Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Shula's Firing and Reflections on Coaching in Catholic Schools

In our state, when a coach at Auburn or Alabama gets fired, it’s big news. The story “broke” at 12:13 a.m. two days ago that Mike Shula, head coach at Alabama, had been fired. By 12:45 a.m., all the state’s newspapers were frantically trying to include the news for their morning editions. And so goes the coaching carousel at Alabama in the illusory search for the next Bear Bryant.

Still, the news is further evidence of what matters in big-time athletics in our country. Shula inherited a program on probation because coaches and boosters cheated by offering money to recruits. During Shula’s short stint, there was no hint of any such scandal, and everyone praised him, including the athletic director who fired him, for running the program with integrity. But of course, this didn’t matter as much as Shula’s mediocre 6-6 record this year, or the fact that Alabama has lost to cross state rival Auburn for five years in a row. It’s a cliché, but winning is what matters, pure and simple.

What about in high school programs? What about in Catholic high school programs? What role should “winning” play in a school’s decision to retain its coaches? Idealists may claim that it should not be a factor, but I think, frankly, that school leaders who put winning as a low priority are being naïve: our communities want programs which are competitive, and they expect a coach to build that within their respective teams. An expectation of excellence ought to pervade every feature of a school’s program, whether it’s the performance of A.P. Physics students on the A.P. exam, Band performances in regional and state band competitions, or athletic teams on the playing fields.

How Catholic schools contextualize these expectations, however, makes all the difference. I believe that our schools ought to expect four fundamental things from its coaches, and on these four bases, I believe coaches in a Catholic school are appropriately judged:

First, do they advance the mission of the Catholic school? Coaches, like teachers, principals and staff members, are co-educators, and our common goal is to build students of faith, virtue and wisdom. Athletics in particular can be a powerful “classroom” for teaching virtue: putting team first, striving to be the best, handling winning and losing with grace, handling pressure, to mention only a few. In this context, trying to win can be embraced, for when teams are competitive, coaches can demand more of student athletes and push them harder to sacrifice themselves for team goals. As an example, excellent off season weight-lifting and conditioning programs typical of first rate programs teach athletes to delay gratification, something our culture doesn’t otherwise promote! So winning, then, becomes a means, and not the end, of an athletic program. Coaches should be expected, in their deportment, goal setting and leadership of young men and women, to advance the school’s mission.

Second, though winning is a worthy goal of every coach within this context, the reality is that some years, the athletes just aren’t there to produce lofty won-loss records. Improvement, then, becomes the standard by which a coach ought to be judged. Are the players getting better, both in terms of their individual abilities and in terms of their working together as a team? When coaches do a good job improving their teams, even during the “off-years”, the wild swings between teams being 10-1 one year and 1-10 the next should be evened out over time.

Third, how well do coaches teach as part of their “regular” school day? One of the most common yet inexcusable mistakes that coaches make is to regard their teaching load as a necessary evil to land a coaching job, paying scant attention to preparing their classes, not keeping up with their grading, or even worse, to use class time as an opportunity to prepare for the game that night. Let’s be honest: coaches in Alabama receive sizable stipends that typically mean they’re paid better than a ordinary teacher in a school. The only way that can be rationalized, out of justice, is that the coaching stipend reflects work that is above and beyond a normal teacher’s load. When coaches subordinate their teaching to their coaching as “either-or” and don’t regard it as “both-and”, I believe that’s grounds for firing a coach, regardless of how successful their teams are.

Finally, how well do coaches handle the “peripheral” parts of coaching? For example, do they insist with their athletes to keep locker-rooms clean? Do they protect school inventory? Do they secure the building when they leave? Do they keep fields locked up after practices? Do they insist that practice fields are left free from litter? Some coaches become so myopic about their coaching that they forget these are important barometers of their coaching success from the view point of athletic directors and principals! Coaches must be reliable in these matters.

When coaches do these four things well, they can be powerful, positive influences in the lives of their players and in the whole milieu of their schools. May we find and cultivate such coaches!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Retelling of the Parable of the Rich Young Man (Luke 18:18-23)

And so it happened that a young teacher asked Jesus this question:

"Rabbi, what must I do to become a more professional educator?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked. "No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: Prepare your lessons diligently, turn back work on time, treat students with respect and expect the same from your students."

The young man beamed. "I have done all of those things from the first day I became a teacher".

Jesus, eying him, replied "There is one thing further you must do. Take the student who is most troublesome to you, and treat him as your only son."

The young man walked away sad, for he was a busy man.

Monday, October 02, 2006

To Intervene or Not to Intervene? Advice to parents

What do you do if a teacher has shown a video which you are upset over? What if your child has received a grade that seems unfair? What do you do when your child is having social difficulties or personal problems?

If you choose to discuss it with school officials, what is the best forum to do so: in a conference, perhaps? Over the phone? Via email? And to whom? The teacher? The principal?

Inevitably, you will face such dilemmas. As a former principal of a high school, I met with parents daily to discuss matters of concern to them. But I'm a parent, too. I still remember the day I gave my eldest child away to the care of another adult (his kindergarten teacher). Letting our children grow up is just as tough on us parents as it is our kids! How much do we hold on? How much do we let go? These issues all come to play in the decision to intervene or not to intervene as a parent.

Study after study has shown that schools in which parents are actively involved are better able to sustain high academic standards. That only makes sense. If schools and families are in a silent tug of war over school policies and practices, the children lose regardless. One of the worst mistakes American educators have made has been to assume that parents really don't care about their children's education, leading them to adopt the implicit philosophy: "Leave the education to us and we'll leave the parenting to you". In other words, leave us alone. And so, over time, public support for schools has eroded, standards have dropped, and predictably, grade inflation has run rampant, as teachers cannot sustain demanding classrooms without parental support.

The short answer, then, is you should talk to teachers and principals when matters concern you. However, the other question, perhaps more complex, is "What steps, if any, ought to be followed before intervention"? Clearly these steps vary according to the age and the situation. In general, as the child matures, the increasing push should be that he or she meets with the teacher to address the matter first.

Recently two similar circumstances involving grades came to my attention. In the first case, a junior boy had failed the quarter in math. The parents asked their son the reason why, who said (in typically eloquent fashion for a teen-age boy) "I dunno". So the parents called the teacher, who then explained that he had not turned in several assignments, had failed a major test, etc. Although the parents were now informed, the boy resented the fact that the teacher and his parents were talking about him behind his back, and just as predictably, disputed some of the claims the teacher made about his homework.

In the second case, the parents of a sophomore boy insisted that he schedule a meeting with the teacher to find out precisely the reason for the failure. He did so, reluctantly. During this meeting, the teacher had the opportunity to show the boy his grades in the book, to point out the blank spots where assignments were not turned in, and to probe the boy about his study habits, his note-taking and his overall effort. The conversation between the boy and his parents thus took on an entirely different flavor, for in this case, the boy took ownership of his failure. He had, after all, met as an adult with an adult who was straight with him, he was given the opportunity to question the teacher over his concerns, and he was even allowed to cast his own spin of the failure to his parents (teens always appreciate this!).

I would advocate this second approach in almost every case concerning a high school age child. I understand the great urge within us as parents to intervene on our child's behalf. Call it the nurturing instinct. But even in cases when the child is convinced that the teacher "doesn't like him or her", I think it is appropriate to insist the child talks about this directly with the teacher. For teachers, these are wonderful, teachable moments. For students, they are opportunities for growth and maturation.

However, if after talking to your child about what the teacher has told him or her you still have concerns (or suspicions!), or if similar concerns persist over time, then you should talk with the teacher. I suggest this procedure:

1) Schedule a meeting with the teacher face to face, rather than over the telephone. The more potentially emotional the difficulty, the more strongly I’d argue this point. Telephone conversations are partially anonymous, which often leads to brasher (and less helpful) statements; moreover, during difficult sessions, it is good to be able to read non-verbal body language. Email, for this reason, is the WORST way to communicate to resolve problems! Keep email on the level of swapping information.

2) When the meeting is scheduled, tell the teacher what the topic is. It gives the teacher some time to ponder the situation, review his or her own actions, and contribute helpfully to the meeting.

3) Assuming that the child has already spoken directly with the teacher, I believe it's important NOT to have the student at that meeting, at least at first. The most desirable goal is that parents and teacher can be open enough to disagree with each other candidly (and amicably); such disagreement is not healthy with the student in the meeting, witnessing the disjunction between the two most significant sets of adults in his or her life. Meeting alone allows time for teacher and adult to explore areas of common ground if possible. After the common ground is established, then the child can be brought back into the conference.

