Sunday, May 28, 2017

Hope & Purpose - Catholic Schools in the 21st Century

Revisiting the U.S. Bishops' Statement: 
Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium

     Challenged by the present, while peering into the future, for some, might produce uncertainty and skepticism. Yet, in the United States, our Bishops, both past and present, look upon the future of Catholic Schools with a sense of hope and purpose.
Over the last 12 years, since the statement was promulgated, many in Catholic education, upon reading the statement, argued that the Bishops did not go far enough and/or that they missed an opportunity to say something new and dynamic. I’m not sure what my colleagues were hoping to hear, but clearly their expectations muted the voices of hope and purpose speaking in the statement. While peering into the third millennium, the Bishops, in their statement, offered multiple expressions of hope and purpose rooted in the current status and success of Catholic schools. And yet, while observing the horizon to which we are moving, the Bishops push the boundaries of Catholic schools and compel those of us in leadership to traverse unexplored terrain. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, some say, the Bishops didn’t go far enough—because rather than move into unfamiliar territory on their own they want to be carried there on the shoulders of the Bishops or by some Diocesan program. It’s clear after 12 years that fear and reluctance prevented some in Catholic school leadership to own a part of the journey into the third millennium because of challenges to the current status quo. And for this, I will not criticize the Bishops.
Now, for the scope of this reflection, I will yield to others more knowledgeable to weigh the merits of the Bishops recommendations or to debate the statements effecting finance, personnel and public advocacy. Rather I am going to focus on the hope & purpose of the statement by highlighting three significant observations made by the Bishops and how these observations intimately challenge those of us entrusted with Catholic school leadership. The areas to be discussed: 1) the Bishops’ characterization of the young; 2) the Bishop’s awareness of the “new immigrant;” and 3) the Bishops’ explicit inclusion of special need students within our school.
I found the Bishops’ characterization of young people as the “source of energy and leadership in our Church and our nation” (RCCESS n.9) as boldly hopeful and refreshingly filled with purpose.
In previous documents, young people are seen as hearts and minds to form, the good Christian and citizen to cultivate, the moral character to mold, the immigrant to assimilate, the innocent to protect from an evil society, and in more recent years a young person to shape into the future of the Church. Yet, in this statement the Bishops are taking their direction from Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, to actually see those we educate, in our “schools for the human person”(Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium [CSTTM], n. 9), as our hopeful source of energy with the purpose of being our future leaders.
Imagine, that sitting in your class, or present among your student body is the young man or woman who will be called upon to serve the Church or the nation in the years ahead. Here, the Bishops actually shift our thinking about the effect of Catholic education from something that happens to a young person which may impact his or her generic future, to something that happens within a young person that will certainly impact, not only his or her future, but our future and the future of the Church.
The U.S. Bishops are saying something new, while building on their previous statements: In To Teach as Jesus Did, the Bishops remind us that the three interlocking dimensions of education are message, community and service. If all of these dimensions are alive within our current educational setting, than the Bishop’s are right to declare that young people of the third millennium will be a “source of energy and leadership in our Church” (RCCESS, n.9).
We, the one’s in Catholic School leadership, must see this hopeful energy in our young people, we must trust this energy in all its innovation and challenge, and we—not the bishops, must provide the environmental conduit for the energy to achieve its purposeful end in serving the Church and the nation.
Yet, let’s be cautious not to exclude, from this pool of future leaders, the poor in our midst. For, if our 200 hundred years of Catholic education highlight any fact, it is the numerous Who’s Who list of Catholic leaders who began their lives as the poor immigrant children.
That is why I believe, the Bishops flow from speaking about the young we serve in our schools as future leaders to their statements about our outreach to the poor.  In doing this, the Bishops speak with hope by pointing out the tremendous effectiveness Catholic school’s have among the poor and disadvantaged, especially in poor inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas (RCCESS, n. 11). Throughout history the Catholic school responded to the need of the marginalized, beginning with our own experience as early settlers facing severe anti-Catholic sentiment. From there, our schools became refuge for the poor and displaced immigrants who turned to the Church for familiarity and solace. Our schools became the home where immigrant children grew, were educated, and assimilated into the fabric of American society.
The challenge the Bishops are embracing is an inevitable one, in 15 years the complexion, the language, and 50% of the Catholic population will be one of Hispanic /Latin origin. By including the impact of the new immigrant within their statement the Bishops are moving the dialogue forward for Catholic schools for they are reminding us as, well as themselves, of our original mission and our fundamental option for the poor.
In reminding us of our success and pointing us to the future with the new immigrant within the American Church, the Bishops give Catholic schools hope and purpose by speaking with confidence that we can succeed in our efforts with the needy. As a matter of fact, the Bishops are in complete agreement with what much of the research is stating as well. The Bishops might be surprised to know that on this issue of the disadvantaged, Andrew Greeley’s presentation at Catholic University of America, in May 1997, on Catholic Schools Research at the Crossroads confirms their optimism: “The success of Catholic schools is strongest among the disadvantaged students…the contribution of Catholic Schools to disadvantaged students does not vary with race – it is present in white and brown and black --perhaps because the Catholic schools were designed to serve poor immigrants. (Greeley, n.2 1997).
