Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Heart and Soul

Back in 1985, Diane Mayhan taught Biology and Math at Catholic High and had freshman girls in her homeroom, whereas I taught English and Theology and had junior boys. We were both first year teachers, and though the students had us pegged instantly, it took me a few months to muster up the courage to ask. We were married in June at the end of that first year, with most of the student body in attendance.

Since then, Diane and I have had four children, all of whom have attended Montgomery Catholic since kindergarten, with our two oldest now at Notre Dame, our third a sophomore in the high school and our youngest a seventh grader in the middle school. I became principal of Catholic High in 1989 and then later the president of MCPS in 2002. During all of those years, I taught at least one theology class and feel privileged and blessed to have known over two decades worth of students on a personal level. I have enjoyed roasting them at their graduation these last 19 years!

So it won't be easy to leave.

I've accepted a new job as headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville, TN. and will be moving to Nashville with my family in late June.

People and institutions need change. Through the success of our capital development work and regionalization efforts, God has blessed us and enrollments have surged from 640 to 800 in less than five years. Increasingly, my job as president has become that of the chief financial officer of the institution--a responsibility I welcome, but also yearn for closer relationships with families and students more typical of the principal position.

When Mrs. Vaughn announced her resignation at the end of this year, I saw an opportunity to merge the president and principal position for a time, and proposed to the Board that we do so, coupled with hiring a business manager to assist me as president and an assistant principal to assist me as principal. The committee studying this proposal, however, worried with some justification that the short term issues as principal would trump the long term planning of president and believed that combining might threaten the recent trajectory of success we've enjoyed under the distinct president-principal model. Recognizing their concern, I began to look for other positions around the country that incorporated a hybrid president-principal leadership structure, which is what led me to the headmaster position at John Paul II.

I will miss this place.

As our community prepares to do its first ever open search for president, I think it may be helpful to relay a comment that Dr. Tom Doyle made to me when I became a young principal in 1989. Tom had been principal of Catholic High since 1973, became president when I became principal in 1989, and left us in 2002 to become the Academic Director for the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame. He told me then that Catholic was an interesting mix of various polarities and that keeping these polarities in a kind of healthy tension and balance was the key challenge of being this school’s leader. In the years since, I have come to more fully understand what he meant, and I’d like to expound a bit:

The strength of this school has always been the wonderful families who send their children here. These families, however, defy single definition. As I try to describe these families, I will no doubt over-state the differences, but I do so as sharply as I can to illustrate the challenge in choosing our next leader:

On one side we are blessed to have always enjoyed the powerful and important presence of military families--typically high ranking Air Force officers who are in Montgomery for a 1-2 year stint as part of their advanced training at Maxwell. They bring with them a huge amount of energy and passion, become deeply involved in the volunteer life of the school, and make a remarkable contribution to the life of this school in the short time they are with us. They also bring with them a certain world view typical of military life, marked by clear hierarchies of authority, close adherence and strict enforcement of rules, and the belief there ought to be definitive rules and policies by which all students are judged, independent of person. On the other side, there are the long term Catholic families who serve as the foundation of our school, both in terms of our history and in their financial support, who do not share the assumptions of military life, who chaff at titles and operate more comfortably out of long term relationships, and who expect that the school will handle their children as individuals, customizing discipline accordingly.

On the one side, we have a community which is strongly traditional in its understanding of the Catholic faith and wants the school to assert this traditional Catholicism vigorously, without apology. On the other hand, we have Catholics who are less comfortable with traditional Catholicism and who would like us to be less “rigid” in forcing students to adhere to a traditional expression, desiring that we focus more clearly on social justice issues and the like. Also in this dialogue are the 35% of our families who are not Catholic, who understand they have chosen a Catholic school for their children, but at the same time, trust us to remain committed to what has always been true: that we value the contributions of other faiths and families and are truly interested in building an ecumenical environment where similarities in our Christian faith are emphasized more so than our differences.

On the one side, we have a number of wealthier families who would like the school to do much more than it is currently able (a drama program, foreign language in elementary school, more polished PR materials, as examples) and have the means to pay for these things via raised tuitions. On the other hand, we have middle class Catholic families who are increasingly pressed to send their children here. Also included in this mix are faculty and staff, who are less wealthy than the families they serve, but do so out of a sense of vocation and mission.

On the one hand, we have families who are passionately interested in athletics for their children and who press hard for better tenured coaches and second gyms (all of which are dollar related), but on the other, we have families who believe we have developed an unbalanced fascination with athletics and would prioritize a performing arts building as a crucial missing piece in our development plan, in addition to choral, drama and other fine arts electives.

Similarly, as a school committed to serve the full scope of Catholic families, we have some students who are very bright and whose parents are interested in the school committing more resources to A.P. and honors classes, debate teams and other academic offerings, whereas some children struggle with the curriculum we have now and their families would like to see elective options that relieve, rather than elevate, the academic load.

On the one hand, we have a very successful middle school, led by a truly gifted, remarkable leader whom I trust and consider a close friend. On the other hand, we have parents who want our high school to be run the same way, with little regard to how high schools and middle schools should be different, who are not cognizant of national models of excellence for high schools, nor understand group dynamics with teenagers.

In addition to these tensions within our families, as an archdiocesan school, we also have tensions typical of Catholic schools nationally:

On the one hand, we have members of Boards who bring their experience of business and marketing to deliberations about the school—the principles and techniques of which are valuable for school leadership to understand. On the other hand, we have school leaders—and not unimportantly, diocesan leaders--who chaff at the very language of a business model and resist any attempt to overlay a business template upon the school which is ultimately not a business, but a ministry of the Church.

On a related note, we have those who believe it would advance the overall effectiveness of staff to handle them in a manner more typical of employees in a business setting; on the other hand, we have talented employees who choose to work here for woefully meager wages precisely because they are accorded some autonomy and see their work here as both sacrifice and vocation--and would almost certainly choose to work elsewhere if the model changes.

On the one hand, we are in a decentralized structure as part of a deliberate decision by the Church to encourage local ownership and creativity, giving Boards wide latitude to make decisions and create structures that work for its school. On the other hand, we are a diocesan school, under the leadership of a superintendent and the authority of the bishop, and we simply don’t have unfettered authority to bypass established diocesan policy or work outside the wide parameters that we are allowed by the diocese.

There may well be other tensions, not mentioned. But the key point is this: Whoever becomes our next president must keep these various polarities in dialogue with each other, keeping the perspectives balanced, without “choosing sides” or allowing one group to have more sway than the other. If kept in balance, these tensions are a wonderful source of creativity and energy for our school, with new ideas being tested against old, new folks serving on Boards alongside long term people, lay people sharing their lives with military officers, etc.

I believe this has always been the strength of Montgomery Catholic—our healthy mix of ideas, passions and peoples. If, however, a particular way of thinking or polarity is allowed to dominate, what was once a strength will become an immediate crippling weakness, leading to defections of faculty and families who don’t share that point of view.

The critical variable as to whether or not the school can keep these tensions in a creative balance is the school's leader. He or she must be committed to processes that involve the wide scope of our community in decision making. He or she must be an excellent listener, yet able to powerfully articulate the mission of this place to all constituencies. I believe the next president must be a Catholic educator , thoroughly cognizant of how K-12 schools work and the stresses under which principals and teachers operate, while also understanding what it means to be a diocesan Catholic school in contra-distinction to a Catholic school run by religious orders or to other models of schooling.

Let us pray that we find such a leader. Go Knights!