My Thoughts on the Spring Gala 2019

On March 7, 2019, at the Biltmore Hotel, in Downtown LA, Verbum Dei High School produced the “best ever Verbum Dei event,” according to most of our attendees—sponsors, volunteers, faculty, and staff. They said they loved the interactions with the students, who were networking and passing out their own business cards. Guests also enjoyed the VIP reception. Finally, they said they enjoyed the program, the videos, the student involvement, and ending the program “at a very reasonable time.” How and why did this happen?

Well, I believe there were several reasons:

  1. We hired a consultant who pushed us to do things that were uncomfortable for us, but in the end proved that they were for the best.
  2. Our event honoree, Joe Viola/Crescent Capital, and co-chair Phil Hosp, were incredible with their support, efforts, time, and energy.
  3. We involved the student body in the evening’s program far more than we have ever done before…in fact, our emcees were students!!
  4. We produced a very enjoyable/successful VIP reception
  5. Last but not least, the Mission Advancement team came together and rallied around the effort like never before, led by Stephanie Andrade, Michelle Cordova, and Annie Levine. Simply put, we have assembled the dream team.

And, our results speak for themselves:

  1. Our fundraising goal was $500K and we ended up raising $600K
  2. Our attendance goal was 350 and we closed the evening with 400 people present
  3. The graduating class of 2019 thoroughly enjoyed the event and the honors we bestowed upon them—several stopped me the following week telling me how much they appreciated the evening
  4. We acquired 121 new Verbum Dei supporters!
  5. We aimed for the event to end by8:30pm…we got everyone out by 8:40pm…not too bad…

Stay tuned for next year’s Spring Gala, as we can guarantee it will be bigger, better and of course the best event you will attend in 2020! Yes, the Dream Team has already started planning it!!P.S. Thanks to all of the staff and faculty, volunteers, supporters, parents, those who attended and those who couldn’t make it, but were there in spirit. It was a smashing success thanks to you all!!  

Study Jam

As we near the end of spring semester, one strategy the counseling department implements  in collaboration with the faculty to prepare students for finals is Study Jam. Study Jam happens two time a year, once in the fall and once in the spring during finals review week.  Students 9th-12th grade are invited to join their peers and teachers in a “college like” setting where they can work in study groups. We create a schedule by grade level and break down the subjects by days. Students and teachers meet in the Student Success Center for about an hour after school and they go over questions on their study guides. Study Jam not only provides a study time for students but also a feeling of community and brotherhood – students learn from both their teachers and their peers. As counselors one of our main focuses is to support our students and to create programs to cultivate lifelong learners – we look forward to continuing to implement existing and new strategies.

A group of freshmen preparing for their Algebra Final

Turbulence in Admissions, Verbum Dei Still Flying High

There are numerous stories being reported on the most recent bribery scandal for college admissions consideration, individuals seeking fraudulent acceptance into several of the nation’s most elite colleges and universities. These actions crafted by a corrupt college admissions counselor, unqualified students and their parents were effected to ensure ill-equipped applicants gain opportunities to be admitted into top colleges and universities. This behavior will bear impact on many levels. The value conflicts that can be associated with this dilemma, lack of character and absence of integrity for the more than 750 estimated families involved will result in an inescapable difficulty, identifying limited spaces for college considerations for qualified students and the resulting negative consequences, especially for some of the most complicated, multidimensional, High School communities we all know as the Cristo Rey Network of Schools. As the third member of the Cristo Rey Network of Schools, and the first conversion school Verbum Dei High School has continued its efforts in the commitment to serving young men seeking chances to dispel the societal stereotypes placed on Black and Brown Boys from its neighboring communities, that they are incapable of producing effort to distinguish themselves as scholars. However, no matter how well-intentioned and proactive Verbum Dei High School is in its pursuit to ensure its students gain valuable opportunities of consideration into college we most certainly will need to remain spiritually rooted. With our focus on further developing the intellectually motivated young man, it is our goal to assist him to uphold a determination, strength of character, grit, and continue our tradition of commitment and perseverance. Our students will face a variety of ethical and moral dilemmas throughout their educational careers however; ethical behavior should not be one. In the Admissions Department we are approaching the Admissions Season’s Second Round seeking young men from our target communities of South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton who possess motivation, maturity, character, leadership and integrity, thus far we have identified eighty-four qualified candidates and seek approximately fifty more to round out the 2019 recruitment season.

