Monday, February 28, 2011

Broadening Visions

Pat Weaver, our director of Admissions and Development, and were in England this week, visiting St. Edmund's, the school with which we participate in the Loughlin Exchange program. It's a magnificent, old English school which began originally in Douays, France in 1563 when it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith in England. The English hierarchy, fearing that Catholicism would forever vanish in England if they did not continue to train priests, set up a monastery called "English College"in Douai, with the hope these new priests would re-evangelize England once the anti-Catholic bans were lifted. Long before those bans relaxed, however, these priests began filtering back into England to say Mass and minister to Catholics there, at great risk to their lives, since it was regarded as treason. Over 133 priests and lay faculty from English College were martyred during the span of 1563-1680, and 21 of those have been canonized saints. When the French revolution occured in 1793 and the Catholic bans in England were finally relaxed, they moved the school back to England, where it was renamed "St. Edmund's College" and has been there ever since. A school publication says quite credibly that St. Edmund's might be the institution most responsible for the fact that Catholicism did not extinguish in England altogether, something for which the school is rightfully proud.

JPII and St. Edmund's have been in an exchange school relationship since 2005, when my predecessor, Hans Broekman, began the program to honor the headmaster of St. Edmund's, Mark Loughlin, who was tragically killed in an auto accident in 2004. Since that time we've had 6 exchange visits, with happy results on both sides of "the pond" as they say here in England. It's been a fabulous thing for the students and both of our schools.

Bouyed by the success of the Loughlin program, we are now introducing a German exchange option, with a similar three week exchange with students from St. Mauritz Catholic School in Muenster, Germany. Pat and I met with the administrative team of that school on Wednesday and Thursday and all the parents and students who are coming over this spring around the Easter time (see picture, above). They're excited about the exchange, just as we are. One thing that truly stood out when we talked to these students and parents: their ability to speak English is generally very good. Communication, we do not believe, will be a problem.

These efforts are part of our strategic plan, Vision 2016 (read about it here), in which we make it a priority to expand our international travel program. We are convinced, I am convinced, that visiting foreign countries or (even better) living with families in these countries is a powerful way to broaden our students' perspectives and appreciate the distinctiveness of our own culture.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Too hard?

IS JPII too hard?

This is a question that was asked of me recently—and to some extent, like the definition of “beauty,” the answer is in the eye of the beholder. “Hard” is a subjective term that varies by individual. But let’s try to break this down some and look at objective data to address the question.

Too hard for whom? Students in our honors program? Students in our standard program? Seniors? Juniors? Sophomores? Freshman?

One way to investigate the question is to measure the expectations we place on you for homework. In early January I asked you to participate in a homework survey in which you estimated how much homework you did. We received 203 responses, with a good cross section from each grade level. My thanks to all of you who took the time to do the survey.

Let’s look at the results together (See chart by clicking here.)

On average, the typical JPII student did just over 120 minutes/night of homework. Freshman did the least, about 100 minutes, whereas juniors did the most, just over 144 minutes/night. It will probably be no surprise to you that girls at JPII worked longer per night than boys, an average of 130 minutes to 112 minutes. We wanted to measure the differences in expectation between students in the honors/AP programs and those in the standard programs, and although the honors program students worked a bit longer, the differences are not as pronounced as you might have guessed: Seniors in AP work 16 minutes longer than seniors in non-AP, juniors work 23 minutes longer, sophomores 25 minutes, and freshman 11 minutes longer. If you’re mostly all A’s, you work harder than your classmates, but that’s not terribly surprising: Senior A students work 13 minutes longer than the average honors kid and 29 minutes longer than the average standard program, junior A students work 165 minutes/night, 12 minutes longer than other honors students and 35 minutes longer than other junior standard core students, whereas A sophomores work 11 minutes longer than other honors and 36 minutes longer than standard track sophomores. Freshman A students actually work less hard than honors students generally and only 5 minutes more than students in the standard program.