When should you meet with the principal concerning difficulties? I think there a 4 times, broadly stated: a) If your meeting with the teacher still leaves you concerned; b) If the matter involves your child's health or safety; c) If the point of dispute is over a policy or common practice of the school; d) If you need to share confidential information or personal concerns about your child (such as a divorce). Depending on the school's size, this fourth area might be discussed with the guidance counselor instead.

If a genie granted me three wishes to remedy the problems in education America is facing today, I would first ask that we abolish third person pronouns when speaking of the school. No more "They's" or "he's" or "she's"--only "we's". The fact is, the school belongs to the community, not to the principal or the faculty. Furthermore, this distinction between teachers and parents is unhelpful. The important difference is that between the adults (parents and teachers) and the students. Our unspoken message to the students is, very simply, "Be like us". To the extent we can communicate a consistent message of who were are, kids, however reluctantly, will model themselves after us.

Second, I'd wish for more parent--teacher interaction. We have got to start seeing each other as real people, not as "John's mother" or simply "Mrs. Jones, the French teacher" but as "Betty" and "Cecilia". This means extraordinary effort from both sides. It means parents volunteering as coaches, room mothers, concession stand workers, working on curriculum committees, school boards and giving car pools. It means teachers calling parents to PRAISE John for improvement as well as when he is having difficulties, to be open and welcoming to parents with concerns, and to sit and talk with them during basketball games, PTA nights, and other meetings. There is no magic to forming positive working relationships.

Finally, I'd wish we adults would remember that we have the same end in mind: the best interest of the kids. My wife and I disagree (sometimes strongly!) on how best to handle our own kids. Naturally, parents and teachers will disagree now and then, but we want the best for our kids. Teachers wouldn't teach otherwise, at least not for very long. Parents wouldn't care enough to pursue the matter with the school!

Friday, September 15, 2006

MTV's "Two-A-Days" and Hoover High School

I should begin by saying I am an avid football fan. I played it as a boy growing up, and I now have three sons, each of whom play and each of whom I’ve coached in youth leagues. I attended every home game while an under-grad and graduate student at Notre Dame, and have missed very few home games at our high school in the 22 years I’ve been there. I believe that football can teach young men important virtues: perserverance, discipline, putting the team first, learning how to handle winning with class and losing with grace.

And yet, I was sick to my stomach after watching “Two-A-Days”, a production of MTV chronicling the Hoover, Al football team’s 2005 season.

Hoover’s football program, led by their egomaniacal coach, Rush Probst, has won 5 of the last 6 state championships in the highest classification of football in Alabama. They are unabashed in their desire to be the #1 ranked team in America, and they are well on a path toward that goal in 2006, currently ranked as #1 by USA Today.

I don’t begrudge Hoover’s desire to be the best. But after watching an episode of “Two-A-Days” (You can view a trailer of the program by clicking here), I'd observe the following:

First, it is deeply disheartening that the superintendent and Board of Education would give MTV unfettered access to Hoover High’s campus, allowing its students to be used as a tool to advance MTV's commercial interests. Without listing all the ways in which MTV both exploits and advances values incongruous with the mission of ANY school, I will simply reference a 2005 study completed by ParentsTV.org entitled "MTV Smut Peddlers: Targeting Kids with Sex, Drugs and Alcohol". Is it callous indifference or merely our impotence as adults that we would allow such a network to wander the classrooms, hallways and lockerrooms of our school? Is our judgment so blinded by our pride in a successful high school football team that we're OK with made-for-TV soap operas starring our children?

Second, though there is some idolization of cheerleaders and football players within the culture of every high school in America, “Two-A-Days” advances the celebrity status of both exponentially, confirming with the program’s younger viewers that good looks, athletic prowess, and popularity are all that truly matters. I can only hope that the faculty and parents of Hoover High are now embarassed by such a depiction of their school and their children. I suspect that they are.

Finally, despite my admiration for teams that strive to be successful, I believe that Coach Probst and the Hoover program have confused the “ends” and the “means”. Ultimately, the “end” (or goal) of our schools and athletic programs are one and the same: to create people who are both educated and virtuous. Winning games is a means to an end, not the end in itself. When we build competitive, winning programs, we can challenge our children to demand more of themselves, fostering the virtues that football can teach so well. However, when high school football teams rent hotel rooms for home games to "focus" the night before the game, when cursing at players is so commonplace that coaches think nothing of it, even when they know the cameras are rolling (and what happens when the cameras are off?), when a head coach chastises a mother whose son was sick and missed practice, even with an excuse from a doctor, and then defends his position by saying “Other programs don’t win like we do”, or when this same coach says to his players, after a loss, that he holds their future in his hands and that if they don't put out more for him, he'll nix their chance at a scholarship, or when a "team chaplain" quotes scripture in a pre-game devotion and then tells the players not to embarass their jerseys by losing, then I would suggest that winning has become THE end and not the means.

Winning at all costs--placing aside the values we want to teach our children-- is simply too expensive.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Philosophy Underlying Catholic Education

Editor's note: These are my notes for orientation on August 7, 2006 for all teachers in our K-12 school.

What does it mean to be a Catholic educator? I believe at the heart of Catholic education are four underlying beliefs:

1. Our students are children of God—worthy of being educated, loved, listened to, cared for and (I think significantly) believed in.

There is tremendous cynicism about youth today. Recently, I was talking to a colleague who launched in on a tirade about the terrible state of “kids these days”.

But you know what? If there is any basis for the cynicism, it’s our generation’s fault, not the teenagers’. It’s not 18 year olds who are responsible for high rates of marital infidelity, lack of commitment, corporate greed, political scandal, or sexual deviancy.

IN fact, I believe that kids are naturally idealistic. But our society tells kids it’s impossible to lead a moral life, that it’s impossible to abstain from sex for example, and people who try to do so are either prudes or (worse) naïve, so practice sex safely. Television stations like MTV aren't created or produced by 18 year olds, but by 40-somethings—and there is something very sick about corrupting the natural idealism of youth in order to sell products for profit.

Catholic schools MUST be a powerful antidote to such cynicism--when kids enter our room each day, they should almost FEEL the hope and FAITH we have in them.

Especially, our most troubled students! They are likely our most troublesome students because they have been least well cared for, and as a result, the ones who are least convinced that they are worthy of being loved or believed in. So much of their acting out is a test of US, to see if we can confirm in our reactions what he despairs about himself: that he is not worthy of love, that he feels little hope for his future. We cannot give in to despair for these kids! We must be, rather, people of the resurrection in their lives.

A challenge for everyone in this room: I’m guessing by the end of the first day of school, each of you will know who the 2-3 kids are that will be most in need of our attention this year! I challenge you to look at these kids not as your biggest burdens, but as the chance for your greatest successes, an opportunity to make a life-long impact on these kids'lives.

There's a teacher on this faculty, who by about November had just about had it up to here with a certain boy who shall remain nameless. To be blunt, this boy was really acting like a horses’ rear end, and to make matters worse, I think she taught him for two classes/ day! But I remember her saying, deeply frustrated, almost in tears, “As much as I want to, I will NOT give in, I will NOT write him off. I will NOT become cynical about him. He WILL be better behaved eventually, and we WILL get along, but on my terms.” I remember being very edified by her toughness and attitude. I asked her, several months later, how things were going with him, and she said something like “Well, there is the occasional bad day, but we’re getting along pretty well now. He’s actually becoming a pleasant person, most of the time”. What made the difference? The teacher did--despite the boys' actions, she refused not to love him.

The real truth that we must never forget as Catholic educators is: LOVE is redemptive. If we bring Christ’s love to our students each day, even our most annoying, troubled student, Christ’s love can redeem them—and redeem us in the process.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)

2. Education is a moral endeavor, undertaken by a community of adults—I’ve spent lots of time on the web, recently, looking at other school web sites. Schools have a tendency to measure success in terms of test scores, college scholarships, graduation rates, A.P. test performances. And yes, we do some of that too. We brag when our kids score 800’s on SAT tests, as a senior did on 2 out of 3 of the subtests, or when 4 of Mr. Petrof’s A.P. American History students score perfect 5’s on the A.P. exam. Those are good things, and we’re right to be proud of them.

