Saturday, December 22, 2007

Alliance for Catholic Education and MCPS

For over ten years now, we have been tremendously blessed at Montgomery Catholic to be associated with Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education--a program that places young teachers in our schools.

ACE teachers are recent college graduates from some of the premiere universities across the country, who agree to make two year commitments to teach in Catholic schools while earning a Master's Degree in teaching along the way. You can learn more about the ACE program here.

Our current ACE teachers, both of whom complete their 2nd year with us in May, are Mariangela Sullivan, who teaches Theology and English in the high school, and Daniel Bowen, who teaches Social Studies in the middle school. Mariangela is a graduate of Yale, whereas Daniel graduated from Notre Dame. Both teachers have brought a spectacular amount of creativity and enthusiasm to their classrooms and are loved by the students.

For two excellent overviews of the ACE program, watch these videos here:

Thank you, Mariangela and Daniel, for your commitment to us. Thank you, ACE, for your service to our Catholic schools around the country.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Continuity and Change within our Church

One of the natural tensions of leading a contemporary Church with a historical "deposit of faith" is finding new ways to have that faith speak persuasively and powerfully to modern people. Often this means sorting through our doctrines to determine the essence or idea of what is being expressed and then finding new language to express this essence, always remaining faithful to the original doctrine. Inevitably, these reformulations are met with resistance and fear that we're compromising our faith or watering it down, when in fact we strengthen it by making it speak more directly to modern people.

What is continuous and what is changeable? This is the central question of theology for all eras of our Church. Nineteenth century theologian and scholar John Henry Newman (now "venerable", with the cause for his canonization still on-going) wrote a wonderful essay entitled "The Development of Doctrine", in which he compared the history of doctrine in our Church to the life of a stream:

"It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or sect, which, on the contrary, is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and, for a time, savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom, more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities or its scope. At first, no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent: it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time, it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out is one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter its bearing; parties rise and fall against it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations and old principles appear in new forms; it changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."

(John Henry Newman, “Essay on the Development of Doctrine”, Notre Dame Press, 1989, p.40)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Waiting and waiting and...

It took Rome over two years to replace the bishop of Birmingham just to the north of us. Our own bishop, Oscar H. Lipscomb, put in his papers in September of 2006. It is now December of 2007, with no indication from Rome who our successor will be or when he will be arriving. In both cases, the bishops put in their resignation papers at the age of 75 as required by canon law. Their resignations were not a sudden surprise that caught Rome unaware!

If we truly believe in the central importance of bishops as successors to Christ, there is really no excuse for these delays. In both of the local cases above, the bishops remained in place, but like all out-going leaders, their tendency is/was to put off making major decisions until the next bishop is in place. "I don't want to tie the hands of my successor" is the oft-repeated phrase, and at age of 75+, having faithfully served the Church for 50 years, who can blame them? One can only imagine the weariness with which these bishops approach/approached confirmation season! Meanwhile, parishes and schools may need closing, high schools may need building, priests may need pastoral care, archdiocesan offices may need restructuring, and pastors and executive employees of the Church may need vision to lead their institutions. But everyone waits.

I suspect one cause of this unreasonably slow process is a reluctance to embrace new technologies to expedite selections. I see no reason the Vatican could not keep an updated "Top 50" list of potential bishops, with resumes that include a history of service to the Church, achievements, strengths, a recommendation from their current bishop and special talents. Each of the 50 would be "pre-cleared", making it unnecessary to go through a stringent investigation for each new placement. Secured email exchanges would clear up questions and assist the Vatican in updating this list frequently, as well as uncovering new men to place on the list. Then, when an episcopacy becomes "open", it is really only a matter of matching the needs of the diocese with the talents of those on the list. The process should take no more than 3months, if that.

The problem is many of those in leadership positions in our Church were born in a different era and are uncomfortable with technology and unaware of how it could enhance their administrative efficiency . Look carefully at how most chanceries and tribunals do business and you will see little has changed from 30 years ago, excepting the use of word-processors for type-writers. Almost all official correspondence is still through the U.S. mail. Rarely will you find a chancery that knows email addresses for each of its priests or uses these for routine sharing of information. Rarely will you find dioceses with truly active, helpful web pages (with some notable exceptions). The same is true at the Vatican. Church officials may defend these practices, citing concerns about privacy or about proper ecclesiastical authentication, even though banks and vendors have been authenticating and conducting business for ten years now over the internet.

By not becoming fluent in the arena of technology, the Church misses out on using a tool that can aid it in its evangelization. My daughter, vice-president of her freshman class at Notre Dame, sent a "Facebook" message to her classmates that they would be hosting a night time rosary and hot chocolate at the Grotto on campus, and over 300 members of her class came to out to pray! Technology is the "vernacular" of modernity, and we can advance our gospel mission by learning its language.

We can also use it to improve the efficiency of our Church in doing routine busines, like selecting bishops. Its December, 2007, and we're still waiting...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Loaves and Fishes: A Financial Workshop for Catholic School Principals

Editor's Note: This is an outline of a financial workshop given to principals in the Archdiocese of Mobile on November 8, 2007.

Jesus, faced with the needs of many and very few resources, multiplied the loaves and the fishes to satisfy the hunger of the crowd. As Catholic school principals, we are often called to do more with less, and although we can't work miracles, with good financial processes and strategic planning, God will bless our ministry as financial stewards.

A. Good Financial Processes:

1. Two Important SACS requirements:

SACS, Standard 6.15 "Controls all funds raised in the name of the school" and 2.10 "(Leadership) controls all activities, including extra-curricular, that are sponsored by the school"

a) All monies raised in the school's name should run through school's books and require your signature for allocation. PTO, Booster, Band, etc. unless it's a stand alone 501(c)3 charity, recognized as such by the IRS. There should be no separate checking accounts with someone's signature other than your own.

Point of this is not to horde power for yourself. I tell the PTO and Boosters I will never spend their money unless I have a written purchase authorization to do so. But this protects them, first and foremost, because it adds a system of checks and balances that keeps them from being accused, for example, from pilfering funds. It provides them with a professional report each month, because as an account of the school, we can send them balance sheets each month. And, I tell them, we have no choice....its an accreditation requirement. No matter how much you trust the people in these groups now, it is also possible that in the future, a less reliable person will in charge, so the precedent you set now is important as well.

b) The other piece to that standard is that no monies may be spent internally without your prior consent. This may be tougher to get a handle on than convincing PTO's the money must run through school books! No commitment or promises of the school's money may be made, no charges applied, without prior consent of the principal. "Signing the checks" at the end of the process is not enough to meet the SACS standard, and it isn't very good financial management either. This is where the very simple idea of "purchase requisitions" come in to play. These need not be sophisticated instruments. So a teacher, staff, etc. requests purchases, you approve it, they may then purchase it. If they don't know the exact amount, we ask them to give us an educated guess before we approve.

2. So on what basis do we approve or not approve spending?

Three criteria:

a) Is it necessary, as opposed to nice? I will not approve those things I consider a luxury. Our parents work too hard to pay our tuitions and our faculty are under-paid--neither of those argues for free spending of school resources! Explanation of why on p.reqs is important!
b) If expensive ($100+), have they priced the item from 3 vendors?
c) Is there money available? Depends on the accounts.

3. Monthly management of school funds:

a) Administrator's report--note coding--every school fund in the operational budget. Each is a "category" in bold. I only fret about school budgets once/month. I recommend this to you! So when a science teacher hands me a purchase req and says he wants to spend X for new microscopes, I look and see how much $ is left in that account.

b) Board report--summary of categories. Board doesn't need every line item--it both overwhelms, and encourages micro-management. Boards are the big picture over-seer. They may ask questions about a category, and since I have the admin report, I can refer to the sub-category that may be driving a summary category over budget.....

4. "Designated Funds"--

Think of these as savings accounts that are "controlled" by other groups (SGA, PTO, Boosters', etc) or a gift that was given to the school not designed for the operational budget. Money is "designated". This money still resides in the school's savings accounts, but through your school's accounting program, is kept separated from the schools' income/expense of the operational budget.

Examples: Endowment fund, Annual fund drive, Overall SGA account, Senior class account, Athletic savings account, etc.

Restricted and non-restricted. Restricted funds--monies cannot be spent until a target or goal is reached (endowment fund) or unless the money is spent for a very specific purpose (scholarship fund). Non-restricted--more freedom to spend monies, but important that these are spent for things, if possible, for tangible things that are highly public and appreciated by the public.

