We Belong to Each Other: A Dean’s Reflection

On most days, my hourly hallway walk-throughs consist of finding unattended books, a forgotten Gatorade bottle, a black tie and the occasional student rushing to avoid being late to class. On this particular day, however, I was reminded of one of the many foundational elements that keep Verbum Dei’s ground sacred; I was reminded that we belong to one another.  As I walked through the brisk morning breeze from the parking lot to the main office, I came across one of our students walking slowly towards the Multi-Purpose Room to check in before going to his CWSP internship. His gentle steps and observant glances to his surroundings communicated a peace that is not often found in the middle of midterm week. More importantly, amidst his methodical pace the student’s eyes met two slowly moving snails who were on a mission to cross the sidewalk. In a predictable fashion, the student skipped over the snails but suddenly his steps came to a halt. The Verb freshmen turned around and proceeded to picking up each snail and placing it on a long leaf next to the sidewalk. My jaw dropped.

Perhaps what I witnessed was an isolated act of kindness, or an effort to impress the adult who was watching. However, given that his warm Verb hoodie blocked his periphery, I choose to believe that what I witnessed was a Verb gentleman acknowledging that all life is sacred. The hustle and bustle of reaching our destination is often all we need to forget the pivotal role we play in each other’s lives. Meeting a deadline, running late, or feeling discomfort are all things that can very easily gear us away from being a loving and helpful presence along the path of someone else’s journey.

I continue to be humbled by the hearts that walk our halls. While the gesture of picking up a snail and placing it on a safer path may not make our website’s front page, it does speak to the ethos that permeates Verbum Dei. If this act is any indication of the type of college students and professionals our young men will be, then I say we should look at the future with optimism. I am an educator, but on this day, I was taught the lesson.

Technology Needs at Verbum Dei

The message I want to share today is one of steadfastness. As a school administrator and Director of Technology, I have been challenged recently to formulate strategic Technology needs of the school for the upcoming budget season.  The Tech budget is different from other areas other school in that there is a long list of items that are perfunctory – things that are simply necessary and non-negotiable.  Then, I am asked to include those larger-ticket items that are more strategic in nature.  These items often represent the dreams of the school; things that not only can affect student performance in the classroom, but can lift Verbum Dei’s competitive image and marketability as a first-rate learning institution.  I am always eager to fill this section full of “tech dreams.”  That is, until I total up the numbers and quickly see that many of these dreams are not happening – at least not in this iteration of the budget.

The last few years – when line items in my budget are trimmed – I feel I’m at a crossroads. I ask myself, “where is this all going?”  Can I ever put in place the plans that I believe will make a difference in the classroom and the lives of these young men?  While pondering this, two items recently came across my desk that reminded me why I stay steadfast to the task.  An article on the struggles of Locke High School in Watts explained in detail the complexities of preparing the youth of Watts for college and beyond.  Although Verbum Dei is never mentioned in the article, the schools have much in common and face many of the same challenges. There was also a Netflix documentary – A Week in Watts – that was recently released. A Week in Watts focused on Operation Progress and the success they have had – in collaboration with the LAPD – in identifying and placing vulnerable youths in a program that sees them through high school and beyond.  Verbum Dei is featured prominently in the documentary, and several of our students are highlighted.

These two items in the media – for me – serve as a bell-toll for why I remain steadfast to the challenge Verbum Dei faces. They show us that Watts – not unlike many areas of our country – have had the establishment turn their backs on them for decades.  The assistance these communities need really starts at a ground level.  It starts with individuals who care enough to want to make a difference.  Here at Verbum Dei, it starts with our faculty and staff, and relies heavily on the love and good graces of our benefactors – who equally understand the need, urgency and importance of our mission.  I first came to this school eight years ago.  It has had a profound effect on my life and understanding of the world around me.  I want to make a difference here, and play a role in a meaningful success story.  That is why – in next year’s budget – I will again enter my “tech dreams.”  We will stay at this, and get it done.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

When you recognize that you command the attention of 305 young Black and Brown men your mind races as to which, topics, histories, and stories, you want to share with them. I have often found myself thinking:

I have to make sure our boys are exposed to the great thinkers/ philosophers/ writers? Ralph Emerson, Nelson Mandela, Gabriel Garcia Marquez?!

