Whenever an organization encounters a shift in leadership, the stakeholders, the senior leadership must evolve a new mindset. In Admissions this is exactly what we are doing. We are excited and have implemented a new system for evaluating prospective students and their families seeking enrollment into Verbum Dei High School. The new evaluative formula ensures that all students admitted to Verbum Dei exemplify the school’s mission and will be appropriately served by the resources that we provide.  Transitional experiences are often the most important developmental aspects of any new structure; as such, stakeholders must remain dedicated to the mission. We have a significant responsibility to follow the metamorphosis closely and monitor the change as we evolve.

In my observation, this period of change has afforded an opportunity of analysis which allows a boundless level of appreciation. The security I describe is in the way we have worked together to do the things we needed to do and how we have done them. Father Michael Mandala, SJ and Dr. Brandi Odom-Lucas Interim Principal have pulled things together, assumed their leadership positions and have guided the Faculty and Staff well during this challenge. This certainly can be recognized by measuring the agreement shared throughout the room most recently during our in-service following the revelation of our new Integral Student Outcomes.

The goal of the perceptible transformation we stimulate in the students we serve does not change. As we are seeking to adapt and serve more students and their families during these turbulent times we cannot forget that the change we seek for them must also be reflected in us. Essentially, when we pursue professional approaches to restructuring and replacing stakeholders and humility, empathy and moral courage is not the procedural pursuit, we lose part of the ministry for which I consider to be my most valuable quality and the most valuable part of what we do here. There are always opportunities to reframe problems, reinterpret alternatives and reform strategies and to do so continuously. The goal of this expression, the point of the message, is within the challenge to operate differently in our behavior, in our response. Our continuous challenge is to be merciful, kind, generous, loving and willing to do all that it takes, even at one’s own expense, to help another (‘the least’) in true need.

If a man has 100 sheep, but one of the sheep becomes lost, then the man will leave the other 99 sheep on the hill. He will go to look for the lost sheep. Right? And if the man finds the lost sheep, the man is happier about that one sheep than about the 99 sheep that were never lost. I tell you the truth. In the same way, your Father in heaven does not want any of these little children to be lost. — Matthew 18:12-14

 

With the recent transition caused by Dr. O’Connell’s departure, I found myself extremely concerned about my students. How will they respond? Will they be comfortable with my leadership? Is this the best thing for my students? I was confident in the resiliency my boys have demonstrated personally and academically, but I was very nervous that this transition would be a negative disruption to their already busy lives.

Once the announcement was made Donaven, the 6’3” senior who is the Center on the Verbum Dei Varsity Basketball team came up to me and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Odom. How do you feel?” I responded, “A bit nervous!” Without skipping a beat Donavan smiled and said, “Don’t worry… you’re good! You got this!”

I walked away but couldn’t help but hear his voice saying, “You Got This!” What an amazingly simple, yet poignant expression that, to me, represented the lessons the Verb has taught him these past four years. Lessons about having faith in the small things, being a man for others and exercising resiliency were undoubtedly taught both inside and outside the classroom. Donaven’s response to me demonstrated his understanding of life’s twists and turns. He showed that he understands the importance of faith when facing a new endeavor- faith that God’s love will sustain you, faith that you have exactly what you need to face this challenge.  But Donoven also showed the importance of standing with your brother or sister in their time of need.  What more could I want a senior to know as they leave the Eagle nest?

But this is what makes the Verb so different. Not only do the faculty and staff at Verbum Dei seek to edify and strengthen the students’ spirits but we also help students understand the importance of edifying and strengthening the spirits of their brother or sister. Donaven’s response to me was important, not just because it contained the exact words I needed to hear as I began the role as Interim Principal but it reminded me what an amazing job the Verbum Dei parents and teachers are doing in the formation of our young men.

As I work with the Faculty and Staff of Verbum Dei to lay the foundation for an exciting future, I can’t help but say to all our supporters…..Don’t worry, WE GOT THIS!

