share some sort of religious life together. Make a minimal common rule (prayer and dinner once/day, perhaps?) and then send these priest to their various ministries all over the city.

You'll notice that although religious orders are not immune to the scandals we've endured, the predominant problem has been with diocesan priests. It only makes sense: in a community with other priests, destructive personal behavior can be addressed long before it becomes an entrenched sickness. But even before that, the laughter, friendships, and yes, aggravations and "opportunities" for personal growth that living in a community encourages are healthy for priests--indeed, for all of us.