We should take courage in this, for in spite of the challenges brought on by educating the immigrant, research demonstrates we do so quite successfully.  Just as in Economic Justice for All, where the Bishops encourage public education to improve in quality if the poor are to take their rightful place in the economic structures of society (Economic Justice For All, n.203). So, to here, in this document, the Bishops are challenging Catholic schools by peering into the third millennium and laying out the facts and thereby confronting us with a very powerful question: Will we see the new immigrants, welcome them into our schools, and trust that we have what it takes to educate them so they can take their rightful place as leaders within the Church and society? Only we possess the answer—not the Bishops.
Similar in spirit to the above discussion is the final challenge that I will discuss from the Bishops’ statement and that is their clear and intentional insertion that Catholic schools must “look for ways to include and serve better the needs of young people in our Church who have special educational and physical needs” (RCCESS, n.22).
Here the U.S. Bishops are fleshing out what the Congregation for Catholic Education highlighted in Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium. As you look at the last three sections of that document: Care for Learning Means Loving; Catholic School at the Service of Society; and Climate of the Educating Community—all three describe the nature (hope) and focus (purpose) of the Catholic school in its relationship with whom the school is serving. 
These three sections touch upon our previous discussion regarding the disadvantaged as well as the “right of the families to see that their children receive the sort of education they wish for them” (Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, n. 16). Implicit in the text, is what I believe the U.S. Bishops make explicit in their commentary when they intentionally identify children with learning needs. No school can justify the absence of Catholic families with children who have learning needs if these Catholic families desire a Catholic education.
Perhaps my interpretation is much bolder than the Bishops’ intention.  Yet, by identifying this particular segment of the Catholic population, I believe the Bishops are urging the Catholic schools to recognize the presence of special need children and their families for they are going to encounter them as they move into the third millennium and they must be committed to serve them. As bold as this urging is by the Bishops, its purpose is filled with hope.
Greeley’s research, once again comes to our assistance by pointing out that when dealing with students that are disadvantaged and/or have needs, “those with academic, emotional, disciplinary, and familial, and who lack a home environment conducive to success” (Greeley, n.2, 1997) the research shows that Catholic schools are successful in educating them, “moreover the success of the Catholic schools increases as these problems pile up on students” (Greeley, n.2, 1997) because Catholic schools provide stronger community support, and give more personal attention to students than do the public schools (Greeley, n.2, 1997)
So, Bishops and those of us involved in Catholic school leadership should take comfort, even without all the money for special programs and/or personalized tutors, Catholic schools can still achieve greater results merely because of the nature of our schools and our commitment to the student. The real challenge for Catholic schools is not in our ability to serve Catholic families with children with special needs, but rather, in our desire to find within the school’s mission a place where these children can not only be served but can be authentically welcomed. This place must be found by us—not the Bishops
Challenged by the present, while peering into the future, for some, might produce uncertainty and skepticism. Characterizing the young, educating the new immigrant, and welcoming the child with learning needs, as seen in the light of the Bishops’ statement, now--12 years later, seems quite prophetic. Those in Catholic leadership, who have made strides in these areas, did so because they did not look over their shoulders at the Bishops with justified uncertainty and suspicious skepticism. In contrast, they chose to listen to the voice of the Bishops, both past and present, who called upon them to create the future of Catholic Schools with a sense of hope and purpose.
Only with a sense of a hope and purpose can authentic leadership surface. I am so grateful that our Saints and our Founders of Religious Congregations, so many of whom dedicated their life to Catholic education, did not look upon their future with uncertainty or skepticism. Many of them did not look over their shoulder to find validation in the mission, rather they trusted in the hand of providence, the inner dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the evident need right in front of them to which their mission was responding. These internal gauges of hope and purpose catapulted these men and women into their future without fear. As Catholic educators can we look upon the Bishops’ statement as a challenge to move beyond our 20th Century comfort zone and into third millennium? Yes, as long as we are convinced that it is God’s work being done and that Divine Providence brings to us those we are to serve and then the means by which we are to serve them. Only with the conviction that it is God’s work being done with the assistance of Divine Providence can we as Catholic educators see the future of Catholic schools: a future, filled with hope and a mission filled with purpose.
Let me close by quoting notable statements from Bishops, both past and present who give real words to the meaning of Catholic education filled with hope and purpose.
 “Knowing, therefore, that the principles instilled in the course of a Christian education, are generally preserved through life, and that a young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Bishop John Carroll, Pastoral Letter of 1792, n. 3).
“The three great educational agencies are the home, the Church, and the school. These mold men and shape society” (Archbishop James Gibbons, Pastoral Letter of 1884, n. 32).
“The future of humanity lies in the hands of those (educators) who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping” (To Teach as Jesus Did, n. 82).
“Young people of the third millennium must be a source of energy and leadership in our Church and our nation. Therefore, we must provide young people with a…sound program of education and faith formation. . .” (RCCESS, n.9)