 

   As Verbum Dei seniors anxiously await responses from the colleges to which they have applied, I find myself taking the time to reflect on the growth that these young men have experienced during their four years at the Verb.  They have grown academically, socially, and athletically, but also, and most importantly, they have grown in their awareness of the human rights and have learned the importance of advocacy in times of injustice.

   The “Nine Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” by Thomas Massaro, S.J is beautifully written piece that eloquently highlights the theme of human rights.  According to Fr. Massaro, if we were all formed in the image of God, then each and every human being, regardless of who they are and what they have done in their lives, should have access to basic human rights including the ability to attain what is needed to live fully and completely.  He argues that when opposition to this belief is experienced, it is the role of the faithful to stand up and speak up.

   At Verbum Dei, our mission is to serve the underserved. It is no secret that many of our students come from homes where resources are limited and parents work tirelessly to make ends meet.  Despite the situation of their home lives, Verbum Dei students come to school each day to make a difference both by expanding their minds educationally and becoming men of character who stand against injustice and who have love for the fellow man. These students serve, on a regular basis, giving of their time to make the lives of others better.  They have worked in soup kitchens, in nursing homes, and have stood in solidarity with the homeless and refugees. They have traveled to the United States border to leave water for those who are crossing and paid homage to those who lost their lives on the journey.   They have raised funds to bring awareness and support young people all around the globe.   They have laughed together, cried together, and have created a bond that will last longer than the brief four years they have together at Verb.

   In a recent lecture I attended, the question was asked of whether two high achieving students, one attending public school and one attending Catholic school, had access to the same education.  I believe the answer is no because there is no common core standard that addresses morality and ethics, love and compassion, forgiveness and faith. It is student who attends the Catholic school that will receive the most priceless gift that can never be returned, and who, by far, receives the superior education.

   So as our seniors sit on the edges of their seats in anticipation of learning which colleges and universities have deemed them worthy of acceptance, they should take comfort in knowing that whatever the result, on this voyage, they have become men of character, who are academically competent and socially aware, and ready to be agents of change that this world needs.

 

As I step down as principal of Verbum Dei, below are some excerpts from a reflection I shared with faculty and staff in my final Monday meeting:

In June 2008, I arrived here fresh out of my doctoral program, jumping from the classroom to being principal, eager—and scared—about this new challenge.  Just 30 years old.  Those first two years were rough, as the school had severe financial problems made worse by the 2008 economic decline, resulting in having to cut $1 million from the budget, eliminating 9 jobs, and operating a skeleton of a school.  And, the next year or two was marked by difficulties as we moved to fully adopting the Cristo Rey model.

Being principal of Verbum Dei has been the most rewarding job I will probably ever have.  It has also been the most challenging and stressful job that I ever hope to have.

I have grown and learned so much professionally, but more importantly, I’ve grown as a person here within a loving, supporting community.  My family grew, as I got married and had a child.  And the Verb family grew too, as many of you got married and had children.  We grew and celebrated life together.  But we also mourned and grieved together.  Our community last year went through trying times, as we first lost a beloved student, Nathaniel Mota, and then a loved one—Yvonne’s husband Patrick—and then a longtime colleague and friend, Gustavo Lopez.  Last year was tough, but we persevered as a community, and through these tragedies, the best in us came out.  The Verbum Dei community is a strong community.

God knows I’ve made my missteps during my time as principal, but hopefully the school is in a better place than it was 6.5 years ago.

During the past few weeks during this transition period, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things I’d still like to do here at the Verb, and about all the things that I never got around to doing, or those things that I just didn’t get right.  These thoughts have caused me a lot of turmoil, but I’ve found comfort in praying and meditating on the Prayer of Oscar Romero, which reads:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

Hopefully, I’ve planted some seeds here and laid the foundations for something amazing to grow.  But I leave that in God’s hands, in your hands, and the hands of Fr. Mike, interim principal Brandi Odom Lucas, and the next principal of Verbum Dei.  Let this be an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

Please know that I will miss this place—a lot—and even more I will miss you—a lot.  I am so grateful for the blessing of working with such caring, wonderful people.  Because of you, Verbum Dei will continue to soar!