My general sense in reading through each of these surveys is that you took it seriously and your answers reflect your honest estimates of you time. If there is any bias, it’s probably that you slightly over-estimated your time on task, as it would be common to take some breaks in a 3-hour study period, and on some days, coming home from a basketball game, for example, your regular study time is disrupted. In discussing this data with Mrs. Phillips, our Dean of Studies, we believe these numbers are about where they should be for a school that is serious about preparing students for college. Yes, there are days when you must do much more than what these averages show, and yes, some of you work much longer on average than your classmates, but AS an average, they’re about right. Going back to our fundamental question, “Is JPII too hard?” the homework survey seems to suggest “no.”

Another way to get objective data on this issue is to look at grading. Are JPII teachers too demanding in what they expect for an A or a B? What does the data show from the first semester? The average grade for guy at JPII was 84.5 and the average grade for a woman was 86. What’s interesting is those averages held across the grade levels—there was not much difference between a freshman and a senior in terms of grades. That means the average grade for both was just above 85, or a solid B. If we go by letter grades, the approximate ratio of A's to B's to C's to F's in the first semester was 10:10:5:1 , for a 3.1 average grade. In other words, there were about the same number of A's as there were B's, half as many C's and a tenth as many F's. Since those were first semester F’s and we only record yearly averages on transcripts, we expect the small number of F's to diminish even further between now and then. For a school which accepts a broad range of students, both the numerical average of 85 and the letter grade average of 3.1 suggest we're about where we should be in terms of difficulty.

Still, I am aware that these are averages and some of you work much harder than the averages suggest. Let’s take a moment to talk about that.

First, are you trying to do too much? Maybe the homework amount is OK, but when you’re trying to wedge it in between sports, extra-curriculars, service, work, friendships, it may just be that there’s not enough time in the day to do all those things well. When I look at what some of you are doing, I get tired just thinking about it. One sign of maturity is to learn how to say “no” or “enough.” What can you cut out?

Second, are you using your teachers in a pro-active way? Instead of going home and beating your brains in and wasting an hour doing so, why not go see the teacher after school? Some of you talk as if tutorials are punishment, but properly understood, they’re gifts of our teachers to help you. Unless you’re part of a required tutorial, you don’t have to stay the whole time—just go by and see your teacher about a certain problem or type problem you’re struggling with. EVERY teacher on this faculty will be delighted to help you. Just as an observation as I watch the hallways after school: not enough of you are using your teachers as a resource!

Third, are you using good study skills? I am a firm believer in working "smarter, not harder" whenever we can. There have been all kinds of studies on this, so here's a quick summary:

• Do the hard stuff first, the homework you least like to do.
• Study in a quiet place, without TV, cell phones, music or anything else likely to cause you to lose attention on what you’re doing.
• Review your notes each day for about 10-15 minutes. But of course that begs the question: Are you keeping good notes? When a teacher gives you notes for a chapter, he or she is practically telling you what is going to be on the next test. Something doesn't make sense? Ask the teacher the next day! Teachers love those kind of questions!
• When you read, take notes as you read. Both of my degrees are in liberal arts, which meant I had to read a lot of non-fiction books for class. Like many of you, I sometimes had a hard time concentrating on what I was reading, until I began to force myself to write down the main point of a page before I moved to the next page. That does 4 good things: keeps your mind from wandering, forces you to understand what you're reading, helps you remember it, and gives you something easy to study later.

Last comment: Let’s always remember that a teacher’s job is to always make you stretch a little further than you think you can stretch. It’s like a track coach with high jumpers: every time he or she clears the bar, the coach’s job is to move the bar a little higher and start training to get to that next level. In the end, they want you to jump as high as you’re able, or in high school terms, have as many opportunities as possible.

So is JPII “hard?” I hope so, to some extent. Nothing comes cheaply and easily and your futures are too important to waste away giving out A’s like they were candy. But is it too hard? No, the objective evidence suggests that's not the case.