It's very important that the money volunteers are raising is not going into the "black hole" of the operational budget, but will reside in a savings account as the money comes in until they decide.

5. Preparing Budgets, working with Boards

Several key principles:

1) Important to give Board 5 year histories. You keep these! Because you are intimately involved in the financial process, your understanding of where the school is financially is likely much more intimate than a Board's. Board members need a conext. Someone may say: "Teachers need a big raise, because the public schools just got an 8% raise". That may be true...but what if, over the last 4 years, the school has been increasing salaries by 3% each year?" I believe it's YOUR responsibility to keep these 5 year histories, and I believe as the budget process begins, it's important that you discuss these figures with the Board.

2) Important to know the competition's prices. Your tuition setting may make sense to your internal budget, but it ought to make sense relative to your competition.

--Interesting note: It's not necessarily a good thing to be lowest cost school in town! (Do we feel better or worse knowing our doctor is the cheapest in town?)

--We should also pay close attention to our second/third child discounts. Most of you are principals of K-8, or even K4-8 schools. That's a 9 or 10 year range, which means you likely have a LOT of discounting going on. (When Catholic High, a 9-12 school, became MCPS, a K-12 school, the first thing the Board and I had to do is reduce our discounts for 2nd/3rd children. We couldn't afford it, given the 13 year range. We used to give 1500 off for the 2nd child and 50% off for the third. Too generous. What we do now is simply give 1K off for each additional child. So if 2 children, twice tuition minus 1,000, if 3 children, 3 times tuition minus 2000, etc. We should support our large families as much as possible, but often we give too steep a discount.

--Pay close attention to fees: go light on application fees (you want them to apply, ours is $25), but require some sort of substantial reservation fee in early Spring (ours is due on February 15, $200/child). Fees are a way of raising revenue, without immediately "hurting you" in the public comparisons of tuitions, but we should not nickel and dime parents. We used to have separate capital assessment fee, endowment, activity, PTO, registration and it drove our parents crazy. We've folded all but our registration fee into our tuitions, and are parents are much happier. BTW, so is our finance office, because they don't have to track all those fees and chase parents who are delinquent with them.

6) How we estimate for tuition revenue for next year

Cannot spend too much time on this
How we budget for other line items (use actual #'s from June 30 close-out, not budget #'s from this year. Work off actuals as much as possible)
The biggest variable in expense is how much of a raise we give faculty and staff. I run a couple of scenarios for Board to discuss. If a 3% raise, that will mean X% raise in tuition, if 4%, then Y, etc.
Important that we are VERY conservative. I tend to estimate conservatively when I am projecting numbers I cannot control. I cannot control enrollment, so I am not going to estimate huge growth in enrollment that makes the numbers work! It's better to under-promise and over-deliver! Everyone will be MUCH happier a year out if coming in the black relative to the budget than the red.

II.. Other financial ideas (random)

a. Collecting tuitions. Consider bank drafts. Used to hold report cards. There were 60-70 report cards held for delinquencies. Parents were angry, children embarrassed, etc. Now we have ZERO delinquencies. Office staff more efficient, not chasing down checks.

b. Families want to leave the school with outstanding balances. They can't pay balance now. Don't use promissory notes. People don't keep them, and unless you take families to court, which is a huge head-ache and the diocese will not likely support. Instead, make them write a post-dated check. If the check bounces when you try and cash it, you can report them to attorney general's "bad check division". I was 0 for everything with promissory notes, but batting 1000 with bad checks--we are 5/5. When the check bounces, I write them a certified letter saying they have one week to make good or else I report the bad check to attorney general's office. 4/5 times the money came in within that week. The other time, we did report, and the money came in thereafter.

c. Salary ideas: I am guessing we'd all like to pay faculty more than we can. Here are some ideas to consider, that don't cost us an arm and a leg:

--signing bonuses (to attract hard to find positions). It's only a one time fee and doesn't become a permanent part of salary structure. Also, young faculty in particular often need the money NOW, making your lower salary + signing bonus more attractive than someone else's yearly salary offer. The other advantage is you can have that person sign a memo of understanding when receiving the bonus that he/she must forfeit the entire amount if she breaks contract over course of year.
--pay additional supplements up front (cheer-leading sponsor, for example)--same idea--forfeit if break contract or if they quit their task
--cooperative relationships for housing with parishes--low cost housing for abandoned convent property. Ideal for young person.
--merit bonuses. Channels limited financial resources to the highest performing teachers/staff, even while rest of folks get cost of living increases.
--contact local vendors--like YMCA. Would they be willing to work out a deal where they allow your school to get an institutional membership at a lower than market cost, so our employees can use fitness center? Big benefit to them, relative low cost to school, healthier employees!

d. Cafeteria--consider catering. Hard these days to break even, not the mention the labor head-aches. Vending machines! Drink machines! Big money maker. You can equip machines with diocesan approved drinks--water, juice, diet drinks only! It's a huge loss of revenue not to have these machines. We made about 18K in PROFIT last year on drink machines alone.

e. Books---consider having parents purchase on line. Less manpower head-aches, no inventory losses. Renting books great deal for parents but the cost is absorbed by the school.

f. Financial aid--giving out MORE financial aid, if aid is partial and if there are empty seats, is revenue, not expense. This is why airlines discount tickets. Look to standardize the process to avoid giving out too much. (EXAMPLE)

g. Look at issues of scheduling--this affects bottom line, often in hidden ways. Two examples:

Part-time teachers are cheaper than full-time because they're not eligible for benefits. Also, may be able to attract high quality faculty in a part-time capacity. But sometimes, our schedule makes part-time work unlikely. Take my alma mater, McGill. Ever since the days I attended there in the 1970's, they had a rotating schedule, whereby students went to 6 classes/day, but had 7 classes each semester, such that every day students didn't take one of their classes. SO on Monday, they may take classes 1-6, but not 7, on Tuesday 2-7, but not 1, on Wednesday 3 through 1, but not 2. Full time teachers loved this, because they never had the same class at the same time slot, but it was impossible for Bill Lee, the principal at that time, to hire someone like my father, a retired PhD in Physics who was willing to teach the AP Physics course if he could do so at a fixed time each day. Bill locked in first period and rotated the rest of the classes, which then allowed him to hire my dad, pay him no benefits (he didn't need benefits since he was drawing retirement).

At MCPS, we had a semester schedule with 6 periods/day. Teachers were teaching 5 periods, with one free period, for a total of 10 half credits/year. in 1998, we moved to a trimester schedule, where students take 5 periods/day, year is divided into 3 equal parts, first trimester ends around Veteran's Day, second ends around Feb 20, and third at usual time. Teacher teach 4 of those 5 periods, with the standard free period. Multiplied times 3 trimesters, that means our teachers now teach a total of 12 half-credits. We got 2 free half-credits per full time teacher at no extra cost to the school. It really helped us ramp up our elective offerings.

h. Raise prices, everywhere. We beat ourselves up for fund-raisers that raise a couple of $100 here and there, even while we have prices in things like concession stands that are far below market value....our parents, once leaving our campus, will pull into McDonald's or Burger King, and will gladly, willingly pay.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Teen Drinking and Parenting: A Crisis in our Confidence

I think we parents are having a national crisis of confidence.

According to the Center for Disease Control, over 75% of our nation's adolescents have consumed alcohol by the time they graduate from high school. 36% of all teenagers have had 5 or more drinks on one occasion within the last month. Prior to high school, 40% have had alcohol by the time they finish 8th grade, and 20% of 8th graders have been drunk at least once.

Overwhelmed by these statistics and by the prevalence of alcohol in our society, we are losing confidence in our ability as parents to stem the tide. This becomes evident :

1) When parents host so called "safe-drinking" parties, in which they allow teens to drink in their homes or on their property, but take up car keys, insisting there is no driving afterwards.

2) When parents look the other way.

In both cases, parents are giving in and giving up. We can do better!

I parallel the "safe-drinking" argument to the "safe sex" argument. When I talk about this with seniors in my class, I ask them for their reaction to the following true stories:

In New York City, government officials have been supplying heroin users with clean needles in order to curtail the spread of A.I.D.S.

The A.P. reported a few years ago that in small city in Wisconsin, students from a local high school were shot outside a seedy hotel after Prom--a hotel popular among students of that school. The following year, a mother of an 18 year old girl, so worried that her daughter would go to this unsafe hotel with her boyfriend, told her that she and her husband would vacate their home for the evening.