We are managing the challenges within this search for qualified candidates during this era of presidential politics, that reveal infuriating stories in the wake of headlines of affluent people accused of paying more than $25 million to misrepresent student test scores and bribe college officials, deceitfully stealing spaces foreordained for those from Verbum Dei High School that have proven themselves despite the difficulties of navigating disadvantaged circumstances. There is an awareness that must be magnified psychologically, within our school community about society and the social theory between poverty and privilege. Within this examination we must assist students to recognize the design for our multidimensional curriculum and the goal, preparation for college and life after college. As admissions counselors/educators interested in radical transformation, we seek students who want to represent themselves in ways which do not appeal to the prevailing classes, we seek students who are mature and will insist that accommodations are made for their consideration in the name of justice, social justice, with an aim for transformative change. While society fantasizes about the High Schools that seek to accomplish this aim, Verbum Dei continues the efforts to eliminate poverty through the guise of the Corporate Work Study Program and other curriculum based programs that seek to stimulate and prepare our students to be agents for change. We assert that as long as measurements in numerical data and the raising or lowering of averages on test scores are used for exclusion into educational institutions and there is less consideration for academic success, human motivation and academic potential we will never eliminate unfair privilege or poverty and the affluent will continue to devise unfair advantages to keep the status quo. Nevertheless, with the appropriate amount of encouragement and educational supports in place, we contend that society will be able to yield an emancipatory outcome for those seeking reform, and with the possibilities for improvements within this continued action plan the scandalous can do no more to oppress those operating in accord to answering the call to action and accountability to see resolve.

What am I supposed to do for Lent?

Recently, one of our faculty pointed Verbum Dei’s faculty and staff to a blog by the Jesuits which focused on a central question about this special season…

What am I supposed to do for Lent?

Do you give up things…like chocolate…or sodas? Do you give up alcohol? Do you pray a little more? Do you go to daily mass? … There is a sense in which these are all good things, but there is a definite temptation that can appear when preparing for Lent: It’s easy to make Lent a sort of “Catholic New Year’s Resolution.”

I have to admit that I tend to let Lent be that sort of experience where I want to simply let Lent be a period of denial…because it helps me be different from my normal routine, but in a much simpler form than I probably should venture into.

You should know that I recently decided to join Weight Watchers, which I have decided is a less religious form of Lent.  But clearly, it can be a life changing experience because it helps you change your body in a positive way.  And along that path, you tend to become more positive about yourself, your health and other goals you seek for your life.  But it really is about me…not necessarily about others.

I guess what I want to challenge each of us to do is to experience Lent in a much more positive way.  Verbum Dei’s Campus Ministry team offered up their Lenten Challenge, which I would suggest is a wonderful option for all of us:

Week 1:      Do one good thing each day when no one is watching.

Week 2:      Give up something you love and donate the money you would have spent on that item to a group you want to support for their social justice work.

Week 3:      Read about one justice related current event and tell someone about it.

Week 4:      Write a thank you note or e-mail to someone every day this week.

Week 5:      Pray for someone daily – or pray with someone each day.

Week 6:      Give up one social media platform for one week!  OR post something related to Lent for the week #Lentenchallenge.

Week 7:      Tell a different family member or friend how much they mean to you each day.

Consider what things in your life keep you in the tomb instead of experiencing the resurrection.  I pray that you may find these challenges a more positive approach to Lent, hopefully helping you to encounter Christ within the mystery of the Resurrection—and the little resurrections that renew your life each day.

Keeping Black and Brown Boys in Class & Engaged

Research has shown that students who experience discipline that removes them from the classroom are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school and become involved in the juvenile justice system. Studies have shown this can result in decreased earning potential and added costs to society, such as incarceration and lost tax revenue.