But let these stats not obscure the true measure of our success—the Ockham’s razor by which our school should be judged a success or a failure is simply this: do we help children become the people God wants them to be? Our ultimate aim: cooperate with God’s grace to help them become these people. In so doing, we know they will be happy.

“Glory of God is man fully alive” St. Irenaeus of Lyons

Are our kids “fully alive” when they leave us after 13 years of K-12 schooling?

This isn’t just a responsibility of the theology department, but of the entire community of adults: teachers, coaches, office staff, and parents.

(Jon Moline, “Classical Ideas about Moral Education”, in Character Policy: An Emerging Issue) “As Aristotle taught, people do not naturally of spontaneously grow up to be morally excellent or practically wise. They become so, if at all, only as the result of a lifelong person and community (emphasis mine) effort”

So yes, it takes a village.

What a profound effect Tim Trokey or a George Forhan or a Jill Clark can have on the attitudes our athletes have about themselves, about being people of character, and about their faith in God. None of these 3 are Catholic, but each plays a profound role in the mission of this school. And when adults paint side by side with students in the gym as they did this summer, or when teachers go out of their way to correct a student, gently, about some behavior a kid is doing wrong—they all take part in this fundamental mission to help kids become what God wants them to be.

3.Parents are the primary educators.

Now we have to be careful: I’ve heard this line used by teachers in this room as an excuse to get out of work:

A kid hasn’t done his homework in 4 days. “Oh well, the parents are the primary educators…if they’re not going to do their job, how do they expect me to do mine”…. And then, you see, the teacher absolves himself from that kids’ failure. “Not my fault”.

In Catholic educational philosophy, parents ARE the primary educators, and we ASSIST parents in that role. In other words, we’re a team, and I think that means three very practical things for us:

--first, we trust parents to make the right decisions for their kids (Mardi Gras, parents write a letter, child will be out for 2 days, husband off work—do we give them permission to go?)

--second, we try and foster good communication with parents—in both directions. On Back to School Night, you should give your school email address and voice mail number at school to every parent. Maybe even have a business card, and invite them to call you whenever they have concerns. You should similarly CALL THEM, not just for concerns, but for praise. Open lines of communication. Especially in the case of a kid doing poorly, we should do much more than take the contractual, minimalist position “Well, I informed you through the report cards and you never contacted me”. That’s simply unacceptable.

--third, I think being on a team (and I think every married person in this room understands this) means forgiving and moving on. Parents aren’t going to always respond as they should. We have to forgive them for that, insist on a professional working relationship, not let it affect us the next time we should communicate with that person, and move on. We must remember that when we’re talking to parents about their child, we are treading in an area where parents are MOST vulnerable, and often, they don’t respond as they should. Let us tell the truth with love, forgive if responded to inappropriately, and always remember to put the needs of the child first.

4. We make no compromises, no excuses.

I’m not sure that this is really Catholic educational philosophy so much as the legacy from the Sisters of Loretto who founded our school, if not all the sisters who began our schools around the nation.

Catholic was founded in the 1870’s, by the Loretto sisters, a hearty band of women from KY. They moved into Montgomery, Al, the“buckle on the bible belt”, into the land of the KKK and in the middle of a deep suspicion and misunderstanding of Catholics to start a Catholic school for girls.

They purchased an antebellum home, Gerald Mansion, with the intent to live upstairs and teach downstairs) right across from St. Peter’s Church downtown, where now sits the courthouse and jail (I’ll let you create the joke here!)

Just prior to opening the school, there was a yellow fever epidemic, and the school’s opening was delayed for several months—instead of a school, the mansion became a hospital, and the Loretto sisters earned instant respect for their care of the sick of the city.

They had very little money. But they had grit and determination to make that school work. These were well educated women, but they VERY poorly paid, no “benefits”, and they worked, by today’s standards, in deplorable working conditions.

Sr. Martha Belke, the last Loretto sister to teach here, who taught Chem and IPS for 35 years (Our Belke building is named after her), told me her first class (at the age of 19, before she had graduated from college) had 51 students in it: 25 first graders and 26 second graders.

(People have wondered why the sisters are “mean”!)

But those kids were WELL educated. The sisters didn’t complain about their working conditions, their salaries, how underappreciated they were. No compromises, no excuses!

This is our legacy here. The mission of this school comes before all else—before any of our needs, before any convenience—more important than winning games, test scores, college acceptance rates. We will do whatever it takes for a student to be successful, and we will NOT give in to the temptation to write some kids off because the majority is doing fine.

All students in our classroom will learn. And if they aren’t learning, we will intervene, first as teachers, then as the school itself, to demand they will learn. The mission of the school is first.

Parallel this to “defiance” of teacher. Just as everything stops until the defiance is challenged, so too if our mission is being challenged, everything else stops until it’s addressed.

We are not rightful heirs to the legacy of the Sisters of Loretto unless we embrace this challenge directly.

In summary then, as Catholic school teachers, we believe that

All students are Children of God;
That education is a Moral Endeavor undertaken by the Whole Community;
That we are Team-mates with parents;
That the Mission comes first, no excuses, no compromises.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Five Cures for Common "Problems" with our Teens

As a long time principal and now president working in a Catholic high school, one of my unwritten responsibilities is to serve as a repository of good advice from parents, so that I may share this wisdom with other parents. In my 21 years here, these are the 5 best "cures"to common teenage problems I have heard from other parents:

1) The "My teen is always on the telephone" problem.

A parent once described the telephone as the "teenage umbilical cord", and indeed, the telephone is often more a distraction from homework than the TV. Also, there is nothing like calling your spouse at night and getting a consistent busy signal to stoke family frustrations!

"Not a problem", a parent told me once. "We got rid of all the cordless phones in our house, and placed our only phone in the family room. You'd be amazed how much shorter those conversations are between friends when they must be done in public." As a variation of that theme, another parent told me his rule was the cordless phones could never leave the family room after 6 P.M. If they did, the father would simply hit the "page/find" button over and over until finally his exasperated daughter would return the phone to its rightful home.

And cell phones? Ahh, there's the rub. One family I know has a designated spot in the house where all cell phones must be charged, and it's required that on school nights, they are all being charged by 9 p.m.

2) The "I'm going to my friend's house to spend the night" shell game.

Ask your teenage son in a more honest moment and he will tell you the best way to do things without you knowing is to play a kind of shell game: He says he is going to a friend's house, his friend tells his parents he is going to your home, and together they go do whatever they want for the evening.

Suspecting this, you'd like to confirm the arrangements with the other parents and make sure things are properly supervised, but you are worried that the other parents might take your call the wrong way and that your teen may resent you don't trust him.

A wise mother I once met had the solution: "I always called the other parents and asked them if my daughter could help out by bringing something with her, like some chips or drinks. By their response I would learn everything I needed to know." "After all", she smiled, "Who could be offended by an offer of generosity?"

3) The "My teen drives me so crazy fussing about chores that it's easier to do them myself" dilemma.

This one speaks for itself. But one father of 3 teenagers licked the problem by doing something very simple.

Every Sunday night he would list the chores he expected his children to accomplish over the course of the next 5 days after school, on the family bulletin board.

If the chores were not done by Friday afternoon, all "weekend activities" would be forfeited. How did he limit the whining? At the bottom of the list of chores, big and bold, were additional chores for those who whined or complained. "What really gets to my kids" this father commented, "is when they think I'm making up chores as I go along, in a kind of ad hoc fashion. Putting things in writing in advance creates the sense that chores are a matter of routine family responsibilities.

4) The "I don't have any homework" dilemma.

It's amazing that even though your child "doesn't have any homework" night after night, his teachers tell you he "isn't doing his homework" at report card time.

The problem for parents is you don't know, one night to the next, whether your children REALLY DON'T have homework or if they are just avoiding work. They hold all the cards.

Again, one family seemed to have the solution. "Every night at 8 P.M. the rule in our house is that our kids must be at the dining room table doing their homework until 9 P.M. minimum. It doesn't matter to us whether our kids tell us "they don't have any". They must still be at the table either doing their homework, or looking blankly at the desk for one hour. Those are the only two choices. Given the sheer boredom of doing nothing, even Algebra becomes interesting, and we've found that they begin to "discover" work they didn't know they had. And if the phone rings for our kids, we tell them our children have previous appointments and to call back at 9."