Our young men definitely need to be exposed to great scientist and researchers; Albert Einstein, Charles Drew, Sigmud Freud, George Washington Carver!

I can’t forget good music; Beethoven, George Walker, Henriette Renie, Richard Smallwood, Prince, Michael Jackson!

I have always wanted to create an activity the entire school- students, parents, faculty, staff, and our neighboring community- could all participate in. With the help of my Deans, I decided on a school wide community read. This community read would involve the entire community reading, engaging, and discussing the same book at the same time. Whole-school reads give the entire school community a common literary experience and its benefits are plentiful:

          Students see the adults in their lives as readers- reading for pleasure

          Enhance literacy skills

         Build community

Now we needed a book. As luck would have it, I received a phone call from the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. Their One Million Abolitionist Initiative aims to get the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave into the hands of one million young people. Their goal is to inspire and empower young people to do more and be more than they ever dreamed possible.  This seemed like a perfect marriage. Douglass’s first-person account of his life as a slave, his assertion of the liberatory effects of education, and his ability to call out the contradictory nature of American/Christian ideals in relation to slavery would be inspiration and aspirational. It didn’t hurt that he was also one of my favorite historical figures. With their donation of 480 copies of the Narrative we had the first ever Verbum Dei whole- school read!

Our initiative, called One Book, One Community involves allotting time, resources, and opportunities for the community to get excited and engage with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass text. We are currently 1-week in and I cannot tell you how proud I am of my faculty/staff, parents and students for truly immersing themselves in the text. The One Book, One Community series will culminate with a celebration on February 28, 2018. We will also be joined by the 3X great grandson of Frederick Douglass and the 2X great grandson of Booker T. Washington, Mr. Kenneth Morris at that time as well. Verbum Dei is celebrating literacy and I couldn’t be more proud to call this place home!

 

Gratitude

The commitment to and heartfelt appreciation for our students is evident in the mentorship and guidance offered by their supervisors. So every year, we invite supervisors to Verbum Dei to enjoy a meal with their students as we say thank you. Below is part of my welcome speech to them …

In one of his many poems and meditations, William Ward wrote, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” Please allow me to express my gratitude in the next couple of minutes for your unwavering support to help maintain the mission of Verbum Dei over the years.

I am grateful to each and every single one of you for accepting the call to serve the young men of Verb throughout their high school career. I know that while you couldn’t turn down having eggs and potatoes with some carb loaded pastries this morning, being present with and for your students, I know takes center stage and is the real reason you’re here.

You made the drive to Verb this morning for very much the same reason you committed to supervising a teenager– you care about them, their well-being, their development, their future. For this, I am grateful.

You mentor our young men looking for ways to be a beneficial presence to them – you share college options, career choices, and studies of interest with them. For this, I am grateful.

You show our students ways to increase their skills bank – you teach them new concepts, charge them with a different project, and invest your time showing them computer programs. For this, I am grateful.

You provide a platform for tomorrow’s leaders to learn from their mistakes – you demonstrate care, patience and acceptance. For this I am grateful.

On this 16th anniversary of the Corporate Work Study Program, I can’t help but be reminded of the impact you’ve had on the 765 alum that have participated in the program since 2002. Alongside our faculty and staff, you’ve had a significant impact in shaping who they are today.

I don’t stand alone in expressing my gratitude. On behalf of our President Fr. Mandala, and Principal, Dr. Odom Lucas, I want to say thank you for your continuous support. Thank you.

Fall Sports Seasons Winding Down

We had a very successful Fall Sport Season with both Football and Cross Country earning CIF Post Season berths! Football finished 5-5 overall, a 2nd place finish in the South Catholic League, and a Division 12 playoff berth. Congratulations to the coaching staff and the boys for all the hard work put in! Cross Country finished in 3rd place in the Santa Fe League and earned the opportunity to run in the CIF Division 4 Prelims! Kudos to Coach Finn and the Cross Country boys!

