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.”


Growth Mindset: Preparing for College, College Success & Beyond!

Growth mindset is not just a new age philosophical trend, it truly is a way of life and a strategy for good mental health, and thus success! The College Access Program (CAP) curriculum/course is all about incorporating growth mindset. Students learn growth mindset throughout grades 9-11 in preparation for the CAP 12 course: protected and structured time for counselors to guide seniors through a  5 unit curriculum that is essentially the process they will follow in pursuit of college admissions- foundations, feasibility, discernment, enrollment and transition into college.

Why is it so important to pour these teachings into our students? What happened to just teaching pure undeniable hard work?  Well that’s easy, some students will say they have worked hard and still just don’t understand math for example, but then again they have never understood math so they are not surprised that regardless of their hard work, they still did not do well. How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it yourself? This is the epitome of a fixed mindset.

Research shows that the mindset you have changes everything about how you approach challenges and opportunities—including whether you use the word “challenge” or “opportunity” for the same circumstance. And we all know that high school is full of both challenges and opportunities. We teach students that these two dynamics are actually one in the same, furthermore, that there is success and lessons learned and at the end of each opportunity.

Come senior year we hope our students would have mastered this concept, being able to open themselves to a host of different college options to find the best fit place where they will thrive and reach goals. They will also have the innate understanding that:

  • Belief in the development of whole self, including a healthy balance of mental, social/emotional and physical well-being…
  • Self-confidence in his ability to succeed…
  • Sense of belonging, especially in the school environment…
  • Understanding that postsecondary education and life-long learning are necessary for long-term career success…
  • Belief in using abilities to their fullest to achieve high-quality results and outcomes…
  • Positive attitude toward work and learning…

…is essential to reach their full potential in college and beyond!


Advent Season

As this Advent season begins, I look backward at this past year’s experiences, as well as look forward to new and exciting adventures that are waiting to be born.  I can’t help but pause at the loving influence that Fr. Mike Mandala had on my life.  December 7th would have been Fr. Mike’s 72nd birthday.  I still see his joyful face, eager for life, even as he continued to slow down due to the illness that ultimately claimed him. 

About a month after Fr. Mike’s funeral, I received his set of keys to Verbum Dei and was asked to close down his Verbum Dei cell phone account.  But before I did, I thought I should call whomever might have his phone to warn them that phone service was about to end.  When I called Fr. Mike’s cell phone, I was immediately greeted by the jovial and welcoming voice of Fr. Mike’s message, still alive with his enthusiastic and uplifting manner.  I was compelled to call multiple times because I needed to hear his voice and didn’t want to be the one to finally silence my friend.  When I struggle with the loss of a loved one, I often want to hang on to those things that remind me of their goodness and inspire me to be a better man.  Fr. Mike was that kind of person.  May this Advent season connect you to your faith, your friends and your family the way that Fr. Mike did for so many of us.



This was my welcome to our Annual Supervisor Appreciation Breakfast in November 2018 –

Have you ever walked into your favorite department store and picked up an item with a “one-size fits all” tag on it? Well I have. Many times. And, probably, an equal number of times, I’ve walked into the fitting room with a false sense of hope.

Well, our Corporate Work Study Program does not have a one-size fits all tag. And, it’s intentional. As much as we’d like too, this one-size fits all approach does not always work. Although the goals and expectations remain the same for your students, how the students accomplish them and how long it takes them to get there, will inevitably determine your course of action, your approach to the students’ projects, to their day.

Take a minute to think about your team of students. Think about the students sitting next to you this morning, those that have graduated, and those that worked with you for only a short period of time. Adopting a prescriptive model for how we operate our work-study program would mean the students you just thought of, 1) have the same needs, 2) communicate in a similar manner, 3) possess the same skill level, and 4) respond to feedback the same way. And, since I’m in a room full of supervisors, mentors and managers, I know that you know that this is just not the reality. Much like I knew that that item in the department store would not fit me.

Each of you here this morning is special, because you play a role in carrying out the mission of Verbum Dei. And, while not every supervisor here today plays the same role, you do fulfill the same mission. You believe that your student can and will accomplish the goals and expectations you place before him. You know that the energy and patience you gift your students will reap results. You know that those extra 10-15 minutes to check-in with your student at the end of the day will reciprocate the trust that you place in him. And through this process, not only does the Verbum Dei student grow, so do you. You develop as a supervisor, as a mentor, as role model and friend.

In the many years I’ve been privileged to work with CWSP students and their supervisors, I’ve compiled an endless number of anecdotes. I’d need the entire day to share with you my favorite ones, but there are a few examples of how supervisors enrich the students’ experience and make it their own that id like to share.

  • Allowing the student to spend an hour in the IT department because you know he’s interested in computers
  • Setting up interviews with your friend the architect because you know he wants to be an architect and you’re at a law firm
  • Intentionally breaking up the 4 hour filing project by having him assist with other smaller tasks in between so that he doesn’t get bored
  • Asking him to teach a colleague how find the currency exchange rate from 3 weeks ago so that the check requests from that work trip abroad are properly processed
  • Trusting him with the 60-day invoices to companies in the rears
  • Teaching him Revit and allowing him to present the observatory he designed to architects and engineers at the firm
  • Conducting a semester long research project in a topic of his choice while working alongside experts, and then presenting to the department the findings of his research

The list can go on, but one thing is for sure – remember that feeling of finding an item you liked with a one-size fits all label? I am proud to know that our students are in jobs where their experiences complement their interests and encourage their growth. They will not look back on their CWSP experience and label that tag, “one-size fits all”.