"Why the dining room and not the bedroom?" I asked. "There are too many distractions to pass the time in the bedroom" said these parents, "magazines, pictures of boyfriends, stereos, whatever. Also, we found the dining room is better because we can 'check up' on our kids without appearing to do so, as we do dishes in the nearby kitchen, for example. Our kids hated for us to peer into their bedroom to see if homework was being done, so we simply removed that problem."

5) "My child hates to read" syndrome.

Experts will tell you that your child's reading ability will be the most important indicator of his or her future academic success. But how do you breed a love of reading?

One mother I knew did two important things. First, when her children were younger, she made it part of her regular weekly routine to go to the library twice a week and check out books, which she read to her younger children each night. Younger children love to be read to by their parents!

Second, when her children became younger teens, she would continue to go to the library, but instead of reading out loud, she would give her children two choices: Either they went to bed at 10 P.M. lights out, no exceptions, or they could go to bed at 10 P.M. and read for one hour. Given that choice, her children became avid readers throughout their teenage years.

Final thoughts:

Five years ago I remember asking a mother of five girls, on the occasion of her last daughter's graduation, what she had learned about raising teenagers after all those years of doing so. I'll never forget her response. She thought for a moment, then said, "Well, teenagers are like bucking broncos. If they think you are trying to ride them, they'll buck you every time. So the best thing is to build fences which lead them in the right direction. Then they think that they're the ones making the decisions as they trot along. "

Amen. May all of us become good fence-builders!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Catholic Teacher's Salaries (and ways to improve them!)

Nationally, private school teachers make about 14,000 less dollars less per year than their public school counter-parts, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. I suspect that Catholic school teacher salaries are even less. As a matter of justice, we ought to be doing better.

But it's not so simple. Raising substantial funds to bring our teachers to par with public schools means as much as 50-100% increases in tuition, all but eliminating middle income Catholic families from being able to attend our schools and making our schools less competitive in the market-place. It doesn't help to raise teacher salaries if there are no students paying tuition!

In addition to the sacrifices our teachers make, low salaries hurt our school, too. We've been looking to hire an A.P. Physics teacher for the last five months, and it's not hard to understand why we're not having much luck. Entry level positions for recent college graduates with degrees in Physics begin anywhere from 40K to 60K in our region of the country, and frankly, teaching A.P. Physics requires teachers ideally with graduate degrees and teaching experience.

So what can we do?

First, we really have to be shrewd stewards by collecting all possible revenues, so as to be able to give teachers healthy, incremental raises each year. I've written recently on the importance of developing a generous financial aid program, which allows a school to raise tuition rates more quickly, protecting its less wealthy families even while generating funds by filling empty seats. I also wrote much earlier here about practical ways a school can increase revenues by tweaking routine operational procedures. In this article, I want to focus exclusively on teacher compensation, and look at three ideas that have merit, I believe, in attracting and sustaining teachers without breaking the bank.

1) Merit Bonuses-- The problem with raising salaries substantially across the board is that it's too expensive, and allocates scarce resources to mediocre and excellent teachers alike. Merit bonuses, if set up correctly, allow us to target our resources to the teachers we most want to hire or keep. Yet we're reluctant in Catholic schools to implement merit systems--partly because diocesan lawyers fret about potential lawsuits and partly because merit systems require us as administrators to do an exceptional job of supervising, so that we can fairly make distinctions between teachers. And who among us wants to go on record publicly as saying teacher X is better than teacher Y?

But merit systems can be set up fairly, without requiring impossibly time consuming commitments from administrators. A Catholic colleague of mine has set up a set of 7 objective criteria for her high school teachers, five of which must "checked" each year to receive an additional $5,000 bonus that year. These criteria include such things as a graduate degree, a certain number of professional development hours, a portfolio, kept according to specifications, a minimum score on a classroom evaluation (done by her), a talk or workshop at a national or regional convention in one's field, etc. Were our Board to approve of merit pay, I would probably include a certain score on the end of year evaluations of courses by students and parents as an additional criteria.

Where does she get the money to write $5,000 checks? As she points out, the criteria are sufficiently demanding to weed out all but a few teachers, so the annual cost of the system is not as high as it might first sound! But the school did have a merit fund, developed as a subset of a much larger capital campaign, and donors to the school are now encouraged to give to this fund as an option within the school's annual fund drive. But it need not be this highly endowed. Instead of a 4% increase in salaries for next year, costing the school, let's say, $50,000, the board could decide to only give 2% raises, and let the other 25,000 be distributed according to merit criteria.

2) Signing Bonuses--We read about million dollar signing bonuses for athletes, but most of us don't think about using signing bonuses in our schools. Such bonuses could work for us, especially if we're trying to land a highly competitive teacher candidate (like an A.P. Physics teacher!). The advantage of a signing bonus is three-fold: it's only a one time outlay for the school, it gives them money at exactly the time a teacher likely needs it most (especially if he or she must move into the area) and it can be targeted according to certain criteria or positions. $3,000 or so, paid up front, makes our schools more attractive.

3) Joint housing agreements--Likelier than not, there is empty rectory or convent space in your area. It sits there, empty, all year, even though the parish or religious order must pay to maintain it. Packaging a job offer with a low cost housing rental agreement could make your school a financially viable place to work, especially for a young, single person. It's a "win-win-win" for all those involved: the school pays nothing but offers a genuine "benefit", the parish/order gets some income whereas before they got none, and the young faculty member is able to save more each month from what is, alas, too puny a salary!

Conclusion: All of us understand that the quality of teachers is the most important factor in how well we educate our children. In the "old days", we could rely on the heroic commitment of the nuns to carry this load. No more. We've got to be willing to explore new paradigms and act creatively.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Economics of Financial Aid for Catholic Schools

Many Catholic schools miss an opportunity to raise revenue because they don’t give enough financial aid to their families.

At first glance, that appears to be an oxymoronic statement: How can giving MORE aid INCREASE revenue? Simple, really. If there are empty seats available in a classroom, it’s better to fill them with families paying ½ tuition (or ¼, etc) than to leave them empty. It’s the same principle airlines use to discount prices: if a plane can carry 200 passengers but currently only has 150 booked for a flight, it’s in the airline’s interest to create financial incentives to fill those remaining 50 seats, since the plane is flying to its destination regardless.

Financial aid programs for Catholic schools can work the same way, provided two things are in place:

1) First, there are empty seats available in the school. If a school has waiting lists, there is an economic argument for giving out less aid. For this reason, I believe it’s prudent to process financial aid requests in June, rather than in the early spring, as many schools are apt to do. By then, it is clearer what the numbers are for each class, and the amount of aid can vary accordingly.

I anticipate this objection: Am I saying that the family’s ability to pay is a factor in the admissions process? Isn’t this contrary to the mission of our schools? It could be, but I’d argue if done correctly, that’s not the case. Admissions decisions should be made without reference to ability to pay, and ideally, by an entirely different person or committee than the person deciding upon financial aid. One cannot apply for financial aid unless one has already met the admission requirements and has been accepted. However, accepting a family doesn’t obligate us to provide for 100% of their financial needs! Some families, because Catholic education is a priority, may choose to scrimp and save to pay the rest, while others aren’t willing to do so. That’s their choice. Furthermore, it is entirely legitimate for us to be more generous, for example, to Catholic families, since our primary mission is to serve these families. Without knowing enrollment numbers, it is harder for us to make these kind of prudential decisions.

2) The second key to a successful financial aid process is there should be a truly objective third party to help determine the level of financial need. Three years ago, before I required this third party assessment, I would award need based entirely on a family’s own estimate of how much they needed. Some families, I observed, would really sacrifice, whereas others on significant aid would buy their 16-year old sons brand new cars! That convinced me we needed an objective process. At minimum, this process should involve scrutiny of income tax forms from the prior year to confirm income and analysis of current debts. Our school implemented a two-step process three years ago, requiring the family to send off forms for analysis by a third party vendor, and at the same time, to send us a separate application for financial aid. On the application sent directly to us, we ask “In your own estimate, how much aid will you need next year?” I then compare their own estimate with the estimate from the third party vendor to determine how “far apart” the two are. Surprisingly, a family’s own assessment of their need is often less than the 3rd party judges it to be.

