Education Doesn’t Just Take Place In a Classroom

One of the reasons I love working at Verb is that we feel like a family here. That doesn’t just happen by accident, however.  It’s part of our teaching philosophy to educate and meet the needs of the whole person.  In Jesuit circles we call this cura personalis.  Our students are so much more than bodies in seats waiting to soak up information on the Industrial Revolution or waiting to figure out how to solve the next math problem.  Similarly, our faculty and staff are not just drones who stand in front of a classroom to bestow knowledge or sit behind a desk to shuffle paperwork.  We recognize that each person on our campus is unique and complex, and has needs and desires beyond the classroom.  Don’t get me wrong, we have some pretty amazing teachers whose classrooms are wonderful places to be – I’m sometimes jealous of the students who get to take their classes!  However, part of what makes us great is all that happens OUTSIDE the classroom.

Over spring break, four of our faculty/staff took eleven students on a week-long service immersion trip to Navajo Nation in southeast Utah. They spent time learning about Navajo culture where they slept in a hogan (a tradition Navajo home) and experienced a sweat lodge under the guidance of Nelson, a wise and caring Navajo elder.  They also performed service by helping clean up a Navajo community that has often been used as a dump site, as well as singing and playing games at a local center for adults with special needs.  Additionally, the students were able to see the Grand Canyon on the drive out, they took a nine-mile hike through Natural Bridges National Monument, and they camped for a night on the way home at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, where they had fun sliding down the sand dunes.  Although I did not get to go on the trip this year, I have been in the past and I have seen lots of pictures from this year.  Seeing the eyes of wonder on our students throughout the trip is definitely the best part each year.  They come home with so many stories and so many lessons learned.  It is an invaluable experience.

In addition to larger experiences like the trip described above, we also have lots of smaller ones. Last weekend, we had a hike in Will Rogers State Park, where students were able to get into nature a bit.  On Monday, some students took a tour of USC.  This Wednesday, the entire school is getting on buses to go to St. Mary’s Academy, our sister school, to celebrate liturgy with them and have some time to socialize.  This Friday, we have the Sophomore Retreat.  The entire sophomore class, along with ten junior and senior student leaders and twelve faculty/staff, will spend the day at the park playing games, praying, and sharing personal stories.  In addition, there is a Freshman/Sophomore game night and social this Friday evening with St. Mary’s.  This weekend, Xavier Prep (the Jesuit school in Palm Desert) will be on our campus for a couple days.  They will do service in the area and have a “social justice summit” with some of our Verb students.  It’s a time for students from different schools (one urban and one rural) to share in their knowledge and passion for justice.  Sounds like a lot, and that’s just this week!  I’d also be willing to bet there is even more going on that I just don’t know about yet!

As mentioned earlier, our students, faculty, and staff are more than just workers. We are whole people.  Verb recognizes that and we try to offer as much as possible to help us all grow not just in academics, but in spirituality and personal growth as well.  These moments outside the classroom are often the best moments with our students.  It’s when we get to see sides of them that we don’t see in the classroom – we get to see their passion and wonder and love of life.

How is Verbum Dei a Catholic School?

On May 17, a committee from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will be visiting Verbum Dei to help us assess the school’s Catholic Identity. This review is carried out in every school to aid the administration in a self-reflection on faith.

As an academic institution, Verbum Dei has all types of regular evaluations. We just passed with flying colors the WASC/WCEA accreditation – a year long process. Next year we will be reviewed by the Cristo Rey Network and assessed by the Society of Jesus. While all this introspection and goal setting seems normal for a Jesuit college prep. high school,  the Catholic Identity assessment causes me to pause.

How are we Catholic? A large percentage of our students and their families are Catholic, but definitely not all.  Our faculty and staff are faith filled people, but not all are Catholic even though they support Verbum Dei as a Jesuit Catholic school.

At Verbum Dei we do have some very traditional Catholic aspects. For example, we have Catholic images and symbols such as crucifixes and statues around the campus to help all of us realize that God constantly touches our world. However, these symbols do not make us a Catholic school.  We have a monthly student led Mass at which it is obvious that all are welcome to participate. This liturgy begins to get at how we are Catholic. We have reconciliation services during Advent and Lent at which students are welcome to talk to a priest for confession or a faculty member for advice.  Again, this open arms approach is getting at something of what it is to be a Catholic school.  In the center of the Verbum Dei campus is a chapel with open doors for all to enter to take a moment to catch their breath during the day.  It is the most prominent symbol of our Catholic school status, and all classroom activity happens all around it – a nice touch. We all need to center ourselves from time to time.

Maybe, at the end of the day, our Catholic Identity is best manifest in the spirit of Pope Francis. We have chosen to get our shoes dirty by striving to educate young men, of whom we demand and expect a great deal, but who do not come from family situations that general society would ever describe as easy or privileged. We as faculty and staff work together as a team, alongside parents and relative to offer the young men of the school a leg up in life if they have faith in themselves and are willing to work for it.  God is present in that effort because in order to be successful we need God’s help. If we carry out our mission, we need to be welcoming to all, respectful of everyone, embracing, inclusive and supportive of all God’s people. As Pope Francis might say, we are people who tear down walls between people and build bridges to connect them.

Our Catholic Identity might not be traditional, but it is certainly faith filled.