Work hard. Study hard. And then let God worry about the rest. May God bless all of you this week.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Simple Kindness

We took the Chamber Choir to Bowling Green to sing at the two Sunday Masses at Holy Spirit Catholic Church yesterday. We now have bus service—or in this case, van service—to Bowling Green each day, and we’re trying to get more people from that area to come to JPII next year. Our choir, as usual, was amazingly good. Scores of people came up to me throughout the morning and thanked us for adding so much to their Sunday liturgy. But as good as the choral program is, they’re not what makes the biggest impression on people.

In the middle of the week last week, we celebrated the signing of letters of intent of four members of our senior class: Leah Loven to play soccer at Bellarmine, Mary Leonard to play lacrosse at Davidson, Julian Virgo to play football at Austin Peay and Seth Walker to play football at Yale next fall. Members of the media were there, and their pictures and stories have now run in the Tennessean and the Catholic Register. We’ll continue to brag on the accomplishments of this senior class all the way through their graduation, but even so, those accomplishments don’t make the biggest impression on people about JPII.

There are stories on our web site about the four students who’ve recently won awards at a local art contest at Cheekwood: Maggie Finaly, was awarded a Gold Key award for her sculpture, “Balancing Act”, Katherine Roy, was awarded a Silver Key award for her sculpture, “Patricia" , Shelby Turner, Junior, was awarded a Silver Key for her mixed media piece, “Vivacious” and Cassidy Johnson, Junior, was awarded a Gold Key and named an American Vision Nominee for her photograph, “Sanctuary”. Our jazz ensemble played at St. Edwards last week and received rave reviews, as they continue to get better and better. We have a distinguished fine arts program—in the visual arts as in this case, but also theater, chorus and instrumental music—but they’re not what makes the biggest impression about JPII.

Our swimming team continues to get better and better. Having swept the Sumner County meet, both on the girls and boys side, the Knights competed at the regional level and finished tenth. Eight swimmers qualified for the state meet: Samuel Jackson, Nick Massa, John Mainland, Paige Scheriger, Madison Kolbe, Abbie Wood and Brittany Zobl. Congratulations to our swim team. But no matter what kind of success our athletic program has--they're not what makes the biggest impression.

What matters most is not spectacular, not glitzy, not newspaper worthy. It’s simple kindness to one another. Kindness. It’s when the new kid comes through the cafeteria line at lunch with no one to sit next to and someone recognizes that awkward moment and says, “Hey, sit here with us.” It’s about complimenting someone for their new glasses or haircut, or telling a person ‘good game last night,’ or ‘that was an interesting comment in class’ or saying something nice about someone when other people are talking poorly about him, or standing up for someone when he or she is being harassed, or noticing when someone is having a bad day and asking “you OK?”. These things are not profound, but they make a HUGE difference in the lives of the person being treated kindly. And they make a HUGE difference in the culture and aura of JPII.

Our tongues have the power destroy other people, but also the power to heal and build people up. Let's be kind to each other this week.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Catholic Schools of the Future

Note: This talk was given to Catholic businessmen and women of Nashville at their monthly breakfast on the occasion of Catholic schools week, 2011.

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you this morning.

Last week, we celebrated national Catholic Schools Week, and so I’d like to stay on theme this morning by talking about Catholic Schools of the Future. To do that, however, allow me to talk briefly about Catholic Schools of the Past.

Imagine the following:

You’re a business analyst, hired by a national company to address these alarming trends :

• In 1960, the company had approximately 13,000 franchises around the country and a customer base of 5.2 million.

• By 2000, those numbers had fallen off precipitously: The company now has 8600 franchises and only 2.6 million customers.

• By 2010, it lost another 1600 franchises and an additional 20% of its customer base.

As best you can tell, there are three issues driving these numbers:

• In 1960, this company was one of the few privately held companies in its field. Over the last decades, a plethora of new privately supported ventures and new public initiatives have made the competition much tougher.

• Prior to 1960, the company was able to pull its best employees from a training center that didn’t charge the company for its training. Now the company must employ independent contractors who demand higher wages and who must be trained at company expense to attain the same skill set as the previous base.