Other Benefits:

I believe that with these two pieces in place, a healthy financial aid program can really be an asset to the school. It helps fill empty seats. It can be used as an incentive to attract highly desirable families to the school (colleges clearly understand this by offering generous “need-based” scholarships to these families). It allows the school to raise tuitions more substantially because it provides the means for its poorer families to pay. And ironically, by charging higher tuition rates, the school creates the perception of “value” in the community. Being the “lowest cost school in town” is not necessarily good for the school—-people wonder, WHY is it so cheap? I liken this to going to a doctor who charges FAR less than the other doctors in town. Does this make the patient feel better about the quality of his care?

A Concluding Comment:

Catholic educators often become uneasy about such coldly calculating measures to raise revenues. But at the same time, our programs are becoming less competitive with area private schools because we don’t have the revenue they have. Our teachers and staff are typically underpaid, not just in terms of salaries, but also often in terms of retirement and health insurance benefits. We must be shrewd stewards of our limited resources if Catholic schools are to remain a place where God’s grace continues to touch our students and families.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Father's Pride

Allow me, for just a second, to exhibit a little fatherly pride. My daughter Cynthia just finished a wonderful junior year. She played volleyball and was the junior class president. She was very active in the YMCA's "Youth in Government" program and was one of 8 students chosen in Alabama to represent the state at National Youth Judicial, held in Oklahoma City in early May. She was one of three to run for youth governor, though she didn't win. She is currently representing Alabama in the Council for National Policy and is debating bills in North Caroline with 600 other teens from all over the country.

Last week, she represented Alabama in the "National Right to Life" Oratory Contest, held in Nashville, TN.

Next year, she is the student body president at Montgomery Catholic. What I am proudest about of all, however, is that Cynthia is a person of faith and lives what she believes.

OK, I'm done bragging. Thanks for bearing with me!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Standing Tall

I once had the honor of helping Justin to his feet.

Because of his muscular dystrophy, there were times when he would stumble in our hallways and was unable to stand back up on his own. So he would lay there, embarassed, until a classmate or teacher was able to help him. "Thank you", he'd say simply, and off he'd quickly move to his next class.

Justin Braswell died on May 30, 2006, awaiting a heart transplant in an Atlanta hospital. He had just completed his junior year at Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School.

There was a quiet strength to Justin Braswell, something that all of us admired. Like every teenage boy, he desired to be self-sufficient, which made the stumbling episodes so much more difficult for him. It would have been easy for Justin to use muscular dystrophy as an excuse for why he couldn't do things, why he couldn't succeed, why he may have needed special consideration by teachers. But he never did. He was a proud young man, trained well by his parents not to seek pity or special favors. He wanted to be treated like everyone else.

Rare kids, like Justin, remind us as educators of the great dignity of our calling. It is not we who lifted Justin, but Justin who lifted us.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Who's Next?

Mrs. Alice Ortega, long time English teacher
at Montgomery Catholic High 

The history of the Catholic church in the United States is largely one of transition from the poor, immigrant church of the ghetto to a church of the suburbs. Most American Catholics need only look back a generation or two to mark the approximate point their families became "middle class." Chances are they owe it to a Sister Agnes or a Sister Mary Alice, for the institution most responsible for that transition is the Catholic school, and the people most responsible are the nuns. Their insistence on hard work, their uncompromising faith in God, their belief that all students could succeed, and their personal financial sacrifices spoke eloquently of the church's broader mission to serve the poor within the United States.

But the mission of the sisters was never primarily economic. If that were all there was to it, many could argue "mission accomplished." First and foremost, the mission was to mediate Catholic culture to students.

Given that aim, the need for Catholic schools is more acute now than ever. We live in a society that trivializes our faith by privatizing it and, worse, is openly hostile to religious claims. We are too busy to recognize that our Catholicism no longer defines us, that our values, spending habits, language, and attitudes are indistinguishable from anyone else's. It is not our faith but our social class that shapes us.

We need Catholic schools as an antidote to our religious amnesia. We need them to remind us about the beauty of God in "dappled things"--namely, our students: rich-poor, black-white-red-yellow-brown, smart and learning-disabled. We need schools to train our children in the practices of the church - its songs, its liturgy, its prayers, its customs - and to prompt them to be open to grace. We need Catholic schools because we and our children need to be called to serve others.

The nuns, of course, are largely gone. In 1873, the Sisters of Loretto founded the Catholic high school in Montgomery, Alabama, where I am now principal. One hundred twenty-four years later, in 1997, the last of these sisters left the school. She had been a chemistry teacher for thirty-five years; before that she taught first, second, and third grade in combined classes of forty-five. I presume she is trying to get some rest at the Loretto motherhouse in Kentucky, though I doubt that this remarkable woman is handling retirement gracefully.

Heroic teachers have "minded the gap" in the interim at our school. Alice Ortega is still teaching English after thirty years, making a pittance of what she'd be making in private industry for a woman of her talents. Joe Arban has been teaching History for over thirty years, serving stints as athletic director and head basketball coach along the way. Bernie Frye has been an institution at our school as our math instructor, also for more than thirty years. But their tenure is coming to a close. 

We in Montgomery, as in many other Catholic communities across the nation, find ourselves at the crossroad: Who will continue the historic mission of the sisters? The pressure is on. The cost of a Catholic education has risen dramatically in order to pay salaries for lay faculty (still, the average Catholic school teacher earns from $5,000 to $8,000 a year less than a public school teacher). High school tuitions in diocesan Catholic high schools are between $3,000 and $5,000 a year. Middle- to lower-middle-class families, particularly those with more than one child, can barely afford to send their children to Catholic schools any longer.

It is distressing the number of affluent younger Catholics - themselves living testimonials to the success of Catholic schools - who are opting out of Catholic schools and placing their children in private schools. They have the economic means to help Catholic schools the most. But for many of them, social pressures to be in the "right" circles, or the expectation that Catholic schools should have all the accouterments of a wealthy suburban or private school (state-of-the-art athletic programs, finely manicured campuses, the newest technology) pull them away.

Our decisions reveal our priorities. A woman of considerable means recently told me that her child was not in our school because we "didn't have a comparable fine arts program" to the elite private school she chose. She would have been forced, had she chosen us, to "seek out private lessons at some expense and inconvenience to her family." But was the cost of these lessons less than the tuition difference between our school and the elite private school she chose? Was she equally "inconvenienced" by taking her daughter to another place for her religious education? And did those classes do a better job than the Catholic school? Is it more important to have her daughter receive art lessons at school or to grow up within a Catholic community where the practices and values of the church are regarded as "normal" by the students?

Of course we should have good fine arts programs in our schools. I don't want families to be forced to choose between the arts and religious education! But we may not be able to offer comprehensive fine arts programs comparable to elite private schools if that means we become too expensive for middle-class Catholics. We can't become a private school with a Catholic label. Here, I believe, affluent Catholics have a special responsibility, for with their assistance, Catholic schools can provide a quality education for all children, even as we keep Catholic education affordable for others.

For those of us who work in the schools, the tradition of excellence in teaching and character formation - which is the sisters' legacy - is both daunting and encouraging. It is daunting because people have come to expect much from Catholic schools. It's encouraging because we realize the potential transforming effects Catholic schools can have on both students and families. Most of our families are proof of this fact.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Advice to Principals in Handling Difficult Situations

It’s the dog days of April, in which principals of high schools inevitably must referee squabbles between teachers and students, impose discipline because of a school event in which students were drinking alcohol, or handle fights between students. These are the times that try a principal's soul!

Still, April is also the time when principals can have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of these students and their families. Kids--even good kids-- are going to make bone-headed mistakes. Often in these cases, the principal must root through who did what to whom so that he or she can mete out school punishments justly, or provide parents with clear, accurate information. Here’s the rub: precisely HOW he or she roots out that information will be a determinative factor in how well the punishments are received by both parents and the students alike. It’s not easy.

After 15 years of being principal and making MANY mistakes along the way, I’ve learned there are a few guidelines that are helpful when ferreting out information from students. When I abide by these guidelines, families (more or less) respect my decisions and are willing to work with me.

1) Establish with students, up front, that if they tell the truth, the punishment will be lighter. I think it’s fundamentally important for kids to be truthful, and we ought to create incentives to act honestly. The flip side of this is we must be willing to punish those who lie with real severity, lest they conclude it's a better gamble to lie.

2) Second, be clear with them that you will NEVER ask them to betray confidences or give you names of those involved, unless someone is in IMMINENT danger. Most of the cases I had to become involved in were over things that had already happened, so there was no imminent danger. There was a case, however, of a suicidal kid who ran away from home and I knew that child had revealed her whereabouts to her best friend at school. I insisted with this child she betray that confidence, but also told her to tell her friend “that I made her tell”, so that it was my fault, not hers, to her peers. If we don’t ask for names, kids are generally willing to talk. A savvy principal, asking the right questions, can piece together what happened by comparing each kid's version of events.