I am grateful for each and every one of you and would like to formally thank you for all that you do with and for our young men.

Thanksgiving Prayer

Creator God,

In a spirit of gratitude, we celebrate with family and friends.

We give thanks for those who are good to us.

We give thanks for those who were there to comfort

during trying situations.

And we give thanks for those

who remind us of your presence.

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we give thanks

for the light of your love, help us to be mindful

of those who will need us tomorrow.


Celebrating Verbum Dei’s Academic Department Chairs!

Last October 12th we held our annual Faculty Inservice Day which is the day when the faculty participates in a professional development. This is usually a one-size-fits-all session on a single topic such as literacy, student engagement, or assessments. This year, however, we took a different approach and asked our talented and experienced Chairs to lead a mini-PD for their colleagues, and offered our teachers the opportunity to choose to attend the sessions that interested them.

Mr. Ken Favell, Chair of the English Department, and Mr. Eduardo Magana, Chair of the Spanish Department, led a presentation on how to teach our students how to write clearly and concisely, as well as how to build language through examples, simulations, and practice.

Ms. Carolyn Westdal – Chair of the Science Department, explained how to use stations in the classroom to get our young men up and out of their seats while reinforcing content knowledge. I was inspired by this presentation, and just last week used it in my own AP US History class. The students enjoyed a video lesson on the Federalists and Anti-Federalists at one station, did a Constitutional scavenger hunt at another station, and deconstructed the Declaration of Independence at a third. The students remarked that they enjoyed the stations so I will call that a win!

Mr. Tim Moore, Chair of the Math Department, presented a variety of ways to use technology in their classrooms and to support and alleviate their tasks and workload. Coach Banuelos is now using the Schoology platform to give students quizzes as homework, freeing up more class time for instruction as a result of attending this session!

Mr. EJ Vieyra, Chair of the Theology Department, guided teachers in discovering ways to highlight social justice issues in their content areas, and Fr. George Teodoro, Chair of the Social Science Department shared his method of unit planning with his colleagues.

It was a great day of learning and sharing, of teachers teaching teachers, and of collegial bonding, and I can’t thank our Department Chairs enough for the planning and preparation that went into such a successful professional development day!

We are … Verbum Dei!

Admissions Season, Helping All Students, Every Student, Every Year to Achieve Their High School Admissions Goals and Greater

Educational accountability, standards and assessments, interviews and measures, seeking the right answers, reviewing transcripts, current report cards and teacher recommendations all of these indicators for potential success, test scores and behavior reports, these are all of the things we use and need to keep identifying the young minds open for this educational alternative for boys of color.

As our students successfully prepare themselves for pursuit of a Private Catholic Jesuit Educational High School experience we are looking for creative ways of thinking, affording an allowance of innovative ideas to stimulate a culture of young men which includes a Corporate Work Study experience that will produce a prodigious people and an unconstrained community. In this effort we need to increase our enrollment from the inside out. We need greater educational partnerships supporting an effective recruitment for every student, every year. Within this annual exercise in consideration of extraordinary opportunity we make reservation for creativity, innovation, problem solving and the thinking skills that define, distinguish and set apart the individuals that may not in their very early grades have overcome the despair commonly associated with the lack educational resources known to exist throughout our Southern California target communities, South Central Los Angeles, Watts and Compton. And as our students matriculate, moving toward high school graduation and the College of their choice we identify pathways for them, methods of navigation to ensure success and we provide a conduit for analysis, resourceful thinking, we do not support learning by memorization or routine conditioning.

Please support us in our efforts.

For more information on how you can help please contact our Administrative Offices (323) 564-6651.

Happiness and Gratitude

Happiness and gratitude is what I feel when I reflect on my seven year journey at Verbum Dei. I never imagined I would be working in a school so close to the place I called home as a child. My passion has always been teaching and helping others. As a child I would take every opportunity to teach – teach my siblings, my neighbors, I even gave my babysitter English lessons.

Today, as a counselor I’m given the opportunity to teach my students skills – skills to succeed in high school and beyond. During the fall semester I visit my freshmen twice a month during bridge class, and facilitate guidance lessons to support their transition from middle school to high school. I give them tools that will help them succeed and reach their goals and their academic potential. During my time with them we discuss time management, organization, communication skills, and study skills. In addition, several lessons focus on topics related to personal/social issues such as stress, anxiety, bullying, and mental health. The goal is to prepare students to cope with daily stressors and learn how to problem solve.

The greatest reward is when students celebrate their success with me. The other day a student walked into my office with the biggest smile on his face “Mrs. Rodriguez, have you seen my grades?” His hard work paid off and he got rid of some F’s on his progress report. Another student surprised me with an appreciation email, “I just wanted to thank you for being part of my journey here and at Verb and for listening to all my problems when I’ve had them”.

Happiness and gratitude! Thank you parents for allowing me to teach your sons, thank you students for allowing me to support you and guide you, and thank you Verb for allowing me to live out my passion.