• Each franchise must invest heavily in buildings and infrastructure to deliver its product. Unfortunately, many are now surrounded by customers unable to pay retail price because of changing demographics. The businesses are now too far away from the customers.

“What has the company done to address its precipitously dropping market share?” you ask the CEO of the company.

“We’ve counseled our franchises to look for ways to raise capital to improve their buildings and hire better employees” says the current CEO, fidgeting. “We’ve also suggested to keep their prices low and give discount pricing to those who might need it so as to keep brand loyalty.”

“That doesn’t sound like a winning formula”, you remark. “How can you reasonably expect these franchises to raise revenue for capital improvements when they can’t collect full freight for goods and services? "Let me ask it differently” you say. “What has the company done to help the franchises? ” “Well”, the C.E.O. says hesitatingly, we’ve created a national association of these franchises, and we have an annual convention to swap good ideas and conduct research that measures how we’re doing.

“It looks like your research says it's been a bad fifty years” you say. " Do you have a new business model? Have we tried to re-organize the way we do things? Or are you still pretty much delivering it the way you did fifty years ago?

“Uh… We've added some technology, but the business model is the same”.

It is impossible to imagine a company in the Fortune 500 operating this way. Their boards would have fired many CEO’s over those fifty years. The company is crumbling and yet they have no business plan, no plan for his franchises to re-structure, re-locate or try something new.

But this is exactly the state of Catholic K-12 education in this country. From our peak enrollments in the early 1960’s, we’ve lost more than 60% of our student population and closed 6,000 of our schools. In the last ten years alone, we’ve lost 1600 of those schools and 20% of our student population. (NCEA, Annual Statistical Report on Schools, 2009). Just last month the Archdiocese of New York announced it is closing another 27 schools next year—26 elementary schools and one high school.

It’s an absolute crisis. Our Church and our schools are making heroic efforts to stem the tide, but we’re tackling this crisis as if we just need to work harder and keep doing what we’re doing better. In the words of one of John Mayer's songs, we're "slow dancing in a burning room."

Catholic Schools of the Future will need to consider new paradigms.

I have five thoughts about this.

My first thought: Catholic Schools of the Future are going to have to be more willing to experiment with hybrid parish-regional models of Catholic schooling. Exclusively parochial schools—schools tied to a parishes—worked very well for the first hundred years of Catholic schools, but I don’t think it’s going to work for the next 100. City demographics have changed and will continue to do so, leaving once well-positioned schools in neighborhoods that can no longer support them. And so, a kind of Darwinian evolution takes place—the strongest schools, surrounded by the most affluent neighborhoods, thrive, while the weaker schools die a slow, painful death. I think we’re going to have to look at models—not in every parish or every school, but where this makes sense—where schools need to be linked to several parishes (for an example of this kind of model, click here). It’s not a coincidence of all the schools that have closed in the last 50 years, relatively few are diocesan high schools—precisely because they are not tied to single parishes, but pull from a broad geography. Regional schools are also more able to create robust financial aid programs that help subsidize families who need it, making Catholic education more accessible.

Second thought on Catholic Schools of the Future: I think we’re going to need to experiment with our traditional K-8, 9-12 model and look at different age groupings for our schools where that makes sense. When the K-8 model formed in the late 1800’s, there was virtually no competition other than public schools and elite, very expensive private schools. Now, it’s an extremely competitive market, with all levels of private schools and magnet schools. Statistics show that our schools become vulnerable when students move into 5th, 6th and 7th grade, because at that age, our schools compete against K-12 or 5-12 or 7-12 private schools that leverage their high school facilities—libraries, science labs, athletic fields, athletic programs, down to their younger kids. I think it's unrealistic to expect that stand-alone K-8 schools can duplicate those offerings. Remember too that although we talk about K-8’s, the reality is that many of our kids are not beginning in K anymore—they're beginning in 4 year old programs or even 3 year old programs, meaning by the time the child gets to 6th grade, he or she has been at that school as long as a the 8th grader has in a traditional K-8. So I predict that nationally, we’re going to need to look at other more competitive models—perhaps, for example, distinct middle schools, perhaps locating those middle schools on the campus or in the vicinity of the high schools, tied to some sort of regional paradigm. Or perhaps we need to think about K-12 schools like our private school counterparts.