 

As the students walked across the stage, at the Commencement Ceremony in June 2014, all I could think about was “We did it again…We helped one more class along their way towards their dreams of graduating college!” And, it wasn’t easy, for the students or the faculty and staff. Yet, as I look back, it certainly was a labor of love.

Fast forward to January 2015 and we’re half way there to getting another class through. Yet, this time it’s different, we have larger goals in the Mission Advancement Office: $2.4M and planting seeds for future support. You see, we now know we can’t keep raising funds for the current year without laying a foundation for the future of fundraising at Verb. What does that mean? It means increasing Development staff and adding more opportunities for supporters to donate to Verb. So, in August 2014, we hired a new Development Assistant, Ms. Michelle Cordova, to help us expand our reach. Ms. Cordova has more than six years of experience in fund development working for such organizations as STOP CANCER. She is charge of one of the most important programs, Adopt-A-Student Program, as well as several other newer programs: Adopt-A-Teacher and our Planned Giving program cultivation. We are thrilled to have Ms. Cordova.

With the addition of Ms. Cordova, Ms. Stephanie Andrade, Development Associate, is freed up to do more higher-level development such as meeting with donors and writing grants. Ms. Andrade has been at Verb for over 13 years and is in charge of two very large programs, the Annual Mardi Gras Awards Dinner, which generated over $450K last year, and our Foundations program, which should generate $1.1M this year. With her institutional knowledge and fundraising acumen, she has proved herself invaluable to the Mission Advancement team.

Our big push for the second half of 2014/15 is the Mardi Gras event, Planned Giving, and our Adopt-A-Teacher Program. This year’s Mardi Gras will be held at the Biltmore in Downtown LA, where we are honoring Edison International and the Class of 2015. Since 2006, Edison has been a part of Verb’s Corporate Work Study Program, as well as showing support of our mission far beyond what has been asked of them. And, as you know, we honor the Class of 2015 because all that they have done to reach for their dreams of a college education. Planned Giving is important to the future of Verb because it allows donors to support the school in a significant way—through bequests, will, trusts, etc. These types of gifts often help on into the future. Our Adopt-A-Teacher Program, where we allow donors to support a specific teacher and their class for a year, helps connect supporters to what is actually happening in the classroom.

…And, after the Class of 2015, we, in Mission Advancement, will sigh in relief of a job well done, yet we will continue to try to expand our tools even further to raise even more support for resources for our students’ futures. Stay tuned…

 

    In the 1960 film adaptation of the H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” a man from Victorian England travels to the distant future where he discovers the desiccated remains of books amongst the ashen ruins of a long-forgotten library. The child-like denizens of this seemingly idyllic future society, called the Eloi, live care-free lives of hedonism, unencumbered by the harrowing self-reflection that is often the beautifully-tragic byproduct of literacy. However, beneath this veritable future Eden, there dwells a race of monstrous creatures called the Morlocks who use the ignorant, blissful, surface dwellers as cattle — literally; they eat them. Perhaps it would be premature to start battening down the hatches to defend against the next Morlock attack; but one need only follow the shockingly ignorant and grammatically impaired comments on any given youtube video to feel that the future of literacy and critical thinking is imperiled. Wells’s not- so- subtle symbolism aside, as an English teacher it can be tempting to view this generation as becoming more and more like the Eloi and, consequently, more opportune prey for the corporate, government, and infotainment Morlocks of the world. But are they? Is our current crop of youngsters really hurdling blissfully and ignorantly towards a bookless, illiterate future? The answer, thankfully, is resoundingly no!