Boy’s account for 71 percent of all school suspensions. Fifty-nine percent of Black boys and 42 percent of Hispanic boys report being suspended. (U.S. Dept of Ed and Schott Foundation Report)Here are some of the reasons why I feel that Black & Brown boys do not want to be in the classroom or at school.

  • They don’t feel respected by their teachers
  • They don’t feel that they are a welcome member of the school community
  • They don’t have positive relationships with faculty & staff
  • They are not interested in what is being taught
  • They can sense teachers undervalue their intelligence (based on rigor of work and thoughtfulness of lesson plans, etc.)

If you have high quality instruction in every classroom and make sure that the lesson is engaging then boys of color would see school a little different. Also teachers should find a way to get to know their students. Teachers can do this by asking students what they like to do outside of school or attending extracurricular events that their students are involved in. It is also okay to let your students know that you care for them and are concerned about their well-being. Look for ways to let students share their own diverse experiences, whether it’s through spoken word, in conversations, writing or videos. Also they are bothered that some of their teachers don’t understand. Understanding conveys care. Be honest about who you are and your purpose.

Maintain high expectations but throw a dash of love in there. High expectations without nurturing or love will cause a sense of defeat to develop in the boys. You want to show them that you believe that they can reach that goal and that you’re here to help them get there. Be as consistent with positive reinforcements as you are with negative reinforcements—this will build trust. Learning is sustained through trusting the person who is doing the teaching. Some boys of color do not like to admit their educational struggles in fear of being teased by classmates or feeling inadequate. Pride plays a role due to a lack of disconnect between them and their teachers. In some cases, they act out in class because they do not understand the lesson so they are hoping to get put out of class or they ask can they go to the restroom and take their time coming back to class. Our Boys of Color need to be motivated and not have them feel like failures when things do not go well.  We have to keep encouraging and show we care and are there for them. It is a lot going on in their lives that we have no clue about.

College

 

I love college. So much so that in high school I joined a college preparatory program to ensure that I would live the dream and be able to attend anyone of my top 3 choices, and I did, I got into my first choice-Go Lions! I fell in love with college early on because I was exposed to different college campuses. I knew LMU was right because of how being on campus made me feel. I was able to envision the next four years, taking advantage of clubs, study abroad, studying in the library and fulfilling my ideals of being a successful college student. Upon my bittersweet graduation I was happy to return to that college prep program as a staff member to help facilitate that process and to help each student find their fuzzy feelings and future self on a college campus of their dreams, which ultimately led me to Verb to continue my mission.

For the past two years, we have been blessed to be able to facilitate campus visits for all class levels. By the time of graduation, all Verbum Dei students will have visit 3-4 college campuses as part of the college guidance curriculum. This year Chapman University in Orange, CA hosted the freshmen class. For many of them it was their first time on a college campus and Chapman did not disappoint. Students were ushered around campus on intimate tours, received their first college lecture on admissions processes and financial aid and discussed the importance of college with their counselor in a lecture hall as well as ate lunch in the cafeteria- this always sells boys especially on college! We ended the day in a business lecture hall having conversations with student athletes, coaches and professors, all thanks to Verbum Dei alumni turned admission counselor, Christian Aguilar. Next up is the sophomore class who will visit both Concordia University Irvine, a small private Christian liberal arts college and UC Irvine, a larger public research based institution. Maybe they’ll find a perfect match to add to their top 3 list of colleges.

Our college exploration program is growing. If you are an alumni of a local college or university and know staff members in the outreach office who would be happy to host Verbum Dei students and provide some programming that helps students see what college is really about, please have them contact Antoinette Bowie-Smith, School Counselor at abowie@verbumdei.us. Our next step is to grow outward, providing college trips in Northern California and out-of-state for students. Wish us luck (and financial support) in our ventures!

