JEDIS

It’s that time of year again! Seniors are both excited and nervous as they wrap up their four years at the Verb and start making preparations for where they’ll be off to next. Juniors can’t believe they’re really on the verge of being seniors. Sophomores are finally going to be upperclassmen, but they know that it brings with it great responsibility, as SATs near and their grades are that much more important for college applications. And the time has almost arrived for freshmen when they will no longer be the “new” or youngest students on campus. However, standing between now and all those “almosts” are final exams. When the temptation is strong to simply look ahead, students need to be focused on the present and making sure they prepare well for finals so that they can finish the year strong.

This tension between the present and the future, however, is not limited to students. Faculty and staff feel this as well. I, too, feel the tension between ending this year strong with my current students and looking forward to next year. In fact, we are currently in the midst of interviewing students for next year’s JEDIS.

JEDIS stands for Jesuit Educated Disciples In Service and they are our student campus ministry team. They help plan and lead retreats, liturgies, schoolwide prayer, and pretty much everything faith-based on campus. Each May we go through the application process to select our JEDIS for the following year. This year, we received about double the number of applicants than we can actually take, meaning about 10% of Verb students applied for JEDIS. This is doubly impressive since applications are only available to two grade levels. Due to the maturity and mentoring skills needed to be in JEDIS, it is a leadership opportunity reserved for juniors and seniors, which means only current sophomores and juniors can apply. Though it is always difficult to tell good students whose hearts are in the right place that they didn’t make into JEDIS, we are proud that so many of our young men find so much meaning in both their faith and their responsibility to their Verb brothers.

As evidenced by the large pool of applicants, JEDIS has grown into a respected leadership group since it was founded nine years ago. Eduardo Landa, class of 2020 and one of our current JEDIS who is re-applying for next year, says that “JEDIS has been a great opportunity for me to grow as a leader and to help my Verb brothers grow as a community.” What makes JEDIS work is not only the brotherhood amongst the JEDIS themselves, but their desire to bring that brotherhood to all on campus. Eduardo added that JEDIS, “helped me to understand that my overall purpose here on earth is not just to learn about God, but also to act on my faith.” I am proud of how the JEDIS put their faith into action as they lead their Verb brothers in both faith sharing and fun activities. They remain positive examples on our campus of “men with and for others” who put their faith into action. It is both a sad and proud moment to have to say goodbye to our graduating JEDIS, but I also look forward to the energy and spirit of our new team for next year.

Click Here to Play

Giving a voice to students is important to all of us at Verbum Dei.  Our young men need chances and encouragement– as all people do – the express ideas and interests they feel are important to them.  Verbum Dei is no different from other schools; we historically have done a magnificent job offering a traditional variety of clubs, sports and service interactions that allow our boys to show off their talents.  These opportunities are extremely important to their growth.

We recently analyzed feedback however that showed a sub-set of our students is not involved in extra-curricular activities.  Sports may not be their thing, and clubs may not interest all.  I feel however, some of those students still want chances to shine at things that interest them.   We have to continue to look for ways to be inclusive with our students, and I recently found evidence of a team activity trending in high schools that may have a chance to take root.

Next fall, technology is looking to take the lead in forming an ESports club.  What is ESports?  Esports is a growing force in the entertaining and video gaming community where teams compete against one another playing sanctioned video games.  The games require teams of players to compete together in competitions that require rich layers of planning, strategy, communication, delegation, and instruction.  Players need to coordinate actions together – much like other team sports – in order to succeed.  These – I believe – are transferrable life skills applicable to many careers and opportunities in real life.

We recently sent out a survey to our students seeking levels of interest and experience in video gaming.  It comes as no surprise to any of us that our boys are quite enthusiastic about it.  Many report having great interest in – and knowledge of – the specific games played in official competitions.  I believe Esports can provide a way for these students who normally are not involved in club or sports to give them a chance to fit in, and succeed when utilizing skills they are good at.

If the club is approved next year to compete against other high schools in official competitions, we will look to fund raise for computing equipment and entrance fees.  Keep your fingers crossed.

If you’re comfortable, you’re not doing it right : The Call to Authentic Discipleship

Verbum Dei is focused not only on the academic success of our students, but also with the creation of men who are with and for others, as the Jesuit motto states. This is another way of saying that we are working alongside God in the molding of authentic Disciples of Christ who place themselves alongside those who are marginalized, oppressed, and “othered.” Our Theology classes take part in this work by addressing various aspects of the human experience through classes on scripture, Christian ethics, vocations, social justice, and interreligious dialogue. Each class tries to help the students understand Christ’s life and works in light of their own context in order to help them learn how to respond to today’s issues as Christ would.

A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to expand our lessons beyond the classroom and onto the open road. During Holy Week, we took 18 students on our annual service immersion trip to Utah to work alongside the Dine(more commonly known as “Navajo”) people on the reservation. There we do manual labor that can range from constructing a Hogan(a traditional Dine home) to picking up large pieces of trash and everything in between. We never actually know what we will be asked to do but the students go in with open hearts and a desire to do whatever they are called upon. This year, they we asked to help continue building a Hogan, a task that apparently takes at least 1 year according to a local resident. For hours and hours the students and adults mixed water and mud and added it to the already existing structure trying to make the concoction stick to the Hogan. This all required lots of patience, energy, and the right frame of mind considering all were caked in mud by the end of the first hour. At times the students would also fall into mud puddles which made the work all the more uncomfortable.

At the end of that day, after hours and hours of work, it is safe to say that we barely made any progress . That is when we all found out that the work we were doing was started by a man who had suddenly past away the day before we arrived. The man’s sister thanked us for taking the time and care in continuing his work by building the Hogan.

Father Greg Boyle, SJ says that, “Kinship is not serving the other, but being one with the other.” While our service in building the Hogan could go unnoticed based on the progress we made, it was our presence alongside the family of the deceased man that is what God is calling us to.

We drove 14 hours to Utah, slept on floors, ate turkey sandwiches every day until the students couldn’t stand the sight of them, worked in the cold while caked in mud up to our knees, and barely saw any progress on the Hogan, but this is what we are called to do. Authentic discipleship is not about being comfortable or doing what is easy. It is about getting outside of our comfort zones, going to others who can be far from us, getting dirty, doing the work, and even when it looks like we’ve done nothing, trusting that our presence there is a small part of the vision God has for creation. Being an authentic disciple of Christ is about the growth and change that happens when we all reach out to each other, get a little dirty, take part in work that we will not see the end product of, and find ourselves changed by being with others.

As we find ourselves in the middle of our Easter season, remember, if you are too comfortable in your journey with Christ, do something different. Get out of your comfort zone and seek out opportunities to give more of your time, effort, money, and attention. It will be uncomfortable but only then will you know the joy of being a disciple of Christ. Who knows, you may even find the joy the students found in working alongside one another while caked in mud under the Utah skies.

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.