    What I have discovered about these so-call digital-natives is that, far from being reading averse, they are actually consuming more written information, ideas, and stories than probably any generation prior. The profusion of mediums through which students consume writing, much of it digital, may seem to be a precursor to Wells’s charred, forgotten libraries; however, a library is just a building – a sagacious and venerable building to be sure – but its demise would be no more an indicator of waning literacy than the loss of a church to a hurricane signifying the loss of God’s presence. Perhaps the real concern is one of quality over quantity. Sure, students might be reading more, but if that reading is dominated by the derivative fan-fiction of a gregarious dilatant (“50 Shades of Grey “ anyone) , or the paint-by-numbers adventure of yet another teen protagonist in a cliché dominated dystopian future, then it may be a case of them simply becoming a more literate version of the Eloi. Don’t misunderstand me, I love fun trash just as much as my younger millennial compatriots. But our mission in the English department has to be to provide students with thought-provoking, world-challenging literature that enlightens as well as entertains.

    From the horrific and inhuman death camps of Nazi Germany presented in Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to the mean streets of a segregated Chicago in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, Verb students are engaging literature that presents complex characters in difficult situations. The conversations that I have been a part of concerning those titles, as well as many others, reassures me that our digital-natives are not destined to be either Eloi or Morlock, but rather true exemplars of a grad at grad. Importantly, it’s not just the anointed titles of the so-called cannon that are being thoroughly analyzed and discussed on an advanced level, but the contemporary work of tomorrow’s cannon.

    Being open to the inclusion of great writing from an increasingly diverse, dynamic, and digitally-based pool of writers is the key to making reading relevant and meaningful to our students. I am pleased to report that the English department has taken great strides in this direction as each teacher looks for new and innovative ways to reconcile the analogue and digital domains of today’s literary landscape. The sheer quantity of stuff out there is mindboggling and with so much drivel cluttering up the interwebs it can seem as though the age of the Morlocks is nigh. However, each day I am encouraged and emboldened by what I see and hear when students connect with great stories old and new.

 

The Campus Ministry team is always trying to improve the opportunities we offer our students to grow spiritually, personally, and in brotherhood with one another. As we looked at our retreat program, we saw places that needed improvement, so we began to make some changes this year. The biggest improvements can be seen in our junior and senior retreats. Our senior Kairos retreat moved from a three-day retreat in Sierra Madre to a four-day retreat in Running Springs, up near Big Bear. There is something special about seeing our students off campus, especially in such a beautiful setting. A large number of them woke up early in the morning to go for a run in the woods with a couple teachers. During the breaks, some did indoor wall climbing, while others crossed the field on the zip line, while still others played soccer, football, or basketball. Even more remarkable, though, than watching the students thoroughly enjoy their free time, was watching the student leaders open up, sharing their life stories with their classmates, as well as being witness to students as they have emotional and spiritual breakthroughs. Kairos reminds us adults why we do what we do each day.

At the end of next month, we get to go up near Big Bear again; this time to Angelus Oaks for our first overnight retreat with the junior class. We are very excited to be able to take our students out of the “ordinary” for a sort of spiritual reboot. Though I can’t give an evaluation yet, as we have yet to make the retreat, I can tell you that I have high hopes and expectations for even further growth in relationship with God and with one another than we have seen in previous years. There is something special about going up a mountain and having a “mountain-top” spiritual experience. The challenge, though, is holding onto that growth and nurturing it, even after coming back down the mountain. Luckily, our boys are always up for a challenge!

 

As Dean of Admissions it pleases me to report that Verbum Dei High School is growing! We are in our twelfth year after joining the Cristo Rey Network. There are twenty-six Cristo Rey schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia each of us provide a quality, Catholic, college preparatory education to 8,000 young people who live in urban communities with limited educational options. Verbum Dei is the only school within the network that exclusively provides an educational experience to High School aged boys. Emphatically, as many of our young men are experiencing a metamorphic, transitional change identified as puberty; the process of physical changes through which a boy’s body matures into an adult body, the Administration, Faculty and Staff members are experiencing growing pains too. We are at a place in our development as a school where our community of educators, innovators, and problem solvers are working together to expand the threshold of academic change as we know it.