A Los Angeles city Councilman, perhaps tongue in cheek (but perhaps not), suggested in the wake of yet another occasion of an innocent by-stander being shot by accident in a gang battle, that it would be prudent for the city to offer gun-handling lessons to gang members. His reasoning? Gang members are going to use guns anyway. Let's teach them to use them more safely, he said, to protect innocent lives.

Seniors are appalled by all three examples. Yet the logic behind each is exactly the same as it is for "safe-sex" and for "safe-drinking": "Yes, we think heroin use, pre-marital sex and gang activity are wrong, but since in the 'real world' people are going to do these things anyway, we need to help them do it without risking more serious harm." "Yes, we think teenage drinking is wrong, but they're going to do it regardless, so we need to keep them from drinking and driving".

When we allow teenagers to drink in our homes and on our property, we give our blessing to their drinking, and thus encourage it, irregardless of our intentions. In so doing, we both break the law and violate a common trust among us in our joint task of raising children.

Alabama law is very clear: An adult having control of any residence commits a Class B misdemeanor by allowing an “open house party” to continue; knowing that persons under 21 illegally possess or consume alcoholic beverages at it; and not taking reasonable action to prevent the consumption or possession. If you find out families are hosting a party at their home where alcohol is present, my suggestion is to call the police.

Similarly, in our MCPS policy handbook, we say the following:

"As an adult community we share responsibility for each other's children and so should communicate issues of concern about other's children with their parents. We should be receptive and appreciative if we receive such calls! However, we are sovereign over our own children alone and therefore cannot substitute our judgment for other parents (as would be the case, for example, if a parent decided to host a party which involved drinking, even if that parent went through the precaution of "taking away the keys"). Parents who knowingly allow another family's child to participate in illegal or immoral activities while under their jurisdiction violate a trust among our families and may be asked to withdraw their children from our school (page 24, MCPS Family Directory and Policy Handbook, 2007-08)."

We must stand firm! Are our kids perfect? No. Will they defy us? Occasionally. But when they don't do as we've told them, they sin against us and violate the 4th commandment. In a Catholic and Christian community, we should use this language! When our children sin, our tradition speaks of doing penance as atonement for sin, and yes, it also speaks of forgiveness. But we do our kids harm by telling them it's NOT a sin, or by telling them it's OK to sin as long as they do it safely! We need to speak clearly and consistently to our children about right and wrong.

Nor can we look the other way. I think we often do this because we get worn down. We don't ask our kids to give a full accounting of where they're going as they leave the house on Friday nights because it will irritate our children and disturb the "domestic tranquility". We don't enforce our own curfews. We don't ask for a full accounting of where they've been when they return home. We don't make them speak to us when they return home because it's god-awful late. We don't do the "kiss and smell test" when our kids come home, robbing our kids an excuse to save face with peers by saying "I can't drink; my mom is crazy, she will demand to smell my breath when I get home". We parents don't check with each other about events being hosted in our homes because we're worried that the other parent will be offended. Instead we allow teens to play the shell game: child A tells his parents he's going to child B's house, child B tells his parents he is going to child A's house, and both child A and B, unbeknownst to parents A or B, go to child C's house, where there is an unchaperoned drinking party. We don't want our kids to be unpopular or lonely, so we too often allow them to do things when our parental radar is beeping at us, telling us it's not a good idea, even if it means our child has to spend Friday night at home with us, miserably unhappy to have such horrible, uncool parents, "unlike everybody else's parents".

We can make a difference if we decide to do so, together, in two very practical ways.

First, our kids need alternatives. Soon MCPS will host our homecoming dance, from 8 until midnight. In the absence of any alternatives, kids will go out drinking afterwards. But if we have parents from each class willing to host alcohol free parties, many of our kids (though not all) will happily choose these activities. I encourage you to plan with each other. Perhaps families can join together to host a breakfast. Perhaps a family or two can rent 3 or 4 lanes at the bowling alley for the evening, and invite students after the dance to hang out there. Maybe there are families who have basements in their homes with billiards and ping-pong tables and they could invite their child's friends over, making it clear there will be no tolerance for alcohol. If we join together and give our kids alternatives, we can make a HUGE dent in the drinking.

Second, about 7 years ago, we started an idea at Montgomery Catholic which met with enthusiasm at first but then fizzled out, I think partly because we changed principals (2 principals ago) and children of the women behind it graduated. However, our PTO would like to re-institute this idea and carry it forward. It's a simple idea, really.

One of our biggest problems as parents in standing together against teenage drinking is our reluctance to communicate with each other. We feel hand-cuffed to call other parents, because we're worried about appearing to be busy bodies or worried that they will think we're trying to tell them how to be good parents.

We're inviting parents to sign a pledge card to each other. It says, very simply, three things:

1) I will not allow teen drinking to take place on my home or property, and will do my best to monitor things carefully whenever other teens are in my home;

2) I commit to calling other parents who have taken this pledge about information I have received concerning the health and safety of their child.

3) I welcome phone calls from other parents about the health and safety of my children or about events I am hosting.

Three simple statements. The PTO will publish a running list of families who have taken this pledge, invite those who were not here tonight to also take this pledge, and then post this list in the Knight-line and on the Web site. If your kid is going to a certain family's home, you as a parent can check to make sure that parent has pledged to keep his or her home alcohol free, and you can feel comfortable in calling for the details, because this parent has invited you to do so. In other words, the pledge gives us permission to talk with each other. Standing together, we can make a difference.

Of course, there are things we can do with our own children as their parents, beyond this community effort. I will share with you a personal example.

We learned that one of our older children was drinking while spending the night at a friend's house. Exasperated, I talked to a mother who had raised five older children well, someone I really respected, and asked how her how she and her husband dealt with this problem. Her answer was surprisingly blunt: They didn't allow their teens to spend the night out. "Not even with parents you trusted?" I asked. "No", she said, "because we didn't want to get into the position of publicly rating one parent as better than the other. So we told our kids don't bother asking." She also said that years later, for a birthday present, her 5 children gave her a plaque, pronouncing her as "the world's meanest mother". The bottom of the plaque said "Thank you, Mom". She says it's the best birthday present she's ever received and that plaque still hangs prominently in her home.

So we've taken her advice with my younger children: we don't allow our kids to spend the night. Yes, we are now contenders as the world's meanest, most unreasonable parents. But that's OK. Our job, as parents, is to take the long view. Maybe one day--no time soon--our kids will thank us, too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Running a High School

“Why can’t the high school be more like the middle school”?

This question, often wistfully posed by parents whose children are now in the high school, implies two things: First, it speaks of the high esteem with which our middle school principals, teachers and program are held. Second, it suggests the high school just isn’t measuring up.

The problem, however, is that it would be a dreadful mistake for the high school to emulate the middle school! In best describing why, I believe it's helpful to consider how our parenting changes as our kids move from the pre-teen years to the older teen years. Consider:

When our children are young, we:

--Insist on particular study times, how much study is done and where it’s done
--Keep in frequent communication with teachers, reacting swiftly to poor performance, intervening before there is failure.
--Impose bed times on them to insist they receive the proper amount of sleep
--Structure our children’s activities and tightly monitor all “away from home” events

In contrast, as our children become older teenagers, we:

--Give them say over their homework, until evidence suggests they aren't handling it well.
--Allow them to taste the consequences of poor academic performance so as to learn from it, rather than immediately intervene
--Give them some flexibility in bed times, within reason.
--Set parameters and curfews even while allowing some flexibility in choosing activities.
--Increase our role and impose consequences after the mistake(s) rather than before.

Of course, some of these differences are more matters of degree than substance. Parents of 12 year olds don’t rescue their kids before every mistake any more than parents of older teens allow their kids to totally self-destruct before intervening; indeed, the great challenge of parenting is knowing precisely when to do which! Still, all of us want our children to stand on their own feet upon graduation from high school, and we understand we cannot be there like we once were when our children learned to walk, hands outstretched to catch them from falling each time they wobbled.

Put another way, as our children grow older, our aim is wean them from us. Our modus operandi is to give them increasing amounts of freedom, a snippet at a time, observing them carefully to see how they handle each step, curtailing the freedom for a time when they misuse it, insisting they pay the piper, even while giving them the chance to start over after each mistake. We expect that our children will take missteps, but know that by experiencing the consequences of these missteps our children will mature and move closer to the day they can lead independent lives. We must give them "space."