Carroll, Bishop John. (1792). Pastoral Letter.
Congregation for Catholic Education. (1997). The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.
Gibbons, Archbishop James. (1884). Pastoral Letter issued by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore.
Greeley, Andrew. (1997). Catholic School Research at the Crossroads. Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1986). Economic Justice for All, Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1977). To Teach as Jesus Did: A Pastoral Message on Catholic Education.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2005). Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

NCEA2017 'TED' Chat: Forget Everything You Learned in School

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” -Einstein

The need for 21st Century Learning may not be so '21st Century.' --I would say, it has been rediscovered as necessary in order for our children to be successful later in life.

Although, Einstein was a product of the 19th century and offered his insights for the 20th Century, he continues to inspire us for the 21st Century. One only has to read his quotes to get a sense that this great thinker possessed the 'heart' and the 'mind' of what 21st Century Learning aspires to offer today's students.

How about this one...

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” ~ Albert Einstein

Ouch! As I read his words I find myself secretly agreeing with Albert, even though I've been an educator for over 25 year. I guess, I was kind of like that 'fish' that never really could 'climb that tree.' As a result, I spent most of my K-12 years thinking I was 'stupid.'

Life, however, has a way of making one 'smart' or at least it has a way of stripping away the facade that facts and knowledge measure a person's ability. I'll never forget my freshman year in college, when, in order to be admitted into a religious order, I had take an IQ test. Upon receiving the results, I laughed out loud when the counselor told me I scored superior. "How can that be," I asked, "when I always tested as average in school?"

His explanation was my first real 'life lesson'--he said something like this, (I found this definition on line) that 'my' intelligence measured 'my' capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and demonstrated my aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc....--not just what I knew or memorized., I began to ask some questions like:  Why did it take so long for my ability to surface? Why couldn't the teachers see my ability?  Then it hit me, the real question was, Why couldn't I see my own ability?

It's very simple: WYTIWYG! What You Test Is What You Get! And the 'Y' is plural. It not only refers to what, 'you,' the teacher will get by externalizing the results for a grade--but what, 'you,' the child will internalize and believe about him/her self later in life. I know I did.

At my school--there were no tests to measure my ability only my knowledge (or what the book said). There were no tests to score my level of creativity only my level of regurgitation. There were no exams that asked for understanding or synthesis--only exams that wanted facts, correct spelling and proper grammar. There were no projects based on interest, passion or, only handouts that required you 'colored in the lines.' As a consequence, the perception of my ability was being shaped by tests that kept telling not just how 'little I knew' but more insidiously, they were communicating just how 'great' was my 'inability' to learn.

Einstein was right...I really needed to forget school in order to understand the value of my education.
Once I climbed down from the 'tree' and started listening to how life was educating mind opened up. College was awesome. I was being asked to think, to synthesize, to make correlations, to apply to real life and I was damn good at it. Although, a victim of my own doubt from time to time...good professors and a strong passion kept me moving. When I graduated with my BA and credential I was surprised to learn on my graduation diploma that I earned Magna Cum Laude. You see, even though I knew my grades, I still couldn't believe I was that smart--guess, I still have to come down off that tree.