 

Theology in Film

Admittedly, this is my favorite class to teach. I grew up doing two things on a weekly basis: attending mass and watching movies. This class is where my love of faith and film come together and it has become a favorite for each senior class I’ve taught. The seniors get to experience films through a theological lens. What that means is that we study a particular theological theme , unpack it, then analyze the film for insights into the theme. What the kids find exciting is that these films are not “Christian” films because they are not overtly about Christ(as they often remind me.) After we spend time studying the theme and watching the films, each student has their moment of realization when the non-Christian film begins to reveal more about Christianity than they ever could’ve imagined. These are the moments that I live for.

This class is an example of the Jesuit understanding that God is in all things. Most recently we studied the theme of Christology through the 1999 classic Sci-Fi film, The Matrix. The students were shocked to realize that the names, imagery, and themes of the film were tied to the life, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.(The Wachowski siblings did their homework!)

As we are a college prep school, we utilize challenging text from current theological voices like that of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ. Dr. Johnson is a professor emerita at Fordham University whose works have helped shape our theology department over the past few years. Through who works the students are confronted with college level rigor while also being challenged to see that God’s grace can be found in some of the most unlikely of contexts…like that of a sci-fi film.

The Matrix has helped the students understand the Gospels in a new way that connects to them in their current context. The Christ-like figure of Neo proclaims this in his final monologue of the film. Imagine Jesus saying these words instead and see if it resonates.

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

Something to think about, don’t you think? Jesus knows that the spirit of the world is afraid of change. This spirit of the world is that which breeds greed, injustice, hate, separation, and a misuse of power. Jesus knows that a change is coming since he is the herald of that change. He came to show us a better way of living, of loving, of being what God made us to be. That world he shows us is without the controls of sin, without the boundaries we have arbitrarily created between each person, each community. A world where authentic Christ-like love is possible not only on an individual level, but on the communal as well. But as always, God gives us free will to choose to live like Christ or not. The choice is up to us.

A Lesson in U.S. History

Though I have taught World History for many years now, this is the first year that I have taught US history.  This past November, I was teaching a unit about the events and conditions that led up to the Civil War, including the emergence of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party as the main opponents to the expansion of slavery in America.  One of my black students, Timothy, raised his hand looking confused.  “I don’t understand – how could Republicans be the party that was against slavery?  All my family are Democrats, and say that Republicans don’t want black people to vote!”  So my pre-planned lesson was put on hold as I was explained how the Democrats used to be the party of southern slave-owners and segregationists, while the Republicans were the party of abolitionists and reconstruction, and how all of that flipped during the Civil Rights era.  But even as I was explaining, it dawned on me how important it was to help Timothy and his fellow Verbum Dei gentlemen to understand the long journey of American history and how for people who looked like him, the United States has not always been a beacon of freedom or a city on a hill.

When I was in high school, my US history class never really dealt with reconstruction, segregation, Civil Rights, or any of the challenging history of racism in this country.  25 years ago, US history was mostly taught as one unbroken tale of triumph – where slavery was solved by the Civil War, and immigrants were always welcomed by Lady Liberty.  So now as a teacher at a school in Watts, California, I have to take up the challenge of teaching a more complete and complicated story of America – one of lights and shadows, freedom and oppression, shining ideals and infamous cruelty.  I have the duty to help our young men become faithful citizens of a country that is not always faithful to them.  I have the difficult task – and the great joy – of helping our gentlemen not only to know their rights, but also take responsibility for building a more just society for themselves, their children, and for all of us.

So at the beginning of this Black History month, blessings to you all.  May we all continue to learn and grow through greater awareness of our shared history of struggle, tragedy, and triumph.

Martin Luther King Jr. with Lyndon Johnson in 1966
Jackie Robinson with Richard Nixon in 1952

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For…

Over the next few days the media will be flooded with excerpts of Dr. King’s speeches and letters. One of my favorites is the Letter from Birmingham Jail written on April 16, 1963 where Dr. King defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. In one of the most profound points, King writes:

For years now I have heard the words “Wait!..The “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”… I guess it is easy for those who have felt the stinging facts of segregation to say, “Wait.”…when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however hold you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respect title of “Mrs.”…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleekness of corroding despair.