Good high schools run this way, too. Despite the strong temptation to control daily activities so tightly that students are not allowed to make mistakes without being intercepted by teachers before-hand (because the school would be perceived as more “orderly” and the principal seen as a better “disciplinarian”), doing so would be bad principaling as much as it would be bad parenting. Rather, good high schools give their students room to fail and insist they experience the consequences of their failure, even as they are ready, like parents, to help lift them from their stumbles and get them back on track. Good high school teachers, like good parents, sometimes have to insist on “tough love” by holding students accountable for poor effort or performance, even at the risk of being labeled as “uncaring”-- though like good parents, too, they allow their students to start over and are eager to assist them when approached.

This means, to be frank, that running a high school is often "messier" to the untrained eye. If there is greater freedom, there are also more disciplinary incidents. The obligation of the high school is to insist on proportionate consequences, each and every time, so that the offending student gradually shuns the behavior on his own. Schools can expect that freshmen in particular will struggle with their new found freedom and are thus prudent to allow them more missteps than they would upperclassmen, even while "stinging" them with punishments each time. Similarly, if parents and teachers allow their children greater freedom in making academic decisions about their homework and grades, there are also more "failures", though wise schools, like wise parents, structure these potential failures to be more short term ( a 4 week marking period grade) than final outcomes (a trimester average), thus giving their children a "taste" of the failure while also allowing ample time to recover.

When our children were younger, my wife and I would often lament how parents of older teens raised their children. With our two older children (see pic above) we began to understand! As parents of younger children, we are tempted to believe in our own omnipotence and omniscience, since we have control and responsibility over so many facets of our their lives. But if we want our children to grow to be men and women, we must give up some of this "power" and allow our children more freedom, even while insisting on parameters. One particularly astute parent called it the difference between riding a horse and creating fences within which the horse can roam. When our children are younger, we can ride that horse, directing the horse when to turn, trot or run. If we try and ride teenagers, their natural instinct is to buck us off! Good high schools, like good parents, build fences instead, all the while shaping a landscape that leads the horse to a final destination, with the horse believing it's getting there on its own.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Teens, Parenting and the Internet

This summer, I took my 15 year old son to his pediatrician for a physical before he could play football. She took the time to talk to him about proper diet, exercise and other life-style issues facing teens, which I appreciated. At the end of her talk, she added "And no more than 5 hours of sitting in front of a computer per week".

Per week? During the summer, I suspect my children spent 5 hours of time on the computer per day.

Suffice it to say I've taken a more liberal approach to things than our pediatrician suggests. Perhaps it's because I am a "techno-file" myself: I keep 3 blogs, I host an on-line course in Catholic Doctrine, I read 10-15 web sites daily on topics ranging from curriculum to Notre Dame football, I've played over 5,000 games of "Literi" (Scrabble) over the internet, and over 2000 games of Chess (I don't even want to estimate how much time that is!) and I regularly experiment with all the new Google gadgets. This Christmas, to see if it could be done (it can), I asked my wife if she'd allow me to do ALL the Christmas shopping on line for our kids and relatives, and it was the first time I've ever enjoyed shopping. There's something very satisfying about the packages arriving at your house as opposed to fighting the traffic, wading through malls, and standing in line!

So if 5 hours a week is a reasonable standard for our teens, I confess that I fail that standard miserably as an adult.

But as a father of four teens, I don't believe it's the right standard. One of the mistakes we often make as adults is to equate time on the computer as time in front of the TV. TV requires very little brain activity, whereas time on the computer and over the internet requires much more. My 15 year old is a good example: he creates movies, using our digital camcorder and I-Movie software, he writes songs and mixes music, incorporating his drum/keyboard/guitar playing with Garage Band software, he uses HTML code to design web pages, he uses Adobe software to create art and he uses I-Tunes to download music. And yes, of course, he uses Face-book, AIM and MySpace accounts to communicate with other teens. These are all generally healthy activities, and I want my children to be fluent in using computers and the internet to create and communicate.

On the other hand....

I am not naive. Pornography is rampant on the internet, accounting for over 70% of all internet band-width used, by some estimates. Language in chat rooms is abominable. The temptation to violate copyright laws, especially with a tech-savvy son, is real. And I do agree with our doctor that computers can become all-consuming, to the detriment of exercise, school work and genuine social interaction among peers.

The challenge for us as parents is to find ways to maximize what is good about the internet, while discouraging the negative. Here are some of the things we've tried to implement in our household with my 4 teenage children:

1) Time on the computer is contingent on proper balancing, as with all things in life. Homework must be completed. Household chores must be done and done well first (always a battle!). Exercise must be regular and routine (playing on school teams helps!). They must get enough sleep! When these things are generally balanced, I don't believe in some sort of absolute time limit.

2) The computers must be used in public places around the house. This eliminates a lot of temptation to be on the wrong sites and do the wrong things. Laptops and wireless networks are a problem in this regard, and for this reason we didn't allow our kids to get them until they go to college.

3) Our children are not allowed to erase "histories" in the browsers. This lets us as parents review every where they've been on the internet. Again, this creates a strong disincentive.

4) My children may not download software or music illegally.

5) I do allow my children to use Facebook and My Space accounts, contingent on the following:

--from time to time, unannounced, they must show me their sites. They don't like this, but I see no other way of keeping things honest. If someone posts a crude remark, they are supposed to remove it immediately.

--they may not make their Facebook "private", meaning only invited members may see the sites. As I point out, people make their sites private for a reason.

--they cannot share personal phone numbers

--they must realize they are liable to our school for anything that's on their page, since Facebook enrolls students by the school's name.

That's about it, really. I've tried filtering software that screens certain sites, but not with much success early on. It becomes a kind of game with my sons, especially. They guess my password (ok, I could do better!). They go to proxy sites that allow them to log in to the sites screened out by our software. The filtering programs often block legitimate sites. Maybe I should give these filtering programs a second chance, but to be honest, I haven't used them in years.

I'm not a perfect parent, and my children aren't perfect either. I suspect they've gotten away with some things, partly because of my less-than-perfect supervision, partly because there are areas in all this where my children are simply smarter than I am!

May God give us all the grace and wisdom to be good parents in this "Brave New World"!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Home-Schooling: Point vs. Counter-point

Note: I have written two previous pieces on home schooling, one quite some time ago and one recently. They have both evoked thoughtful, passionate posts from parents on both sides of the issue. In order to further that discussion, I am posting two of those responses: one, from a mother of five children, who sent her kids through our Catholic school, and the second from a home schooling parent named "Ginnie", whom I don't know, but who posted a particularly poignant response to my last article.

I appreciate the responses so far, and hope the "point-counterpoint" format of this post continues to engender lively debate!

Why I Didn't Home-School:

I have tried many times to identify why I feel "in my gut" that homeschooling is not the best thing for a child, unless, as you say, one lives in such a remote or dangerous place that there are few good options.

Part of my reasoning is that schooling leads children from within a strong, supportive family OUT of that family in incremental steps to a bigger community to belong to, as public citizen and member of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Keeping the child within the confines of the family seems to negate the child's innate need to grow up and out of the family, learning to leave as well as learning different subject matters. Parents are always primary educators, but it would be proud and wrong to think that they can or should be the ONLY educators. We as parents teach our children to trust by modeling for them that we trust other people to love and care for them. We teach them that it is all right to trust others outside the family, to grow close to adults other than one's parents. We teach them that we do not have all the answers, that others have expertise to share with them. These are faith values.

One of the important functions of schooling outside the family is that the educational experience is not tailored to one student's needs. It may be educationally enriching for a home-schooler to pursue in depth his/her own interests without being "held back" or "forced ahead" by the needs of other students. But unless we are hermits, we are made to learn to live in community, to acknowledge that others besides ourselves have needs that we need to acknowledge, anticipate and empathize with. We need to learn that others have diffent actions and reactions than us and that we have to learn how to respond usefully and gracefully. Even a school without a specifically religious agenda teaches these natural law values.

Students also need to see that faith values are shared by others besides their parents, that this is not something only their parents do.

While I do not believe that home-schooling is the best choice for a child, I also have seen how poised, calm and confident home-schooled children I have met seem to be.

In Defense of Home-Schooling:

I really posted here to address the assumption that home-schooled children are social misfits. *Maybe*, just maybe, its not that they are misfits, though I'm sure some are (although I must confess I've met many adults who went through the public school system who are socially inept). Anyway, my point is, is that its possible that maybe they are more mature, that they in fact do not find humor in what some teenagers nowadays (and kids in general) engage in. Sponge Bob? Drivel.