So, what experiences from my life's 'education' opened my mind to help me score with superior intelligence? Upon reflection, perhaps it was the 'education,' that came in the form learning piano and guitar, which I taught myself when I was in 7th grade. Or maybe it was the 'education' that came in the form of writing stories and plays and then performing them for our family and friends when I was young or later in high school when I performed in the theatre. Perhaps my 'education' is a result of reading countless fairytales, watching classic movies and as my mom always said...'when you were little you were always taking things apart to see how they worked.'---Life was actually making me very 'smart' --who would have thought that the learning I was doing only paralleled my schooling--because it was never part of my classroom experience.

If you would have asked me at eighteen, do you see yourself becoming a published author, a national presenter, or a educational leader sitting on boards and representing elementary principals from 3 states? I would have had no hesitation and answered, 'I'm not smart enough to do those things.'

Yet, all I needed to do was 'forget what I learned in school' and the value of my life 'education' rose to fill the void.

So, how could it have been different? Who knows? I think rather than dwelling on my past...I'm going to look forward and draw some conclusions. How could 'that' child, (me), be served by education today?

Simple: 21st Century Skills & Project-based learning.

Learning focused on Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking.
Project-based learning that is student driven based on interest, talent and passion.

Let me end by sharing a great comic strip from Calvin and Hobbes that sums it up.

Thanks to the NCEA team and Andrea Kopp, Asst. Director for Professional Development, for giving me the opportunity to share this 'TED'-like chat with the attendees. The experience was both very personal and affirming.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

School Effectiveness? My Take on it!

