Dear St. Francis Students, Alumni, Parents, and Friends,
Looking at the latest documents from NCEA, ASCD, Partners in Mission, and Leadership & Design, storytelling is all the rage. From Fr. Ron’s homily to start Catholic Schools Week to corporate strategy conferences, we are invited to “tell our stories” more effectively to connect with our constituents. It might sound simple, but in order to weave a good tale, any parent or professional will advise you to come up with a great opening scene. To put it in a St. Francis context, both Mrs. Cmaylo and Ms. Silva will tell you to create a first few pages (or a few paragraphs or a few sentences) that will keep us reading. For those of us in Salesian schools, storytelling touches at deep issues underlying our work in 2016.
Where, indeed, do we start our story? We might think this is simple. Our own stories and backgrounds influence us profoundly. Indeed, most researchers
agree that faced with the same set of circumstances, different people will experience the same set of events with completely different emotions. Most of us were influenced by a very traditional concept of school - taught in rows of desks by subject experts who served as the “sages of knowledge” - ensuring our brains were properly fed and that we could process it all. Along with this, we believe that traditional education's achievement is the surest path to success for our students. The pathway from a strong college prep school like St. Francis, to a competitive university, to a lifetime of economic and personal success permeates all we do.
This “story” is great but it ignores the many successful entrepreneurs and leaders who have taken an alternative path - Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind. It also ignores a growing skepticism about all of this.
Our St. Francis students have many more ways to access information than our alumni from 10 years ago; it is all immediately at their fingertips through a variety of mobile devices. But, as Salesian parents and education leaders, our “stories” of education are often stuck in a 20th century model. This model does not match our current situation – an era of instant information (albeit not all of it true) and economic change that is unlike anything in human history previously. Often, this traditional model is at odds with the “real world.”
Many students and families are beginning to make different choices – such as charter schools, magnets, academies, and even homeschooling. Some of these families are practicing what they call “un-schooling,” a theory that rejects the very idea of a set curriculum, as well as traditional roles of teacher and student. The one good thing that I see coming out of this “un-schooling” is a backlash against the overly programmed, overly scheduled, stressed-out young people we increasingly read about in the media, and we sometimes encounter here at St. Francis.
Because you are here at St. Francis, I believe that you value a college prep education steeped in Catholic values. Whether you look at us as “traditional” or “progressive,” we are still traditional in that people are sitting in desks or at tables doing real-world activities that challenge them. At St. Francis, young people are guided to develop strong critical thinking skills and the ability to discern the validity of their own information input. More importantly, learning occurs in the context of strong connections with respected teachers and coaches who provide direction and guidance. St. Francis provides a valuable way for students to contextualize their own lives and weave their own stories: How do I, as a young person attending St. Francis, relate to those around me and bring the essence of my own being to bear?
To answer this question, I think we need to change the story we are telling about the purpose of educational achievement. While many schools spend a good deal of bandwidth explaining the value of community and the social-emotional benefits for their students, most are stuck in the value proposition and story of the last century—if you earn “good” grades, you will be admitted to a “great” college, and have an “awesome” life. I have to admit that I am so proud of our students and our teachers, coaches, and staff that I am guilty of this, as well. Sadly, all of our schools are judged by where students go next, not for how we help students navigate the time they spend on our campuses. How can we create a different story?
At St. Francis, we actually talk about our school differently -- not as a place where students are formulated into something or where a set of values and experiences are imposed upon them, but rather as a community where we share together in building a better world. Each student, each member of the faculty and staff, each parent or grandparent, each volunteer, brings their own narrative. Consequently, the Salesian School Climate Committee and Animas are challenging all of us to honor the diversity in our school community. The Board of Directors and I must continue to seek ways to allow those not traditionally able to access a private Catholic school education legitimate ways to engage our community. As a result, we will re-think our own personal narratives and the way they may be influencing our lives and the school community we are a part of. If we don’t, we may find that our stories no longer match up with the students and parents we seek to serve.
What then are some of the deep issues that touch our school in 2016? Nurturing Catholic Salesian values inside and outside of school – to quote our Provincial, Fr. Ted--is to be counter-cultural. The rest of the world may be okay with lying, cheating, pornography, drug addiction, alcoholism, racism, bullying, harassment, etc., but we will not perpetuate or give in. We will be an upstander. The rest of the world loves reality TV and gossip magazines/blogs, but we do not. Though people in make money doing these things, we will seek to speak the truth we know based on facts; we will not play the telephone game and continue to spread the rumors or gossip through hyperbole. Again, we will be an upstander and not a bystander.
We spoke about this last week during our Salesian Unity Week and now we get to live it. For me, this is the value proposition for our great school: St. Francis provides a valuable way for students to contextualize their own lives and weave their own stories. Let’s work together to nurture these opportunities for our students and help each one, as Detective Nick said last week, make the right choices and weave a wonderfully engaging life story we can all be proud of!
Yours in Christ,
Principal's Blog - February '16