I have an advanced 7 yr old, just turned 7 a few weeks ago. She is reading years past her grade level, well, she's reading at the 6th grade level to be precise. I never taught her to read, she did it all on her own. Now, having been exposed to the written word in higher level books like she has, its quite possible that she won't find the same things interesting or entertaining as other newly turned 7 yr olds would.

I don't know, I think part of the reason you feel home-schoolers don't fit in is because they haven't succumbed to the group mentality. I just don't picture teenagers of 100 yrs ago engaging in the same kind of silliness that is so prevalent now. I went through the public school system and I found most of the kids in my classes immature back then, and it just seems to have gotten worse..

I truly don't understand the problem of sophisticated language, I thought we were EDUCATING our children. I thought I was raising adults, not children, and as an adult, where my children will eventually spend the bulk of their time on earth God willing, I want them to be all that God has called them to be, based on their talents and His will for their lives. And its not about standardized tests, I personally don't care about standardized tests, they are just hoops I have to jump through. I don't teach my children to the test, they have knowledge that they wouldn't be tested on, so the test really is mute.

And about a former homeschooled child not being able to get voted in a leadership position in a Catholic private school, maybe its not all the homeschooled child's fault. That's why I asked if these kids in the private school attended this school for the bulk of their education, its probably kind of hard for a new kid to fit in, and if you had been homeschooled, well that just makes it harder once the other kids find out. There is quite a bit of misinformation out there perpetuated by others not in the know, and the other kids hear that and pass judgments.

I'm raising my children to be leaders, but not to seek approval from other children. I don't want them to be social misfits, but they need to learn early on what really counts. Men? God? ;o) They need to seek HIS approval first, and their Dad's and Mom's.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Effects of Home Schooling

I have written elsewhere about the Catholic Church's support for parents as primary educators to home school their children, provided they seriously investigate the Catholic school option. In this article, I intend to present my own views on the effects of home schooling on students based on my experience of 22 years, observing these students as they integrate into Catholic school environments in high school.

Since what I will say is likely to be controversial, not just to the anonymous reader but also within my own family, I would like to make a few preliminary comments. First, I do not mean to suggest my comments are universally valid for every student and every circumstance. Each kid is different and responds differently to different conditions. Second, it is not my intent to judge people's motivations or intentions; parents I know who home school are some of the very best parents I've met--serious in their commitments to their children, active in their parish and typically well educated themselves. Finally, I am not a psychologist, nor do I presume to speak with the authority of one with advanced degrees in adolescent psychology.

These, then, are my observations:

1) First, as to professional educator's concern that these kids may be academically unprepared, my experience is exactly the opposite! In general, home schooled kids receive an excellent education from their parents, who are usually well educated themselves and serious about passing on their knowledge to their kids. In addition to having a solid core foundation, they are more likely to have toured local museums, attended literary and fine arts offerings in the city, and to have traveled broadly. The flexibility that home schooling affords families allows families to do these things, and most of the home schooling families I know have used these opportunities effectively. At Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School, though we review the academic credentials of incoming home-schooled students, we generally don't have concerns about their academic preparation.

2) On the other hand, in-coming home school kids tend to be socially awkward. This is not a failing on their part or their parents, but the natural result of being separated from their peer group during their formative years. I think that every parent of a home-schooler knows this intuitively; in fact, many parents embrace it as a good thing, not wanting their children to be part of the stereo-typical "in" crowd, with the attendant vices associated with socially skilled teenagers.

Sensitive to this concern, most home-schooling families I know make real efforts to schedule joint programs with other families, giving their children the chance to inter-act as they go to museums together, join parish athletic teams or take part in common community activities. But as helpful as these things are, they are programs which are typically highly structured and dominated by adults, not typical of the unstructured, free-lance interaction of peers on the "play-ground" (used heretofore as a metaphor for unstructured time with peers). There is a lot learned on the play-ground, and not all of it is bad! How to brush off an unkind comment, how to go outside of oneself and start up a conversation with a stranger, stumbling through embarrassed conversations with the opposite sex, and yes, even how to "defend oneself" in verbal banter, are all things that kids learn over many years afforded them by "traditional" schooling.

Some of the things experienced on the play-ground may not be desirable, such as cursing or bullying. I contend, however, that learning how to deal with the bully, however painful, is very much a part of growing up, as is the learned ability to bracket off other behaviors which are inconsistent with our faith. We cannot ultimately shield our kids from being hurt by others, but we do want them to learn to handle hurt and persevere through it.

Often, too, the social awkwardness is exacerbated by the child's language and diction, which is typically more sophisticated than their peer group. Astute educators can pick out a kid who has been home-schooled almost immediately: they use phrases and make comments that reflect the fact their dominant social interactions have been adult-adult, rather than peer-peer. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, as it will certainly help the child on future standardized tests! But it does make his separateness more apparent to his peers and his integration that much more difficult.

3) As a result of the social awkwardness, very few home-school children become leaders in their peer group. They don't have the social skills within their age group to be so. Further, even if the child desires to be so and runs for a class office, for example, his peer group will generally not allow it as a result of the awkwardness they feel.

This, in a nutshell, is my greatest concern about home-schooling as an educator and as a parent. Because these kids come from such good families and because they have unusual attention and care from their parents, if one were projecting their future while they were younger, one would expect them to become real leaders of their peers by high school. It simply doesn't happen (very often). My greatest desire for my children, second only to having them become people of faith, virtue and wisdom, is that they become leaders to help others live with faith, virtue and wisdom. By taking them out of their peer group at such a formative time, I believe home-school children are stripped of this opportunity--and the whole suffers from it.

Controversial? I suppose so, among home-schooling families, but not among educators who have the ability to compare kids from different backgrounds and training. In general, the effects on home-schooling I note are less pronounced the earlier home-schooling parents place their kids back into traditional schools. Arguably, the social effects of home-schooling on a first or second grader is minimal, since if one watches the typical child that age, one notices the child isn't socializing much whether he's around peers or not! As the child moves on to 4th, 5th and 6th grade, however, the desire to interact with peers becomes more innate and thus more important. With-holding kids from traditional middle school has a pronounced effect, making the high school years very difficult.

So if you're a home-schooling parent and you're still reading this article without having written me off completely(!), I recommend considering traditional schooling by 3rd or 4th grade, and definitely by middle school. If you do so, I believe your child can have the best of both worlds: your undivided attention, with all the love, security and flexibility that home-schooling affords, with the opportunity to grow socially and become a leader later on.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What is Distinctive About Catholic Schools?

Note: This talk was given to the high school's new families on July 30 as part of new family orientation.

Welcome new families! Welcome back to those families who are making a second loop through the high school with a different child.

As I begin my 22nd year here, I’d like to reflect on what I think is unique about Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School. There are some very good college preparatory schools in Montgomery. MA and St. James are excellent private schools, whereas LAMP is an excellent public school. But as good as we believe these schools are, we do not aspire to be like them. We are, rather, a Catholic high school, and because of that, we are distinct from every other high school in East Montgomery. It’s a distinctiveness we embrace.

The heart of that distinction is contained in our mission statement, which says as adults, we share in the responsibility to help children grow into persons of faith, virtue and wisdom.

Faith, virtue and wisdom: if you’ve been paying attention to our brochures, our video, or our web page, we’ve been using these words a great deal.

By faith, we mean faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The acid test of any Christian school, any Catholic school, is this: does it help kids become holy? We believe that each child is a unique creation from God, and that God has a unique destiny for each student. Our job as adults—yours as parents, ours as teachers-- is to cooperate with God’s grace in the lives our teenagers to help them realize God’s will for them. We know that if they do that, they will become the "best version of themselves" and be truly happy. St. Iraneaus had this in mind, I believe, when he said “The glory of the Lord is the human person fully alive”.

Catholic schools provide an optimum setting for becoming "fully alive" not by providing spectacular, extraordinary religious events that stir the student’s faith, but the opposite: immersing students in a community in which a Catholic and Christian world view is so commonplace, so much a part of their lives, that it almost goes unnoticed. For example, we pray all the time around here—before school, as part of school liturgies, before games, with teams in the locker-rooms. We begin classes, often inviting students to pray for things of concern to them. These are typically practical prayers—they pray not for world peace, but so that everyone does well on the test they’re about to take, or for their friend who is sick, or for a special intention. Because it’s so much what we do, it never occurs to even the most macho boy how humbling it is to ask a peer to pray for him. And it’s not just that we teach religion for four years. It’s that we teach it as an academic subject alongside Calculus, or Physics, and that it counts equally into school grade point averages. The result is that it rarely occurs to kids they're giving equal attention to the study of their faith as to Calculus! Just as we don’t notice breathing, we want our faith to be so much of who we are and what we do that we don’t notice we’re doing it.