Third thought: I think we'll need to look at new partnerships between high schools and existing elementary schools, where administration teams merge to run both schools. For example, in the president-principal model typical of diocesan high schools, the president may be able to help the elementary school by using his or her development office to help market that school and professionalize that school's external image. Or more radically, in Montgomery, AL we took two existing parish elementary schools, merged them with the diocesan high school to become a "K-12 school with three campuses", renamed the school "Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School," and made the president responsible for running a single business office and development office that served all the campuses together. Each campus, however, retained its own principal, who retained the day to day administrative responsibilities (for more on this, go here). This was a more realistic use of resources than expecting each elementary school to hire its own president, run its own business office and hire its own development director. It also allowed us to do things that our parents appreciated, like giving cross-campus discounts to families with kids at both the high school and elementary campus.

Fourth thought: To attract and retain the kind of teachers we want and to offer competitive programs with our private school counterparts, we are going to have to adopt more of a college tuition model for our schools. By this I mean we’re going to have to charge parents the actual cost of educating their child, while at the same time, increase our financial aid substantially. We can no longer be the cheapest game in town—the sisters are no longer with us. Yet the most highly educated, highly credentialed teachers in Catholic schools across the nation with 20+ years of experience rarely make more than 50,000/year. Most diocesan principals make less than 70,000/year. Think about trying to support families on those numbers after being in the same career for 15-20 years. Though passing on the faith remains our most central mission, middle class Catholics expect us to also offer first tier, competitive academic and athletic programs. We cannot do so if we’re priced at ½, or ¼ as much as our competitors. Being the cheapest will no longer sustain us. So I think we’re going to have to raise rates aggressively, but while we do so, offer robust financial aid and remove whatever stigma exists about applying for it. After all, almost 80% of full time college students in this country receive some sort of financial aid.

Fifth thought Regarding these paradigm changes, let us admit that our church is not very good at changing paradigms. We’re better at preserving and caretaking than innovating. In contrast, businessmen and women such as yourself are much better at strategic planning, much more adept at modifying on the fly based on what the numbers show you, quicker to change marketing strategies if necessary, more accustomed to risk-taking, more willing to innovate.

That’s why I believe Catholic schools of the future must consider models of institutional governance that give a greater role to committed Catholic laypersons such as yourself, not just within the local schools, but at a broader, diocesan level. The archdiocese of Chicago, for example, founded a Board of Education in the Spring of 2009 to help them make recommendations for the future of their schools. The Board was hand-picked by the bishop, and reads like a who’s who list of Chicago Catholics—CEO’s, university leaders, top level Catholic businessmen and women. They’re doing amazing things—I invite you to spend some time on their diocesan web site just to get a sense of things. But here’s the biggest news: for the first time in decades, Chicago Catholic schools opened with more students than the previous year. I don't presume to have all the answers, but I think if we empower people like you to dream, innovate and lead, there are new models and new ideas that you will uncover help us implement.

Concluding thoughts:

Of this I am convinced: We have a lot to work with in Nashville. We have two remarkable diocesan high schools. Most dioceses would give their right arm to have EITHER a Father Ryan or a JPII. We have many excellent, strong elementary schools. The active presence of the Dominican nuns is a tremendous blessing to Nashville, and has lessened some of the national effects I have discussed here. With a few exceptions, we are generally healthy. But that’s precisely the time to really plan for our future, to consider new paradigms and structures—from a position of strength….not from weakness or out of desperation.

I want to thank all of you who are already involved as volunteers in our schools or those of you who send your kids to our schools. If I or Pope John Paul II can serve you or your families in any way, don’t hesitate to call me.

Thank you.