3) In a judgment call between believing a student or not believing, err on the side of trust if the child has never lied before. A student's reputation ought to count for something, and this is a concrete way of telling kids that reputations DO matter. The worst thing we can do in these situations is accuse an innocent child. It hurts the kid and undermines us in the eyes of student body as someone not to be trusted. I tell kids that I’d rather trust them and be wrong than mistrust them and be wrong. However, I also say if I take them at their word and then catch them in a sure lie later on, that I would then no longer have a basis to believe what they told me earlier, and I will retro-actively impose discipline on the previous matter.

4) By asking “unexpected” questions, we can often tell quickly if they’re telling the truth. Two kids came late for school because "they went to breakfast together and the car broke down in the parking lot of the restaurant". I was suspicious. I put each child in a different room and asked them privately: “What did each of you have for breakfast?” That surprised them--it wasn't part of the story they rehearsed together, and it became immediately evident they were lying when the breakfasts didn't match. If you ask enough off the wall questions, sooner or later lies won’t hold up. (Then there was the opposite case of eight kids caught drinking before Prom who all came in privately and told me EXACTLY the same thing, down to the most specific detail. I was impressed by the intricacy of the story, but I also knew that they were lying—the truth is never that precise!) However, in the case where we truly don’t know (even if we suspect), it’s better to trust. As a practical matter, it’s going to be virtually impossible to have the parent support you as a principal unless you’ve uncovered more than “it’s unlikely your child is telling the truth”. Without the parent's support, you're not likely to have much impact.

5) In a similar vein, always trust the parents, unless there is evidence not to do so. Most parents, I believe, still want to do the right thing and most still tell the truth. Some do not, but we cannot allow these parents to prompt us to take a generally distrustful stance. “Parents are the primary educators”. This is as fundamental as it gets for Catholic educational philosophy, and our job is to assist these primary educators when raising their children. We cannot begin this partnership with the assumption that the parents are untrustworthy. Better to err on the side of trust!

6) Finally--and many principals will disagree with me on this--BECAUSE parents are the primary educators and because teaming with them is so important if the school's punishment is going to be effective with the kids, I meet with parents ahead of time, without the student present, and lay out what happened, and try to maneuver to common ground before I pronounce the school's punishment. That may mean, based on my read of the parents, that I temper what I had intended to do. I've decided during these meetings to make suspensions into Saturday school time, from three day suspensions to two day suspensions.

Controversial? Yep. But the principal's authority is not eroded if he or she privately decides to do something he or she had not intended. Yes, if a school matter, I can insist on a punishment that the parent may deem too "harsh", but I also know as soon as the parent leaves my office, my decision will be undercut, almost guaranteeing the child will grow less from the incident. And yes, there are times when we must insist on actions the parents simply won't support because the actions are severe and require a severe consequence. I've not had too many parents agree with me when I expel their child! But where we can reach common ground without compromising principle, I believe we should be willing to do so in order to speak as one voice to the child.

One last thing: Look carefully at school policy handbooks and how policies are crafted. I believe that parents expect us to handle their children individually and creatively, rather than bureaucratically. Do the policies of the school give principals this kind of flexibility? There is a huge difference between the phrase “students who do X will receive Y” vs. “students who do X are liable to receive Y”—one dictates to the principal what he or she must do, the other says what the principal may do, but gives the principal flexibility to do something lesser, dependent on the circumstances. We have a policy regarding drinking at school or school functions which says “Students who possess or are under the influence of alcohol at school or school functions are liable for expulsion”. This gives the principal tremendous clout, even while the principal has the flexibility to act creatively for the best interest of the child. May we do so with wisdom and patience!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Eulogy for a Friend

Note: Tim Turner, long time youth coach in Montgomery, died on April 13 at the age of 36, after fighting lung cancer for almost fifteen months. He neither smoked nor drank. Despite being in and out of the hospital in his last few months, “Coach Tim” was able to coach his son’s baseball team on April 12, dying later that night.

It has been an honor to have known Tim Turner. I say that as his friend, but also in my role as president of Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School and on behalf of the entire Catholic community of Montgomery.

I first met Tim ten years ago when he and his good friend Greg Kegley became my 9 year old son Faus’ YMCA football coach. Faus had started playing football a year earlier and he kind of liked it, but playing for Tim and Greg was a whole new experience. They were tough on the boys. They were loud! They challenged the boys to play hard and to hustle. They wouldn’t accept excuses. But it was evident to all of us parents, and to the players themselves, that these guys loved the kids. They brought excitement and joy to football. From the time my kids were very small, our family has begun each school day with a quick morning prayer. As part of that prayer, I ask each of my children to thank Jesus for something in their lives. For the entire football season that year, Faus said “Thank you Jesus I have football practice today”. I played football when I was young, but I never remember thanking God I had practice on a given day—but such was the joy of playing for Tim and Greg. Not coincidentally, they were a very good football team, beating teams by an average of 5 touchdowns that year. I am very grateful as a father that both of my older sons played for these men—Faus, in both the Y and the Seminoles, and Aaron, through the Seminoles. Tim and Greg were a special team together.

Over the years, since Aaron and (Tim’s son) Hunter were the same age, I coached both with Tim and against him as a baseball coach at East Montgomery. I always noted on my calendar when I played Tim Turner’s team. It didn’t matter how good you THOUGHT your team was on paper; somehow, Tim’s team was going to fight you, and more often than not, beat you. All the managers who've coached against Tim know what I mean: Tim did more with less than any other coach I’ve met, and he did so because of an infectious desire to win and a scrappiness which his teams ALWAYS seemed to have--no doubt a reflection of their coach.

As Hunter and Aaron began to approach middle school age, I talked to our athletic director, Tony Taylor, suggesting that he'd be a good coach for our program. I remember predicting if he hired Tim, our middle school football program, which had fallen on hard times, would be turned around within three years. Tony interviewed him, liked him, hired him, and as he got to know Tim better and better, made Tim our MS basketball coach, baseball coach, and whatever else we could give him. In Tim’s first year as our football coach, our team won (I think) one game. In year two, two games. This fall, despite the fact that Tim had been fighting cancer for nearly a year, our MS football team went 4-1-1, the best record in our middle school football program’s history.

Yes, he was that good of a coach. But if I left it there, I wouldn’t be saying enough about him. Tim Turner was an even better man.

He was one of the most genuine, honest persons I’ve ever met. He didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t. He didn’t seek to impress people or let what others thought about him change his behavior. He was simply “Tim” or “Coach Tim” if you were one of his players. I suspect more than anything else, that’s what we respected him for and why we found him to be such a compelling figure.

If you looked around the Church at his funeral today, you saw an incredible cross-section of Montgomery: black and white, educated and less educated, rich and poor, Catholic and Church of Christ. Tim’s life transcended petty divisions, petty differences. What a great testimony of a life well lived that all of us were there together, praying for and honoring this man who had such a positive effect on our family’s lives.

I have two final remarks:

First, to Tammy, Hunter, Hallie and the entire Turner family: On behalf of Catholic, thank you for your tremendous generosity in sharing your husband and father with us. Coaching takes a lot of time, yet we’ve been very proud that he has walked our sidelines these last three years. Thank you Tammy, and know that the entire Catholic community stands behind you and your children and intends to see both Hallie and Hunter graduate from Catholic if you give us that chance.

Second, to all the players at his funeral today who had the good fortune to call Tim Turner “Coach” at some point in your life: Your presence at his funeral today is a tribute to your coach and a statement of your gratitude to him. But if you REALLY want to pay him tribute, then LIVE YOUR LIFE AS HE DID: with fundamental honesty, with a competitive drive to be the best, with a fighting spirit (even down to the last day of his life), and with a “no excuses and never-say-quit” attitude. If you live your life that way, you will be your coach's legacy, and despite his death at a young age, his life will continue to be a great gift to Montgomery through you.

May Coach Tim Turner’s soul and the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace. Amen.