Virtue. We also want our students to live virtuously. Let’s be blunt. Our children are growing up in a cynical, jaded world that caricatures belief as childish nonsense. There is a natural idealism in our youth but it is too often extinguished by a pervasive cynicism that tells them that a moral life is impossible and that they are prudes to try. Our job—yours and mine—is to challenge their nobler instincts and to show them, through our example, that living out the gospel is not only possible, but noble and right, and yes, even "cool".

Wisdom. Of course, we want our children to be ready for college, as our school name implies. But we want more than that; we want students to be wise, to possess the ability to discern truth from noise, to see clearly what is good and right and to have the courage to act on that vision.

Whose responsibility, then, is it to help children become faithful, virtuous and wise? Our mission statement states it clearly: it’s the adult community’s. Yours and mine.

A strange thing happens to us as parents when our kids become teenagers. When our kids were little, they took what we said as truth on its face. When our kids become teenagers, BECAUSE we said it, it’s false on its face. But here’s the key insight. Someone else’s parent may tell our children the same thing we’ve been trying to tell them, and they regard that parent as a guru-like sage. This is because teenagers are trying so desperately to establish their own identities, and we as parents cast such large shadows, they have to step back from that shadow to begin to establish who they are. But they are still looking for authentic, credible examples upon which to model their lives. So what we need to do is agree together to help each other raise our sons and daughters for a time.

By virtue of being a parent or a teacher in our school, I challenge you to now regard yourself as a member of an extended family. No--aunts, uncles and cousins are not the same as parents, who remain sovereign over their children. But aunts, uncles and cousins do care deeply for their relatives, they do take opportunities to teach them, they keep an eye on each other. Let us agree, as adults, to be that kind of adult presence in the lives our kids. As a parent of a sophomore boy, I welcome phone calls from you if you hear he’s doing some things he shouldn’t be doing, and I hope you will welcome my calls to you. This is what it means to be a family. This is what it means to be part of a community. This is what it means to be a Catholic school.

I’d like to end my segment tonight by passing on to you two recommendations as your child begins high school here:

First, I think we all know that we cannot force our children to join this or that particular club or team, or become part of this extra-curricular activity. We may want our kid to play football, but it’s important that he decides. BUT, I think we can push very strongly with our child that he or she gets involved, as quickly as possible, with at least ONE thing, whatever he or she desires. When our kids play sports, become part of the key club, run for student government, join our government club—whatever—high school becomes a place of joy. They meet new friends, they learn about compromise, they experience ups and downs. Most of all, they become connected. Insist with your child they do at least one thing.

Second, insist with yourself that YOU become involved in at least one new thing as a parent. Whether that’s as an active Booster Club member, a PTO member, helping out with the bookstore, working in the concession stand, get involved. It is SUCH a blessing to get to know the wonderful parents and teachers in this community.

In just a flash of an instant, your child will be graduating. In three weeks, I take my only daughter to college…gulp….and though it's a cliche, it seems like just yesterday she was coming through these doors as a wide eyed freshman. When our kids leave us, we don’t want to look back on our lives and say “I wish I was more involved…I wish I had done this…or that”. Get involved.

The truth is, as much as our kids need a place like Catholic to help them learn to be people of faith, virtue and wisdom, I sometimes think that we as parents might need it more than our children. Seeing the world again through the eyes of our children, we can rediscover what many of us have lost as adults: a sense of wonder and a renewed "respect" (literally, a second look) for our faith and all the gifts God has so richly blessed us with.

I hope it’s a wonderful year for your child and for your family.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why We Need Catholic Schools

I've been speaking of late to a close friend, who has a daughter that will soon be in high school. Should she send her daughter to the Catholic high school in town? She's not sure. Her daughter is very smart, and she's not sure the high school will challenge her. She asked me why I believed so strongly in Catholic schools. Here's what I said:

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 our church - its songs, its liturgy, its prayers, its customs - and to prompt them to be open to grace. We need Catholic schools because our children need to be called to serve others. We need them so that our children grow up in a world where the practice of faith is seen as so natural, so routinely a part of their life, that it becomes almost unnoticed.

Our children are growing up in a cynical, jaded world that caricatures belief as childish nonsense. There is a natural idealism in our youth but it is too often extinguished by a pervasive cynicism that tells them that a moral life is impossible and that they are prudes to try. We need Catholic schools because our kids need their nobler instincts to be challenged by the gospel of Jesus Christ and shown that living out the gospel is not only possible, but noble and right, and yes, even "cool".

We need Catholic schools because we as parents need all these things as much if not more than our children. Seeing the world again through the eyes of our children, we can rediscover what many of us have lost as adults: a sense of wonder and a renewed "respect" (literally, a second look) for our faith and all the gifts God has so richly blessed us with.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Best National Anthems Ever

This July 4th, I've spent some time on the internet researching various renditions of our national anthem to determine the best. The votes are in! Whitney Houston's rendition in the 1991 Super Bowl is still spectacular, even 16 years later:

Second best goes to the Dixie Chicks at the 2003 Super Bowl:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Montgomery Catholic: A Retrospective

Note: My daughter Cynthia just graduated from MCPS and will be attending the University of Notre Dame in the fall. This is the text of a speech she gave in her role as student body president, on the occasion of a public kick-off for our capital campaign in February.

Hi, my name is Cynthia Weber. As the SGA president of the high school campus, and as a student in my 13th year at Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School, I feel very honored to be speaking to you on behalf of the student body.

It seems like just yesterday I was crouching under the old blue wooden bleachers at a football game, staring at the cheerleaders like they were mythical gods. And it seems like just yesterday I was finally having my first day of high school. But here I am, another senior in another graduating class at Catholic (although you could hardly call the class of 2007 ‘another class’), and ironically, it’s now when the school seems weather-beaten, its problems revealed, the stress piled on, that I’ve begun to appreciate this institution the most.

When you’re a senior, time supposedly speeds up, but the moments seem to stand still. When I walk down the hallways of this school, I feel like I walk more slowly than I used to. I walk through the empty hallways and look at the same news articles pinned on the bulletin board, vaguely listening to the familiar voice of Mr. Frye getting onto someone is his classroom down the hall. And I feel strangely overcome by something. It’s a familiar feeling that I think most of us have experienced; we experience it alone in hallways, lying in the grass at PE, at a graduation ceremony, or gathered here as a community.

Today, I’d like to offer you an idea, an idea which I think explains that phenomenon we sometimes experience at our time at Catholic- as students, parents, faculty, and even bystanders. That is this: that Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School is a place of true greatness.

St. Theresa once said a very shocking thing. She said that to be great means to be a quiet place of refuge for Jesus Christ. When I first heard that, I was pretty skeptical. I immediately thought, “what about honor? Peserverence, genius, hardwork, self-discipline, and true love!?” But, if you’re like me, you’ll catch yourself and realize what you’re actually thinking. You see, it’s hard for us because secular society, despite all its merits, would like us to separate those qualities from Christ. It wants us to wrap up all of our little theories about eternal life, the dignity of man, the miracle of grace, into a package and tuck it away under our arm and pretend it’s not reality, to pretend it has absolutely nothing to do with our laws or our “actual” lives, that it has nothing to do with perseverance, truth, honor, and love.

The paradox is that to accept those qualities completely is to accept Christ himself, and to accept Christ is to accept those qualities. When an institution openly and completely accepts Christ as their cornerstone, the door is automatically opened to a wealth of blessings- blessings which are entirely applicable to our lives; not only applicable, but necessary. When you walk through the hallways of Montgomery Catholic by yourself, when you step inside the chapel after a really stressful morning to feel a rush of relief and comfort for no explainable reason, when you wait to pick up your kids from school or watch your child receive a diploma from the archbishop, and you get that strange, ephemeral feeling of longing or hope- you are experiencing the presence of the divine.