Just eight months prior to Dr. King’s speech Verbum Dei opened its doors. Verbum Dei, an educational institution founded on the Word of God, consisted of faculty members, parents, and students that refused to wait. They refused to wait for a society to become ready for their students- scholars and scholar-athletes ready for college success. They refused to wait for educational research to recognize the importance of student-teacher relationships and high expectations- they had already done that.

And so it is with us, Verbum Dei. We find ourselves in similar times as Dr. King. Human dignity is perceived as something that must be earned not something that is innate to one’s human-ness. Verbum Dei’s nonviolent strategy to racism (or any other -ism that denies human dignity) is education and inspiration. Verbum Dei educates and inspires young men of color in Watts and the surrounding cities. We refuse to wait for permission. We refuse to wait until it is trending. We refuse to wait for the perfect conditions. We refuse to wait for city or government leaders to lead the way. Verbum Dei knows WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Xavier College Prep High School Trip

Molly Fruland, Campus Ministry/College Guidance Assistant, took 11 Verb Gentlemen to Xavier College Prep earlier this month and she wrote the following on her experience –

“The weekend of December 7th-9th I had the absolute honor to coordinate and chaperone a trip that brought 11 Verb Gentlemen to Xavier College Prep High School in Palm Desert.  During the trip students served, learned, and grew in fellowship with students from Xavier and were allowed to continue the Jesuit tradition of experiencing, questioning, and reflecting on the gritty realities of the world. This trip allowed students to gain a deeper understanding of social justice issues in the Coachella Valley, to learn about the importance of building community with new people, and explore spirituality in new ways.

When thinking about the Coachella Valley, many people immediately think of a spring break destination and the home of some of the largest music festivals in the United States. But the Coachella Valley has a rich history of migration, environmental degradation, and rich Latino culture. Four of California’s top 10 poorest cities [North Shore, Oasis, Mecca, and Thermal] are in the Coachella Valley, where the most economic, social, and ecological disparity can be found. On this specific immersion, we looked at social disparity. Due to the stark contrasts between cities of the Coachella Valley, the cities of Coachella, Mecca, and Thermal transformed into an intriguing classroom for students to begin to scratch the surface of learning about social justice issues.

Our weekend started off with a 400-year-old Mexican tradition called La Posada. This celebration honors the journey of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus and the word posada translates to the word hospitality, which there was no lacking of on this trip. Upon our arrival, we ate tamales, played games, and sang Christmas songs with members of the Xavier Prep community.

The next stop on our trip focused on agriculture in the Coachella Valley. We visited Prime Time Farms that grew bell peppers and romaine lettuce. Our students got to witness and learn about farming and the importance of agriculture to the Coachella Valley, California, and to the whole country. We also had the opportunity to visit a date farm and try date shakes, a popular frozen treat in the Coachella Valley. Our boys had mixed opinions on dates but did love learning about how dates are harvested and getting to pick dates.

We then traveled to the Salton Sea to learn about environmental degradation. Once a haven for vacationers looking to relax, The Salton Sea is now extremely polluted, as it has been used as a repository for agricultural wastewaters and is shrinking rapidly because it is being bought, filtered, and resold by large corporations. While here, students paired up and brainstormed ways to address this issue and reflect on how it has impacted the surrounding community.

Saturday evening, Xavier Prep organized a talk about immigration from a Spanish teacher at the school and a local lawyer that works in immigration. Both shared their experiences with immigration in this country and urged our students to think critically about where they get their information and the different experiences people have in this country.

This incredible weekend came to a close with a Mass on Sunday morning at a cactus farm. The priest’s homily encouraged our students to share their experiences in the Coachella Valley with one another and to be reminded that God’s gift to us is nature and that it needs to be taken care of and protected from injustice.

This weekend allowed our Verbum Dei Gentlemen to put on a growth mindset and engage with the social justice issues that are not found in Los Angeles. Through their interaction and community building with Xavier Prep students, their deep interest and curiosity about culture in the Coachella Valley, and their experience of service, they have truly molded themselves into becoming men with and for others.”