Post Script: I can't remember the Montgomery Advertiser having two articles about anyone's death on our sports pages who wasn't wearing a hound's tooth cap, but it ran two excellent pieces on Tim, which you can access: here and here

Friday, April 07, 2006

Notre Dame and the question of academic freedom

Note: The University of Notre Dame, my alma mater, recently decided to allow the "Vagina Monologues" to be performed at the university for the fifth straight year. In a January, 2006 address to the faculty , the new president of Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins, halted the performance until he had engaged the faculty in a two month debate before allowing the play to continue. You may find the text of his two addresses here. Below is a letter I wrote to Fr. Jenkins concerning his decision.

Dear Fr. Jenkins,

Aside from the specific issue of the Monologues, I find the position articulated in your April 5 address disappointing for the following reasons:

1) I don't believe you have articulated how "academic freedom" in a Catholic university setting may differ from other universities, given Catholicism's understanding that freedom must be essentially linked to truth, lest it be reduced to simply autonomy or license.

2) In your original address in January, you indicated by way of example that you would not permit the Oberammergau Passion play to be performed on campus because of its anti-Semitic bias, stating that the "staging of the play at Notre Dame would appear to endorse or at least acquiesce in a tolerance of an anti-Semitism whose consequences are only too clear to us."

I would agree with such a decision! However, what I find lacking in your April 5 statement is any guiding PRINCIPLE that would distinguish from this position and your decision to allow the Monologues to be performed.

You do indicate it may be sometimes appropriate to prohibit "expression that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of this University, or of any of the diverse groups that form part of our community. "

But this statement begs the question: Precisely what constitutes such forbidden cases of expression? Without a guiding principle, aren't we merely reduced to those expressions which offend the sensibilities typical of the educated elite?

3) Finally, in your original address in January, you indicated your primary concern is one of sponsorship and endorsement, rather than censorship. What happened to that concern?

If a department at Notre Dame invited a guest lecturer whose ideas were incongruous with the Catholic faith to give a single talk, one could argue credibly that this talk did not imply endorsement but was rather a voice within the "marketplace of ideas" typical of any university. Presumably this department would invite others in future years whose ideas were more aligned with the university's founding so as to foster a true "marketplace". If, however, the department invited back this same speaker to give the same lecture every year, at some point endorsement is clearly implied--all protestations to the contrary. The very fact that the Monologues is being performed for the fifth straight year at Notre Dame leads reasonable people both inside and outside of the University to conclude that Notre Dame is both a sponsor and endorser of its values.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Importance of Band for our School and Students

Our high school band at Montgomery Catholic, less than two years old, recently competed at the state music festival and received a “superior” rating. On the heels of this magnificent achievement for such a young band, it’s worth reflecting on the difference our band program has made in our school in such a short time. I write this partly because so many schools in our state of Alabama are increasingly compelled to give short shrift to their music programs, focusing instead on improving test performances for graduation exams. What a tragedy for state and our students if we allow this trend to continue!

This is my 21st year at Montgomery Catholic as either a teacher, principal or president. For the first 19 of those years, we didn’t have a band, mostly because we didn’t have a place on the campus where a band could practice without disturbing other classes—simply putting them in a room in the hallways wouldn’t work for the band or their nearest neighbors! But when we opened a new middle school on our campus in 2004, we made a large room for our band and immediately hired a band director.

It’s been a wonderful two years for our school since. Here’s what I think our band program has done for our school and why band programs should be considered as co-curricular to other subjects, and not extra-curricular burdens:

Music, if taught correctly, is a discipline, requiring students to be precise, to listen carefully, to be attentive to nuance, to put aside one’s own interests to those of the team and to work hard. Even from a narrow, utilitarian view of education (education understood merely as a means to a job), these are essential skills for successful employment and for success in other subject areas such as math and science. Partly because of the training in these skills that band provides, our band members tend to be among the most academically successful students in our school.

Broadening the issue, music elevates the soul and fosters an appreciation of beauty. In a world that could charitably be described as fixated on the functional and the banal, to create an appreciation of the good in our students is surely among our goals as educators! I remember the peculiar but telling words of my son, who after beating on pots and pans for two years as a budding percussionist, received a Tama drum set on his tenth birthday. “I’m free!” he said joyously. Since we began our band program, I have witnessed first hand its liberating effect on even the most sullen of our students, who smile more, laugh more and who are frankly happier. In addition, the joy and spirit that music can convey to the broader school community is palpably felt at football games, pep rallies, and even during the ordinary school day, as lively, jubilant music reverberates around campus.

Finally, our experience indicates that a band program brings a whole new set of parents and students “under the tent” of our school—those actively engaged in its life. In our school as in many others, our athletic booster parents were typically the most involved volunteers. As educators, we have a tendency to bemoan this fact—“where are the other parents?” we may ask. But parents of athletes are usually the most passionately involved because our schools are providing the most opportunity for their children, and as parents, they are committed to these programs' continued success. I applaud those parents! As educators, we should be looking to make the tent bigger, rather than complaining about those outside the tent. Band programs provide a similar motivation for our families to truly enter into the life of the school. Though their kids have been in the school for many years, I am getting to know these parents for the first time because they are likelier to volunteer, attend sporting events, and work on parent committees than they were when we didn’t have the band program. Every study on successful schools indicates that strong parental involvement is the hallmark of those schools. We are "penny wise but a pound foolish" when we regard music and band programs as luxuries that we cannot afford for our students.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The future of Catholic education

We’re dying a slow death because we are stuck in the wrong paradigm.

“A school in every parish” was the guiding principle of Catholic education since the Baltimore Councils of the late 1800’s, so much so that when new parishes were built, the school was often built first and the parishioners worshipped in the school’s gym until the parish could afford to build the Church. This, coupled with the heroic service of the nuns, helped parochial schools thrive over the last century.

Yet parochial education is not sustainable, except in the most affluent parishes. There is no need to labor this argument; despite the good intentions and hard work of all those concerned, we’ve closed hundreds of Catholic schools over the last ten years. For those of us who work in Catholic schools, our instinctive response to this grim news is to work even harder: If we’re more thoroughly Catholic, we tell ourselves, maybe we can attract back some of the home school families who left. If we improve our academic program (AP classes, band, improved fine arts) we might be able to stop families leaving us for the local private schools. If we upgrade our facilities, spend more money on advertising or improve our athletic program, perhaps we could persuade new families to join us.

I applaud these efforts, but the fact is, upgraded academic programs, more advertising and new facilities require the one thing neither our schools nor parishes have: more money. If we truly want to truly stem the tide of school closings, we must look squarely at the reasons for our demise, all of which argue for a new paradigm:

1) Our faculties have changed from nuns to lay teachers, which has increased our expenses considerably. When we paid the nuns almost nothing, we were the cheapest game in town, but now we must compete head to head for teachers and students, often against schools wealthier than ours.

2) Because of demographic changes over the last thirty years, many of our schools are now in the “wrong place” to sustain the allegiance of middle class Catholics.

3) Competition has increased dramatically. We’ve got magnet schools, charter schools, large private schools, small Christian academies, and everything in between. In Montgomery, AL where I live, a city of just over 200,000, we have over 30 private schools!

4) Our cultural values have changed. Social class now defines us more than our faith. The once important goal of Catholic parents to raise their children in the faith as THE reason to send kids to our schools simply doesn’t rank as highly with many of our families. Often what families want from a “faith-based” schools amounts to simply good manners. Manners can be taught just as well, perhaps even better, at elite privates or evangelical Christian schools, which typically don't minister to as diverse a student body.

5) Finally, the traditional configuration of our schools into K-8 elementary schools (usually located on parish grounds) and 9-12 high schools (somewhere else) isn’t a competitive model versus the K-12 private school. K-8 schools are rarely able to offer its students a true middle school program, with a separate schedule, structure and administration that targets the needs of young adolescents. As a result, older students in K-8 schools usually feel “babied”. Furthermore, without sharing space with the high school, we usually can’t give these students access to first-rate athletic facilities, music programs, libraries, or well equipped science labs.

So, however happy our first and second grade parents are with us early on, dissatisfaction grows as their children get older and our K-8 schools seem to offer less and less in comparison to the K-12 privates. If they leave in elementary school (we were losing many families around grade five), they’re not likely coming back. And if they DO stay through 8th grade, since the Catholic high school is perceived as a “new school decision”, the high school cannot reliably assume that the 8th graders are coming their way. As much as 25-50% of graduating 8th grade students from K-8 elementaries may attend high school in a different system.

So these are the causes of our problems. If parochial education cannot adequately address them, what do I propose as a more viable paradigm?

In my judgment, we must regionalize our schools.