It is that- the presence of Christ every day- which so obviously sets Montgomery Catholic apart from other schools. Because no matter how we fail, no matter the outside pressures of society, no matter the assaulting corruptions of relativism, no matter the denial of truth and goodness- this institution will always stand as a humble monument to hope, a humble monument to the presence of Christ.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The "Branches" of Catholic Social Teaching

In my previous blog, I indicated that the Church’s teaching on “human dignity” was the “tree” from which other branches in Catholic social teaching derive. In this blog, we’ll take a close look at these other branches.

Human dignity is best realized within vibrant communities. Because we are social in nature, we are most healthy and happy in relationship with others. Good social policies promote these relationships by promoting healthy, strong communities.

Since I am a teacher, I often use the common practice of curving tests as a contrary example to this principle. Though there are many ways to curve tests, the basic idea is to determine the average grade of a certain test, make that the “C” grade, whereas slightly higher and lower than the average is a B or D, and significantly above and below is an A or F. If a class does exceedingly well on a test by averaging an 88, then an 88 becomes a “C”, but if the class does poorly, an average grade of 55 becomes a “C”. Bottom line: if you’re a student in that class, you want the rest of your classmates to do poorly. Since curving is a common university practice in math and science classes, it’s not surprising then that there is a strong antipathy toward Asian students at many universities, who often score more highly in math than their American counter-parts (generally because they work harder!). At other universities, students report that their science experiments were sabotaged by classmates seeking to boost their grade at the expense of others. Curving tests creates a “win-lose” mentality in students that seriously undercuts any community building.

In terms of social policy, there are two important principles that derive from this basic teaching on community. The first is that good social policy promotes and strengthens the most fundamental of all communities: the family. We know, as a matter of fact, that children are best nurtured in the context of parents who are committed to one another. Does our tax code encourage marriage, or is there a disadvantage to filing taxes jointly? Do our civil courts make separation of spouses a simple matter, as in “no-fault” divorces, or do they encourage a more deliberate, thoughtful process, recognizing the detrimental effects of divorce on children?

The second derived principle is that of “subsidiarity”, which argues that things are best handled at the most local level possible. To encourage vibrant communities, “higher” groups should never usurp the authority and responsibility of “lower groups” unless absolutely necessary. So, for example, it is good planning for cities to encourage parent-led sports leagues for children, or charitable organizations like YMCA, rather than try and run these leagues themselves. Why? Because it is likelier that these leagues and Y’s can run these programs better and more cheaply than the city, which would, in the absence of such leagues, become quickly crushed by its myriad responsibilities in addition to building roads, handling crime, putting out fires and all the other things a city must do. Similarly, state governments should not usurp authority and responsibility from cities, nor the federal government from states. Rather, all of these “higher” groups should seek to empower the lower groups to be as healthy and as active as possible, for they all serve an important civic function. Good communities at the lower levels help create healthy relationships that build human dignity.

Government has a special obligation to protect the dignity of the poor and vulnerable. In fact, government should give preference to the poor and vulnerable.

This is one of the more controversial of Catholic social teachings, but for Christians, it shouldn’t be. Jesus’ admonition reminds us that whatever we do to the “least of my brethren”, we “do unto him”. From the Old Testament prophets to Jesus, through the long history of our Church’s ministry to the poor through hospitals, schools, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, schools and social centers, our tradition speaks eloquently to this most fundamental of our responsibilities. As a practical matter, who protects the interests of the poor, if not government and if not the Church? Wealthier people, typically better educated and connected, have the resources to take care of themselves.

A practical example of this principle in action: how should we tax? There are fundamentally two types of taxes: a regressive, flat tax (like sales taxes) or a progressive tax (like income taxes) wherein the rate of taxation increases the wealthier one is. A wealthy person might object to progressive taxation, reasonably arguing that he is “penalized” for his success by having to shoulder a higher percent of his money, which is “unfair”. But what effect does a regressive tax have on a poor person? Suppose someone makes just $20,000/year and must pay a 10% flat tax on his income. What effect will taking away $2,000 have on this person? It will cut into basic necessities: food, shelter and clothing. What effect will a flat 10% tax have on a person making $200,000 year? It might affect the type of car, the size of a mortgage or the expense of a vacation, but it will not affect food, shelter and clothing at the most basic level. The principle of preference for the poor suggests that the Catholic Church would support progressive over regressive taxation.

Employment helps foster human dignity.

Catholicism argues strongly that when we work, get paid and become self-sufficient, our human dignity is truly fostered. (If anyone doubts this, just watch how quickly deflated people become when unemployed for long periods of time). Good social policy, then, places a high premium on lowering unemployment rates. The old adage “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a life-time” applies here. When people become productive members of society, they contribute to that society by spending, paying taxes, and becoming responsible citizens.

Two other pieces to our tradition regarding employment: Businesses must pay their employees a "just wage". Justice in setting salaries is NOT merely "what the market will bear" or "whatever employee and employer negotiate"; rather, the Church defines it as enough money that a worker and his family, if thrifty, can live an upright life. Apply that standard to our current minimal wage rates and it is easy to understand why the Church has been vocal about supporting aggressive minimum wage increases.

Second, the Church supports the rights of workers to unionize, and even, as a last resort, to go on strike if justice demands it. In many countries, as was the case of the U.S. during the industrial revolution, without unions, the advantage the employer has over the employee is so great that the imbalance virtually guarantees the employee will be unjustly treated. But the Church is also careful to say that unions must always consider the common good, not just the interest of its employees. Also, because strikes have such wide-spread, detrimental affects to the common good (when U.P.S. went on strike in the mid-1990's, many mail-order businesses went bankrupt because they were unable to deliver their goods, as an example), they must truly be last resorts, and they must aim for just ends.

Human dignity is realized through ownership.

Originally as an argument against socialism, Catholic social teaching has always held that private ownership is a natural right. If it’s a natural right, then it is a right for all people, so that government ought to promote policies that encourage ownership for as many people as possible. The current tax code, which gives a significant break to home owners by allowing them to deduct the mortgage interest, is an example of a policy that is consistent with this Catholic social principle. We know that when people own their own homes, they keep their homes and neighborhood cleaner and neater, and that owning a house is a source of pride and accomplishment for those people. We ought to encourage this as much as possible.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Human Dignity: The "Tree"

The cornerstone principle or "tree" from which all other Catholic social teachings branch is the principle of human dignity, articulated simply by Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra (1961):

"[The social teaching of the Church] rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause, and the end of every social teaching. This principle guarantees the sacred dignity of the individual (#219, #220)."

The U.S. Bishops, in their 1987 Pastoral Letter on the Economy entitled "Economic Justice for All" state the principle of human dignity very succinctly:

Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. We believe the person is sacred -- the clearest reflection of God among us. Human dignity comes from God, not from nationality, race, sex, economic status, or any human accomplishment. We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around. (#13)

For the Church, our human dignity is derived from the fact we are children of God, created in God's image, and therefore we have inestimable worth. From this dignity flows "natural rights", which are rights that are ours by our birth, given to us by God. A "natural right" is the opposite of an "earned right", which are rights given to us by law or by privilege (such as a right to drive, a senior's right to leave campus at lunch, etc). Natural rights, since they were not conferred on us by anyone other than God, can not be justly taken away from us (except in the extreme cases when others rights must be protected, as is the case when criminals are put in jail to protect public safety, for example). Nor can we deliberately forfeit our own natural rights, since they are a gift to us from God. For this reason, the Church has always held that suicide is immoral.

To phrase the matter another way, natural rights are "intrinsic" rights: rights that reside within us as persons. They are the opposite of "extrinsic" rights, or rights given us from outside ourselves, by society or others.

A classical moral principle of the Church is "The ends (the aim or purpose) do not justify the means (how something is accomplished)". In other words, even if a person has a very noble purpose in mind, such as those who wished to save American lives by dropping the bomb on Japan, we cannot accomplish this goal morally by deliberately killing innocent civilians or babies. We cannot violate the natural rights of others to achieve a goal, even a good one.

Similarly, we cannot kill abortion doctors to stop abortion. We cannot promote suicide as Dr. Kevorkian does in order to relieve depression or suffering. Abortions are not justifiable on the basis of the mothers' future plans or even her mental health--or, strikingly, the mother's physical health, because the baby has dignity that cannot be traded off.

As we shall see, it is this fundamental principle of human dignity that serves as the "tree" from which the other branches of Catholic social teachings derive. In the next blog, we'll start looking at some of the branches.

