Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Proud Heritage

I was invited to speak at the Immaculate Conception School gala in Clarksville, TN about the importance of Catholic education. These are my remarks. 

Hogan Bryant, a graduate of Immaculate
Conception School and JPII, now at
Vanderbilt, also spoke to the gathering.
I am a product of Catholic education, as is my entire family.  I attended St. Ignatius K-6, Most Pure Heart of Mary 7-8, McGill Toolen Catholic High School, Notre Dame as undergrad, Notre Dame for grad school, then became a teacher in a Catholic high school for four years, became principal of high school for 12 years, then president for 7 years, and then moved to Nashville to become headmaster here at JPII, where I’ve been for six years. All of my children have gone to Catholic schools in K-12, my three oldest have done to ND as undergrads, my oldest son also received a Master’s degree and now teaches in a Catholic elementary school, my wife went to Catholic schools K-12, and she now teaches Math at JPII. Suffice it to say we believe in Catholic education!

 Let me share two quick stories why:

I once knew a junior girl; let's call her "Christy". Christy was smart,  but her life was unraveling--I think she had become sexually active and was dabbling with drugs.  She started acting out, getting into trouble, a result of being unhappy with her life.  I called her into my office, and she entered, sulkily, expecting a lecture. Instead, I told her I needed her to tutor a freshman girl. She was struggling in math, I said, and she needed help, but what she really needed was a friend and mentor. Christy hung her head, ashamed. "I’m probably not the right person,” she said, looking down, "you don’t really know who I am." I looked right into her eyes. “I know exactly who you are," I said, "and that’s why I chose you. She needs you. Will you help her? “ She straightened up some, even smiled a bit. “Yes, “ she said, and that was the beginning of her recovery back. She turned out to be an excellent tutor, but was an even better mentor, and the more she gave of herself, the more she re-discovered herself in the process. When Christy graduated, I handed her the diploma and whispered to her, “I am so proud of you.” Those are moments you live for as a principal. 

The second example is my third child, Aaron.   Aaron was a rising junior when we moved to Tennessee in 2008. He was smart, affable, popular, and well adjusted, but he wasn’t a particularly good student—up until then, he made decent grades without much effort. He HATED that we were moving (On the admissions essay, “Why do you want to attend JPII?” his initial response was “I’d rather digest pine cones” until his mother made him rewrite it), but his life changed quickly once enrolled, so much so that by his senior year, he was leaving the house at 6:15 a.m. to go to tutorials for his AP Calculus classes. He wouldn’t be at Notre Dame were it not for JPII.

I am committed to Catholic schools because they change kids’ lives for the better. Our kids need Catholic schools—they are living in a world of accommodation which believes self-esteem is buoyed by cheap praise instead of hard work and achievement, and they also live in a world that is deeply pessimistic of kids, a world which tells kids over and over that they are incapable of virtue (Safe Sex movement says, in reality, we’d don’t think you’re capable of living as you should, so be safe about it).

Catholic schools tell them that they can virtuous lives—and if they mess up and sin, God is there to forgive them, but also call them back to holiness.  The truth is, our kids want to live for something other than themselves, and Catholic schools call them to that, and tells them that a good life, and even a holy life, is possible for them.

Most of my life, I’ve worked with teenagers. They’re a lot of fun. The world is opening up to them and they're seeking their own voice. An important piece to that search is whether their faith is going to be an artifact from their childhood or something that will become integral to their life as adults. Discipleship, if it's not to become like the 'seed planted in shallow soil', is part of a life long conversion, involving the whole person--mind, body and spirit.

Catholic schools immerse students in a community where scholarship is highly valued, where the faith is lived explicitly--with frequent opportunities for worship, prayer and service to others--and where the moral life is honored. By attending Catholic schools, then, kids are encouraged to integrate their faith with their learning, their daily living and their social relationships in a way that has long-term, lasting effect.

But our schools are not only important for the future of our Church; they are critical to the present. Vibrant parish schools beget vibrant parishes! Parents, many of whom drift away from the Church during their young adulthood, are pulled back into the life of the Church via sacramental preparation for their children, through attendance at PTO meetings, school plays, athletic contests and school galas. Their kids’ emerging spiritual life encourages them to become more active in the Church as role models and as “primary educators.” Our high schools inspire diocesan pride and a common identity, as the Catholic community comes out to support “their” high school in athletic contests, theater performances, or academic events.  Catholic schools build real communities of faith that change families’ lives for the better.

I was invited by Mrs. Zeller, your principal, to spend a day at ICS this week and did so on Thursday. Afterwards, she asked me what I thought about the school, and I told her I thought it was wonderful—there’s great virtue in being a small school, like the theme song from Cheers, a place “where everybody knows your name. “ And, too, I got a good vibe about the place—outside, well groomed, clean hallways, students passing by the chapel genuflected (a powerful testimony to the school’s Catholic identity);  inside, kids seemed happy, the teachers comfortable in their own skin, there existed a powerful sense of family.