The focus will turn to winter sports very shortly with Soccer returning a lot of players from last year’s playoff team that reached the CIF quarterfinals. Coach Rosa has the boys poised for a league championship and CIF Playoff run in 2017-18! The basketball program is ready to run as well with the hiring of new head coach, Ken Stevenson. Coach K and his staff have been working the boys harder than they are used to and are excited for the 2017-18 Season! Come out and support our Winter Sports!

 

New Faces at Verb

It is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that we welcome three new-to-Verb teachers this academic year!

Mr. Kevin Nguyen first came to Verbum Dei High School as a Jesuit Volunteer in 2011-2012 where he worked with Corporate Work Study. He went on to earn his M.Ed. from Loyola Marymount University and has returned to the Verb to pursue his teaching career as our sophomore English teacher.

We also welcome Ms. Victoria de Freitas, who has recently joined the Verbum Dei community to teach freshmen Spanish. Ms. de Freitas has recently taught English as a Second Language in Ecuador and Colombia. As a first generation college graduate, Ms. de Freitas comes to us with a passion for learning and a desire to give back to urban communities.

And finally, we welcome Mr. Eduardo Magana who has joined the Verbum Dei community as a sophomore and junior Spanish teacher as well as Chair of the Spanish Department. Mr. Magana comes to the Verb with a wealth of experience teaching all levels of Spanish, including Advanced Placement.

Please join me in welcoming our three new teachers to the nest. I look forward to seeing the wonderful work they do in the classroom with our young men!

Verbum Dei High School Admissions

The most meaningful aspect of consideration we can offer a prospective Verbum Dei High School student and his family is an opportunity of exposure to gain a quality educational experience, incorporating the Corporate Work Study Program and a successful transition from High School into a four year College or University. It is our goal to promote the awareness that inner-city students deserve exposure opportunities as much as their counterparts living in affluent communities, academically thriving in the educational experiences specifically designed with them in mind. Within our community and throughout our Nation Black and Brown Boys living in inner-city communities are expected to be abysmal failures. At a time when inner-city students now more than ever skip class and drop-out to engage themselves in the traditionally negative pastimes of drug usage, drug trade, gang banging and pre-mature sexual activity, Verbum Dei has created an alternative affording escape. The controversy over why inner-city students demonstrate such low educational enthusiasm, we believe is a direct result of their inability to educationally transcend the negative obstacles that exist within the community even after graduating High School.

By offering educational experiences and incorporating exposure opportunities for participation and observation in real life activities the greatest challenge to our enrollment then becomes ignorance, lack of understanding, accepted unawareness, disbelief that a program designed with you in mind really does exist for the underserved family. At Verbum Dei we produce a type of access to an unknown reality that there is a place, a High School focused on changing the normal expectations for inner-city boys. Seeing is believing! It is our goal to have as many people interested in ensuring that there are resources for underserved students visit our campus and learn how they may become involved in this tremendous opportunity to affect positive change! Verbum Dei is one school within a network of 32 schools across the Nation specifically designated to serve in communities traditionally known to be on the downward trend, deteriorating, due to lack of resources.

Verbum Dei High School students attend class four days a week, “skip” one day of school sometimes two and participate in a Corporate Work-Study Program working five days a month. The students gain valuable “white collar” Corporate Work-Study Experience. We want to stimulate an empathetic introduction to a group of young men rarely appreciated for their understanding of purpose, resilience, fortitude and perseverance. Verbum Dei High School is an extremely useful example, a powerful tool of evidence offering greater understanding for examining the issues as to why inner-city students and schools are experiencing difficulty.

Technology Update

On the Tech front, Verbum Dei has completed its strategic goal to move our staff and faculty email off a local Exchange server model to the Office365 platform. This deployment serves three main purposes.  First, it increases access reliability to our staff – cloud platforms are redundant and for the most part accessible at all times.   Second, the databases have built-in backup services, thus ensuring mail is never lost. Lastly, the elimination of an Exchange mail server paradigm closes several security vulnerabilities.  The data no longer sits behind a local firewall, thus eliminating the need for VPN needs.  IIS accessibility – a massively-hacked feature of Microsoft Web Services – is no longer necessary for web-access.  Closing the IIS service is of great relief to this IT Director.