I don't mean regionalization as a euphemism for “shutting down several schools and re-routing those students to a central, healthier school”. That's inevitably what happens when we don't plan together. Rather, I mean that we create structures which begin to evolve our schools toward a common purpose and identity and which may eventually allow our schools to pool resources. Generally speaking, the schools becoming regionalized remain viable, though under a common leadership structure.

To explain further, let me explain what my school, Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School in Montgomery, AL , has done over the last ten years in an effort to regionalize.

Montgomery Al is only 5% Catholic; the majority is evangelical Christian. In the early 1990’s, there were four K-8 Catholic elementary schools and two small high schools, all operating independently. Though none of us were in dire straits, neither were we filled to capacity, and the increasing number of public magnet schools and new Christian schools around town portended poorly.

Recognizing the difficulty of maintaining competitive programs as independent institutions, our previous high school president, Dr. Tom Doyle, invited the pastors, principals and Board leadership of each school to a meeting to discuss a simple idea: Would they be interested in the formation of a single Board to set policies of mutual benefit for our schools? Each school would still maintain their local boards, maintain their own financial office and set their own internal policies. This joint Board would only have jurisdiction on matters external to any one school. After discussing the idea with their local communities over the next two months, Queen of Mercy elementary, St. Bede elementary and Catholic High joined together and formed the “Unified Board”. The other three schools decided not to join.

The first task of the Unified Board was to study the strengths and weaknesses of our current three schools and decide where we needed to target our efforts. Overwhelmingly, parents identified the weak link of our existing program as the seventh and eighth grades. After a year of discussion, the Board set the goal of creating a middle school program by restructuring our K-8 elementary schools into K-6 schools, building a new middle school on the high school campus, and opening this middle school with the 7th and 8th graders from the elementary campuses. The intent was to share facilities with the high school, even while creating a unique program for the middle schoolers. In 1996, the Unified Board approved a multi-phased capital development plan to make this happen, and after adding a new library and science labs in 1998 (phase I), improving athletic facilities and increasing parking in 2002 (phase II), we were able to open a new middle school in the fall of 2004 (Phase III, dedicated to Dr. Doyle, see plaque above).

Much earlier than this opening, however, our three schools, now under the Unified Board, were allowed by the Alabama High School Athletic Association to combine the 7th and 8th graders from the two elementary schools with the high school athletic program. We created middle school football, volleyball, basketball and cheerleading teams--all part of the “Catholic Knights” sports program, with all teams playing their games inside the high school football stadium and gym. Elementary children were given free passes to Catholic High sporting events, as long as they attended with their (paying!) parents. It would be impossible to overstate how important the combined athletic program was in getting each of our once separated communities to begin to see themselves as "one school". The middle school students wore “Catholic” sports wear, middle school cheerleaders led pep rallies in the elementary schools, the parents placed “Catholic Knights” stickers on their cars, elementary parents attended high school Booster Club meetings, and attendance at even the varsity games increased. The "they" slowly became the "we".

These moves toward regionalization were so evidently successful in terms of enrollment and parental satisfaction that the idea of regionalization gained momentum, such that the scope and authority of the Unified Board increased from its original charter, with each step in its development agreed upon by the local school boards and ratified by our bishop and local pastors:
In 2002, the Unified Board voted to make our three independent schools into one K-12 school, renaming us “Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School” with “campuses” at the high school and elementary schools. Though I was previously only the president of the high school, the Board named me president of the K-12 school. Shortly thereafter, I was able to hire a development director to serve our school. In what will complete the regionalization, next year the Unified Board will become the only policy making institution for our school, and the local campus boards will become “advisory committees” for the campus principals. Next year will also be the first year we run all campuses from a single business office, and that will allow us to do something else our parents appreciate: give them multi-child discounts, regardless of which campus of Montgomery Catholic their children attend.

The results of these moves have been very encouraging. Each of the original schools which formed together in the mid-1990’s is doing well. Overall K-12 enrollment has increased by 14% in the last two years. The new middle school is so highly regarded, it's adding an average of 30-35 new students per class from outside our system. This, in turn, is driving up enrollments at the high school, which now collects nearly 100% of the 8th graders, since 9th grade is no longer perceived as a "new school decision". High school enrollments have gone from 255 in 2004 to a projected 310 for 2006. The K-6 elementary schools are able to focus their energies on a smaller range of students, and parental satisfaction there is improving, as indicated by the need to add a 3rd kindergarten this fall. Pooling resources between the campus schools has allowed us to professionalize our advertising, add athletic teams, create a band program and improve our outreach to parishes. We’ve been able to launch an aggressive financial aid program that has allowed us to raise tuitions, even while continuing to provide for the families least able to afford these increases.

We can do these things because we're now a school of 800, rather than separate schools of 250 or less. Most K-8 schools on their own cannot afford presidents to do long range planning, or development directors to do advertising, band directors to run music programs, or athletic directors to direct teams. Most K-8 schools cannot offer their families first rate science labs, or football and baseball stadiums, or up to date computer labs. But as a larger K-12 institution, we can offer those things to our families without tuition costs soaring.

In summary, regionalization is the key to our future in Catholic schools. Our experience suggests that three keys toward regionalization are: 1) The creation of a common board 2) The establishment of a 7-12 athletic program, and 3) The movement away from a K-8, 9-12 model, to an elementary, middle school and high school model. The common middle school, combining together the 7th and 8th grades from area parochial elementaries (or 6th-8), provides the "bridge" that weds the families and institutions together. Once those three things are established, it may then be possible to evolve local boards toward a single, common board and a single financial office.

In any case, it's worked for us. I believe clinging to the parochial model guarantees we will continue to close Catholic schools in a kind of Darwinian evolution , with only our wealthiest parish schools surviving.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Science or Faith doesn’t have to be “Either-Or”

I should say at the outset:

• I believe in an “intelligent designer”, that the Genesis accounts of creation are true, and that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

• I also believe, with the majority of scientists, that our earth is 4.5 billion years old and that human life has evolved to its present state.

Perhaps the reason there is an “intelligent design” controversy is that most people think those two statements are incompatible. To accept what science says is to reject Scripture. To believe in Genesis is to reject what modern science tells us about the creation of the world via a “big bang” or that life evolves slowly over billions of years. But this "either-or" need not be, nor should scientists be vilified as amoral atheists and believing Christians as childish simpletons.

The critical piece to the reconciliation of these views is how one understands the Scriptural accounts of creation.

Both the seven day account of creation and the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace tell us profound truths about God, his creation and his plan for humanity—all of which can be best understood in contrast to the prevailing views of ancient cultures at the time of their writing. Contrary to the polytheism typical of primitive religions, Genesis makes clear that one God creates all things, including those things ancients were likely to call “gods”, such as the sun, the moon and the stars. Against the view of ancient cultures that viewed matter as “evil”, Genesis is unequivocal that God’s creation is “good”. Contrary to the belief that humanity was an insignificant, unplanned afterthought of the gods (as is typical in ancient mythology), Genesis insists that humanity was God’s crowning achievement, the culminating event of an orderly, planned creation. God created us to live in peace and happiness (Eden), yet he exalted us so highly, he gave us free will to choose against him, and when we did so, we introduced what God had not intended: sin, shame and suffering.

These are not trite, “lowest common denominator” truths, but absolutely foundational to Christian doctrine and morality. Without a careful, designed plan for all of creation, it makes little sense for us to believe there is a plan or destiny for us as individuals, which leads us logically to nihilism, reducing the purpose of our existence to maximizing pleasure. If all created things were evil, then our bodies are not temples of the Holy Spirit, but rather cages that trap our spirit and limit our freedom, such that self-mutilation and annihilation sensibly follow. If creation were not intrinsically good, then stewardship of God’s creation and respect for living things is foolish. Confronted with the inevitability of tragedy and the “problem of evil” in our lives (how a good and all powerful God could allow suffering and evil), we are reminded from Scripture this was not God’s original purpose.

And so in a serious way, I believe that the book of Genesis is true and divinely inspired. At the same time, understood as such, we are free to allow science to inform us with its insights. Ultimately, the truths of science and the truths of our faith cannot contradict. As a Christian believer, I know that all of creation is God’s handiwork. Just as I can learn more about an artist by studying his paintings or a musician by his music, so too can the pursuit of scientific truth help us appreciate the intricacy, beauty and ultimately the wonder of creation--leading us, I believe, to reverence for the Creator.