The Treasure of Our Catholic Social Teachings

In 1997, a House sub-Commitee debated the partial birth abortion bill, and solicited 3 "experts" before the committee to testify both for and against the bill. Among those who testified was Helen Alvare, a spokesperson for the United States Bishop's Conference, who gave an articulate, forceful and above all reasoned argument in favor of banning the procedure in the United States. As much as I was impressed with Ms. Alvare's testimony, it became clear that the Congressmen were even more impressed, for over the next 30 minutes, they questioned, prodded and solicited her opinions to the near exclusion of the two other witnesses co-testifying.

Watching all this on C-Span reminded me of something we Catholics often take for granted: the power and intellectual consistency of our social teaching tradition. Beginning with Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" in 1891, and refined through the years up to John Paul II, our Church has developed sets of principles and perspectives which can give coherent guidance to public policy, ranging from topics as diverse as welfare reform, capital punishment, and development of third world countries to substantive critiques of socialism and capitalism alike.

It is the internal coherence of these positions that makes them so valued by policy makers and ethicists outside our tradition. Yet sadly, only a small percentage of Catholics understand our social teaching tradition with any depth. Few would know what "subsidiarity" meant, fewer would be able to articulate the proper relationship of government to the economy, perhaps even less would be able to discuss the implications of "preferential treatment of the poor and vulnerable."

Too many of us, rather, are reduced to sincere though unhelpful platitudes that we are to "serve the poor" or "love our neighbors". But how do these gospel commands translate into the issues of our day? What is a "just wage" and how does that translate into the minimum wage debates over the last year? What can we say to those who believe capital punishment is defensible? What about immigration reform? Acceptable levels of unemployment? The role of the state vs. the role of the federal government in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction? Does our faith have anything REALLY to say about these things beyond a sentimental appeal to "just get along"?

I believe it does! Over the course of the next several blogs, I will outline the principle themes of our Catholic social teaching which derived originally from the gospels, but which has crystallized in a sophisticated way over the last 115 years through papal encyclicals.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


One of the fundamental creeds of the Jesuit order, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, is to seek “excellia in omnium”, or “excellence in all things”. That’s a good goal for all of us at Montgomery Catholic as we move forward in our institution’s history.

If you’ve been keeping up lately, there are a number of students, school organizations and athletic teams who’ve exemplified excellence in their endeavors, all worth mentioning here:

First, congratulations to our band under the leadership of Mr. Kerry Palmer. In just their third year of existence, they have qualified for the second time for state competition, this time by scoring straight “superior” scores in all categories at district competition. Last year at state, they scored an overall “superior” rating. These are remarkable accomplishments for such a young band, indicative of their hard work and the excellent leadership of Mr. Palmer at the high school and Mr. Valient at our elementary campus. Together with the “Marching Knights” band that started this fall and entertained at football games, our band program has been an unparalleled blessing to our school community.

Second, congratulations to our elementary campus’ Science Olympiad teams. Under the able leadership of Mr. Larry Meiers and Miss Melanie Grayson, the students of St. Bede placed second overall in the state competition in Jacksonville in February and first and second place in competition at the University of West Alabama earlier this fall. These teams learn advanced science in a practical, hands-on way, and their success reflect both their teachers’ and their commitment to excellence in science education. We are proud of them.

National Merit finalists were recently announced, and Montgomery Catholic is proud to have three students who qualified: Thomas Herge, Trey Griffith and Cynthia Weber. (Though Trey left after his junior year due to his parents’ transfer, we’re still taking credit for him since he took the test with us and has been a member of MCPS since his St. Bede days!). These students are three of the top 16,000 students in the nation, now eligible for merit scholarships. Thomas’ first choice of college is Ohio State, whereas Cynthia and Trey aspire to go to Notre Dame. A fourth MCPS student, Emmy Profio, was named a National Achievement semi-finalist earlier this year. Having three finalists and one semi-finalist for a school our size is a great credit to these students, their parents and their teachers.

Kudos again to our world-class speller Ben Szatanek, who for the third straight year will represent Montgomery County in the state spelling bee contest. You may remember that Ben won the state title last year, and competed at the National Spelling Bee contest in Washington, D.C. In case you think it’s just talent, you need to watch Ben around the middle school, using just about every available minute to drill words that few of us have ever heard, much less used in speech!

Finally, if you’ve been reading the sports pages closely, you’ll notice one of our spring athletic programs is off to a tremendous start. Our boy’s team, with young alumnus Timothy McCormack as their coach, is currently 7-0, whereas our girls coach, led by (older) alum Brian Belsterling, is 7-3, having recently won the “MA invitational” this weekend. A combined 14-3 record having played top-flight competition bodes well for our soccer program for the rest of the spring!

We are, then, blessed to be around so many students, coaches and teachers who aspire for excellence in all things. May their example encourage all of us to strive for excellence "ad majorem deum glorium" ("for the greater glory of God", another Jesuit saying, often abbreviated A.M.D.G.).

Friday, February 16, 2007

On Bucking Broncos and Fences

I like asking people "set-up" questions to see how they respond. On the occasion of his golden anniversary, I asked my grandfather the “secret” of a successful marriage. Without missing a beat he said: “Well, I’ve got that all figured out. You see, I made a pact with your grandmother when we first got married that she’d make all the little decisions, and I’d make all the big ones. That has kept the peace between us for 50 years, and I recommend that arrangement to you.” “Of course,” he whispered to me, smiling, “ I’m still waiting to make my first big decision.”

Similarly, on the occasion of her last child to graduate from our school, I jokingly asked a mother the “secret” of raising teenagers. She paused for a moment, then said, quite seriously: “Teenagers are like bucking broncos. If you ride them, their natural instinct is to buck you. Our job as parents, then, is to build fences that lead them in the direction they need to go, so that they think they’re going there of their own accord.”

I consider this mother’s remark the single wisest comment I’ve heard about teenagers in the 22 years I’ve worked with high school students as a teacher, principal or president.

Our tendency as parents is to micro-manage every aspect of our kids’ lives, and however well this works when our children are younger, it is a certain recipe for fruitless conflict as our children become teenagers. When my 15 year old brought home a mediocre report card recently, my knee-jerk response was to set up a rigid schedule at night for homework, with a defined starting and ending time, and with me as “inspector general” , scrutinizing the quality of the work that was done. We battled every night. After a few miserable weeks, the quality had not improved, nor did he seem any more an “owner” of his education than when we started. So I changed tactics, telling my son I expected at least an hour of homework each night before his 10:30 p.m. bedtime, that I would not check it for quality, but I would ask his teachers at the end of each week how he was doing. If I received a favorable report, we could continue with this arrangement and all would be well. If not, he was on complete restriction ( including no cell phone) until the end of the following week, when I’d ask the teachers again. This plan worked much better—he appreciated the “freedom” to schedule his homework around a couple of television shows he wanted to watch, his father wasn’t looking over his shoulder every night, and he had no intention of losing his cell phone (cell phones were once described by an exasperated parent as the “teenage umbilical cord”). I had learned to build fences.

What about the weekends?

I have three teenage children, and my 12 year old is showing signs. Rather than try and choose their friends, or know precisely what they are doing every minute they’re out at night, or “ping” my kids to death by calling them every 30 minutes on the cell phone, my wife and I have learned to keep things simple with three rules:

First, they can go out on Friday and Saturday nights until curfew time (midnight for our 12th grader, 11 for our freshman) but they can’t spend the night at someone else’s house, so we tell them not to bother asking. They ask anyway (being teenagers) but then grudgingly accept the rule as a given. My experience as principal is that almost all of the time, kids get into trouble on weekends when they are spending the night with other teens, and thus do not feel accountable to their parents.

Second, to increase that feeling of accountability, they must talk with me when they get home (yes, that means I must be awake to do so). This gives them the “excuse” they may need to say no to drinking, ala “You don’t know my crazy dad. He actually inspects me when I come home….”

Third, especially with my daughter, she must call us when she arrives and when she leaves a destination, so we know she got there safely or should be arriving home within a certain time. We live in a world where safety matters.

Of course, going out at all is contingent on meeting their classroom and family responsibilities that week. If they do so, they have relative “freedom” during the weekend.

I won’t lie: It sounds cleaner and easier in an essay than it does in real life! We often don't get it right. We get angry and jump on the bronco and ride it for a while, however much we foreswear this as right. Too, we may build fences, but they’re often flimsy things in need of mending (and teens are excellent at spotting where the fence is weakest!). Parenting is trial and error (and error, and error), but I believe we approach things right if we take that mother’s advice. May we all become good fence-builders!