We have also recently adopted Microsoft’s Volume Licensing Software Program for our MS Office products. The school benefits from significant educational discounts with this program and allows us to deploy – and maintain – the latest Office 2016 product for all of our staff, faculty and students. This deployment allows us to take advantage of all of the email and calendaring features offered in Outlook 2016 and Office365.

Looking forward, we are in the design phases of an initiative to ensure VDHS students have access to online lessons and curriculum. We clearly foresee the need for teachers to maximum the collaborative benefits of class time, while at the same time feel confident their students can complete off-hour assignments 24/7/365.  Teachers need to be confident their students can stay paced in the classroom.  As we said repeatedly, access is an issue with some VDHS students.  We need to have a plan in place to ensure 100% of our students have access to assignments at all times.

The JET Visits Verb Eagles

On Wednesday September 27, 2017, Verbum Dei hosted the California Jesuit Excellence Tour (JET). The JET is a traveling college fair of 17 Jesuit colleges and universities from across the nation. Universities such as Gonzaga, College of the Holy Cross, Santa Clara, Fairfield and Seattle came to speak to our students about their respective campuses and the resources they offer students.

While research tells us that students should visit colleges before applying in order to get a feel for the campus and its resources, for many of our students traveling across the country to visit a college is simply not feasible. Touring college fairs such as the JET are a great resource for our students and in return an opportunity for Verbum Dei to develop relationships with great colleges and universities that may not be as familiar with our school and our driven students. Furthermore, while many of our students know our local postsecondary institutions, we aim to expose them to colleges they may not have heard of but can offer them great educational experiences and excellent financial aid packages.

As a college prep high school, Verbum Dei acknowledges the importance of making sure that the JET was available to not only seniors, who are in the middle the college application season, but to all grade levels as well. Therefore the event happened during school hours in order to make sure that all students could attend. In the end, our gym was bustling with college representatives and curious eagles, which came in with note pads to take notes and a list of questions to ask 17 college representatives. Prior to heading back to their campuses, many of the representatives shared just how impressed they were with Verbum Dei students, noting their politeness, insightful questions and overall preparedness. One representative even mentioned that Verb was one of the most impressive schools she had ever visited!

And the college visits to Verb don’t stop here! Just about every week during the fall, there is a college visiting The Verb. Just recently, Bowdoin College, University of Notre Dame, University of California, Merced and Georgetown University, amongst several others have presented to our students with many more to come! Lastly, this year, under the coordination of the College Guidance Department, each grade level will participate in a college visit field trip to at least one local college campus.

Hamilton will have Eagles in the Crowd!

After a long and competitive process, Verbum Dei has been selected as one of the schools in Los Angeles who will experience the magic of Hamilton the musical! Through a partnership between Hamilton and local donors, the Gilder Lehrman Institute is able to offer our eleventh grade American history classes’ exclusive participation in the program, which combines Founding Era classroom resources developed by the Institute, document-based student projects, and a special student matinee at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.

Led by Mr. Jovel and Ms. Bernal, the juniors at Verbum Dei have spent weeks learning about one of the most influential historical figures in our nation’s history. Through the hip-hop, rhythm and blues and pop music beats found in the Grammy winning soundtrack of Hamilton, students have been able to enhance their analytical and research skills, all while studying the story of our founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Students have created poems, scenes, raps, and monologues inspired by other founding fathers, historical/founding documents, or historical events that they were able to connect with during research through the Hamilton education curriculum.

One of the most popular songs in the hallways of Verbum Dei is “My Shot” , a song written by the gifted and mastermind that is Lin-Manuel Miranda. The song describes Hamilton’s journey from being an orphan to his rise as a prominent revolutionary in the colonies, while highlighting Hamilton’s ambition and fearless character. In the song, Miranda writes through the voice of Hamilton, “I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal…Try’ to reach my goal my power of speech, unimpeachable.” These lyrics have not only captured the ears of our Eagles, but also their hearts. The grit, intelligence, and fearlessness that are found in the lyrics of Hamilton have inspired our Verbum Dei gentlemen to step up and take their shot.