Our goals have not changed, however our approach is the area where we are experiencing the most challenge. We are successful! And successfully addressing issues to promote and sustain the academic behavior of our students in a manner that leads to success while attending college and beyond. Within the past twelve years we have experienced a tremendous amount of success by achieving 100% college acceptance. Recently, we have had an increase in our student population as well as an increase in the need to remediate educational deficiencies. Over the past twelve years we took an aggressive approach to unwarranted student behavior in our classrooms and on our school campus. We are categorically pleased with the cultural transformation in the student behavior that is presented on our school campus. Now, we look forward to stimulating consistency in the academic behavior of our students.

This is what we do. Together, all of our efforts produce a platform for effecting remarkable young men displaying an unbelievable ability for breakthrough. By sharing ideas from a wide variety of sources, we convert our student’s intelligence into a capacity for a remarkable outcome. Our students are people growing into leaders capable of enduring the challenge associated with transformation and positive change. We have established a community of young men that are making a real impact in the world. We invite you to join us in our growth!

 

Over 100 of our Corporate Partner supervisors and mentors spent their Friday morning having breakfast with their team of student interns. The CWSP team hosted the 11th Annual Supervisor Appreciation Breakfast last Friday, November 14th. We were delighted to have so many of our students’ supervisors and mentors participate. Our gym was bustling with excitement as both supervisors and students enjoyed each other’s’ company.

Each year, students eagerly wait to find out whether their supervisors RVSP for this annual event. There is a great sense of pride when supervisors visit our school, our home. The norm is for our students to be transported to work one day a week, but on this day, this special day, supervisors travel to our campus to meet up with their student team. Thus, students anxiously come into our CWSP office days before the event, and with an undeniable look of curiosity, hope to get a positive response to their question, “Are my supervisors coming?”

…yes, Tylan, Western Asset will be here….yes, Julio, Ares Management will attend.

Students just can’t wait. They can’t hide their excitement when we tell them their mentor will participate or their disappointment when mentors are unable too. You see, students have formed strong relationships with their supervisors.

Our students’ supervisors play a significant role in their development. It takes a village to raise a child and supervisors become members of that village

…the village that helps to raise a child and contribute to their growth

…the village that doesn’t give up on a child while encouraging mistakes

… the village that applauds effort and not ability

…the village that reinforces responsibility

…the village that provides learning opportunities that promote confidence and self-esteem.

They are part of that village that teaches students skills that help them advance the work they complete, no matter how small.

Imagine that! Our students are surrounding themselves with a network of professionals that contribute to their growth.  A 14-year old student has formed a network with professionals from companies like Ares Management, The Aerospace Corporation, Irell & Manella, Nike, Loyola Law School, and Western Asset Management among many others.

Our Annual Supervisor Appreciation Breakfast was a small token of appreciation and time to thank our Corporate Partners for their dedication to our young men and Verbum Dei. It was a time for students and supervisors to come together and enjoy breakfast in a relaxed setting.  We are grateful to our Corporate Partners, supervisors and mentors.

 

     It is Thanksgiving week, and we are all getting ready to eat too much and to feel guilty about it afterward. We say that we will start a diet soon to lose the pounds that we put on during the holidays, and we tell ourselves that we will begin an exercise program as well. We are grateful for the friends and family we have, for the good times we have shared, and we are a little embarrassed that at times we have messed up. We are also grateful for the possibility of new beginnings. Such is the spirit of the times.

     As it turns out, in this liturgical year, Thanksgiving falls between the Feast of Christ the King and the First Sunday of Advent. In the liturgy for Christ the King we think about our lives – both the good and the bad parts of them. Even more, we recognize God’s unconditional love of each of us. After Thanksgiving on the First Sunday of Advent, we realize that with God there is always the possibility of starting again with a clearer focus and a better future.

     This liturgical period is a fine metaphor for what we desire for ourselves and for our students at Verbum Dei. We are all grateful for the lives that we lead and for the goodness that we experience all around us. We all realize that sometimes we fall short in our appreciation of the gifts that we have been given. Yet students especially come to realize that the “Verb” is a place where there is always the possibility of finding the help they need to begin again and to meet the challenge to succeed and to have a bright future.

     To the family of Verbum Dei: students, faculty, staff, donors, corporate partners and friends, Happy Thanksgiving and many blessings for the future.

 
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