I know you want to be bigger. But like those optical illusions where you see a face the first time you look at it, and then re-look at it and flip your perspective so that you see another face, I suggest seeing the negative as a positive. There’s been a lot of research on small schools, , and the research is pretty consistent: Small schools out-perform larger schools in student achievement in every measurable curricular outcome, and graduates from small schools are more likely to go to college and persist in college. There’s a tendency for those of us who work for Catholic schools, either as principals or Board members, to measure everything by enrollment, as if bigger is always better, but it isn’t really. So aim for more enrollment, but in the mean time, extol being small! Some of ICS classrooms have 10 kids in them, with one teacher, which really provides an amazing opportunity for families in this city to receive a first rate education.  It’s really the best deal in town, if you think about it. And by the way, your graduates prove that point most eloquently.  Some of the very best students we've ever had at JPII come from ICS—Hogan Bryant, speaking tonight, is a case in point. 

I’d like to share one final thought with you, and I’d like to use JPII as an example of what I am thinking.

JPII has students from 48 zip codes, 10 counties and two different states. In addition to a bus we send up to Clarksville each morning and afternoon, we also have a bus that picks up in Bowling Green, another that goes to Mount Juliet, and a fourth that goes into West Nashville, all the way out to Old Hickory.  Really, if you look at the size of the North Nashville schools within the shadow of Hendersonville, St. Joseph School has only between 30-40 8th graders, St. John Vianney has just 10—we have no business being a school with 160 freshmen and 600 overall students. 

So why, then, is it larger than it “should” be?  

Well, you might guess it’s because of good results—95 AP Scholars, as an example, was the highest or second highest total in the state last year. Or you might point at the teachers—three teachers in our schools’ 12 year history, for example, have been named Tennessee Science Teacher of the Year. Three coaches on our staff played ball in the NFL. Our academic dean, Mrs. Phillips, was Southeastern AP teacher of the year.

Those stats obviously don’t hurt us, but I don’t think that’s the reason enrollment swelled at JPII, because people were coming in droves to JPII when it opened in 2002, long before we had any results to share with people.

I think it was something deeper, something that was decided upon before the school even opened. It was our founding board’s vision of what a Catholic school could be. They wanted JPII to be different—a place of audacious optimism in kids, and in what kids could achieve if you created a culture of high standards, with committed teachers, structures of support, pastoral care and community.

 You see this in so many ways at JPII: Most students earn 26-28 credits in four years of high school, at JPII, they earn 32. Most schools require a year of the Arts, JPII makes every kid take at least 3 years. Most schools might require a year or two of language, JPII requires 3. We’re just 12 years old, but we have three exchange programs with Catholic schools in England, Germany and France.We play in the highest level of athletic competition in Tennessee, Division IIAA. We host a Distinguished Lecturer series, in which we’ve invited George Weigel, Governor Haslam, Bishop Flores, and this year, a Jewish Scholar, Dr. A.J. Levine, to discuss matters of importance to our faith and society….

And I say all that, not so much brag on JPII, but to illustrate the audacity of JPII’s self-understanding—to illustrate its vision.  And I think that’s why people are willing to send their kids so far to come there, why Clarksville families put their kids on a bus for a school that is an hour away—because they want a school that inspires kids to think the same way about them selves, and because optimism is contagious.

So here’s the thought I want to share with you. Don’t think small at Immaculate Conception. Think bigger, dream higher, imagine new paradigms.

I did a little research on Clarksville. It's the 5th largest city in Tennessee (behind Knoxville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Nashville.) Even more impressively, it's the 5th fastest growing city in the United States with population over 50K,

Depending on where you draw the lines that distinguish between Catholic schools within the city lines and those outside it, Memphis as a population of 655,000 and there are 20 Catholic schools, or a ratio of one per 30,000.  Nashville has a population of 609,000, with 15 Catholic schools, or one per 40,000. Knoxville has 182,000 and 4 schools, or 1 per 45,000, and Chattanooga has a population of 171,000, or 1 per 57,000. Clarksville has one Catholic school for its 142,000 residents.
No, I am not suggesting that Clarksville should build a couple more Catholic schools and create competition for ICS!  I am saying that if you are willing to re-adjust your expectations and vision, that Clarksville is plenty big enough to support a much larger Catholic elementary school than the current facility will even allow. 

When times are tight, the tendency is to hyper-focus on infinitely small details. That’s not a bad thing, because details matter, but only to the extent that it doesn’t prevent big picture thinking. There’s a proud history here— St. Mary’s school was one of the first Catholic schools in Middle Tennessee and served this community for 100 years before closing in 1968. But Catholic education is so important to this community, you re-opened the school in 2000 . I find that remarkable--very, very few of the 7,000 Catholic schools that have closed in the last thirty years have been resurrected! My guess is the thinking then was to get something started again, and build for something more down the road. Don’t lose that big picture —I see no reason this community couldn’t support a school of 400+ students if it had the building and grounds to do so.

Andy Dufresne, the main character in the movie The Shawshank Redemption (which Internet Movie Dbase lists as the best movie of all time), says famously. “We can either get busy living, or get busy dying.”  The greatest gift this Catholic community can give its children and its children’s children, is a healthy, vibrant Catholic school. You have made a really good beginning. Build on that!  Think big, Dream big, not small, and ask the Clarksville Catholic community to dream with you.

Thank you for all you guys do to support Catholic education.

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