What is my “take” school effectiveness? In my humble opinion, which has taken a number of years to form, I believe, effective schools must adhere to four guiding principles: Effective schools must 1) listen to and engage parents and teachers; 2) communicate the school’s mission/vision; 3) institute and evaluate sound educational practices, and 4) nurture their own unique identity, culture, and local autonomy.
Listen and Engage Parents and Teachers
            Why is it important to listen to and engage teachers and parents? Effective schools do not exist outside of the domain of the parents and teachers. Therefore, their participation in creating and maintaining an effective school is crucial. Effective schools are for ever evolving into the environment necessary for the best learning to take place. It is my opinion, that only by listening to the parents and the teachers will the school come to understand how it may need to evolve in order to meet current or future needs. Let me illustrate my point through a short original parable:
Once upon a time, a family rented a small room. After a short time, the family went to the owner of the small room and stated that the room was too small. The owner of the small room, angered by this comment, evicted the family. Now the room is empty, but it is still too small.
Effective schools listen to the voices of the primary educators, namely the parents in conjunction with the voices of the professional educators, otherwise identified as the teachers, when identifying the educational and developmental needs of the students.  Schools that fail to listen to these two constituencies cannot be effective for the school will lose the confidence of both the parents and teachers in the educational process, morale will drop, involvement will decline followed by enrollment. Listening however is not complete without engagement. Effective schools understand and believe that everything they need to succeed exists within the educational community of parents and teachers and therefore engagement of both groups is the only way the needs being expressed can be addressed. Once parents and or teachers state that the “room is too small,” and the “owners of the room” truly listen without becoming defensive, the active engagement of the parents and or teachers is in the next step in the “expansion” of creating a more effective school. Effective schools believe that everything necessary to become more effective exists within the community, thus, not only the ideas for improvement, but the means to improve as well.
Communicate School Mission and Vision
Once upon a time a little fish said, “Excuse me” to another fish and asked, “You are older and more experience than I, and you will probably be able to help me. Tell, me: where can I find this thing they call the Ocean? I’ve been searching for it everywhere to no avail.” “The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is what you are swimming in now.” “Oh, this? But this is only water. What I’m searching for is the Ocean,” said the young fish. Feeling quite disappointed the young fish swam away to search elsewhere.”
Effective schools communicate their mission and their vision clearly at all times.
There should never be any doubt about the “Ocean” in which your school community is immersed. Every form of communication, every event, every meeting attended by parents, students and teachers, and every image associated with the school must “hold” the vision and the mission of the school. Once doubt, ambiguity or uncertainly begin to cloud “the waters” of the school vision/mission, families and teachers will embark on their search for that “ocean” that possesses and articulates its depth. Effective schools express and live their mission/vision while attracting others to their life-giving waters.
Institute & Evaluate Sound Educational Practices
            Listening to, engaging and communicating with parents and teachers are the foundational sources of any effective school. Sound educational practices, however, are the materials from which the educational edifice is built. Effective schools depend on the professional knowledge base of its teachers and administrators to implement sound research-based educational practices. These practices may include, but are not limited to, differentiated instructional methods, standard-based curriculum review and textbook selection, norm and criteria referenced testing, portfolio assessment, value-based and/or Gospel-centered code of conduct, and service to the greater community. Well-established practices, however, in order to maintain their effectiveness, must be evaluated at least on an annual basis or they run the risk of serving the needs of the educator/administrator and not the needs of the students. Perhaps a short original parable may help express my point.
Once Upon A Time, there were three tailors, who were very dedicated to making clothes. They prided themselves on how well they got along with each other because they agreed never to disagree. One day a man came in and asked if he could have a pair of pants made for him. The first tailor looked at the man and from sight attempted to guess his size. The second tailor also looked at the man and from sight attempted to guess his size. It didn’t take long before the two tailors soon realized that they both had come to different sizes so, rather then have a disagreement, they agreed to divide the pants in half each making one side. The third tailor, however, took a measuring tape and sized up the man. When he told the other two tailors that both were wrong with their sizes he was immediately fired for he had broken their agreement not to disagree. A few days later the man returned to pick up his new pants and after he tried them on he found that one leg was too short and the other was too long. The pants were obviously of no use to him and angry by this mistake, he canceled his order, refused to pay for the pants and never did business with the three tailors ever again.
Failure to critically evaluate the educational practices of a school will most certainly lead to complacency and ultimately undermine school effectiveness. On the other hand, regular evaluation allows all the stakeholders to see where progress has been made and where the opportunities for improvement can be found. When evaluation is then open and transparent, the parents and those invested in the school have confidence in the willingness for the school to be accountable and willing to become more effective.
Nurture Unique Identity & Autonomy
Finally, school effectiveness cannot be attained through generic solutions or “one size fits all” formulas. Every school possesses a unique culture and or identity and in essence possesses a distinct mission and reason for existing. Therefore, understanding the school’s identity and nurturing that uniqueness will help individual school communities find their own strategies to meet their needs rather than trying to apply “fix-alls” that come from outside. One can clearly see how this insight is closely tied to the second principle of communicating the school’s mission and vision. There are no generic solutions, because there is no such reality as a generic Catholic education. Catholic schools enjoy the unique grace of being founded for specific reasons, re-founding those reasons provides meaning and energy to our current reason for existence. Thus, local autonomy is necessary for this type of nurturing to occur for it dispenses with the notion that there is some type of generic Catholic education out there. Catholic schools that have not discovered nor nurtured their identity most certainly have lost their effectiveness. I will conclude with an original story that I believe expresses this principle quite powerfully.
Once Upon A Time, there was a monastery where the brothers who lived there worked on a little field and they were neither happy nor sad. They were, you could say, indifferent. The brothers had all settled down to this way of life and work for they didn't know any other way of living. One day a very smart and talented young man came to the monastery and wanted to join the brothers. The young man had great abilities in writing, music, the arts and in the sciences. The Abbot felt very lucky that such a young man wanted to join the brothers. As his training was coming to an end the young man went to his Abbot and asked, "Should I continue my studies as a writer, in music or the arts, or should I pursue my studies in technology or science?"
            "Oh no," said the Abbot, "don't you understand that all we do here is work in our little field and you must settle for that and nothing more."
            "I see." said the young man and he went back out into the field. As the young man was working in the field he found an old box buried deep in the earth. He opened the box and inside was a picture of a monastery where the brothers were smiling, singing, playing, working, building, studying and praying. In the front of all the activity was a young man who was obviously the Abbot. The young man thought to himself, 'This is the monastery I want to join.' The young man went to the Abbot with the picture and said, "Father, I must leave here at once for I have found the monastery God wants me to enter, for they do more than just work in their field."
            The Abbot asked, "What monastery is this?"
            The young man gave the Abbot the picture and said, "Here, I found it in the little field while digging. The picture is yours, now, I must move on. Good-bye."
The Abbot cried as he looked at the picture for he remembered his founder with love.