Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Regis Jesuit High School Should Reverse & Rehire

Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado retracted its student newspaper and fired the two staff sponsors following the publication of a pro-choice opinion piece written by a student. The following is my response and this week's column for The Villager:

Forgiveness is the heart of Catholic doctrine. It can also be the virtue least likely practiced.

When I heard of the controversy regarding Regis Jesuit High School’s decision to fire two staff members over publication of a pro-abortion-rights editorial in the student newspaper, my first inclination was to support the action taken by the school administration. Regis is a private Catholic institution whose position on abortion is very clear. If students and teachers don’t agree with, support, and adhere to the guidelines and expectations, then they are free to attend and work elsewhere. However, upon closer examination of the story and their clearly stated guidelines regarding student media, it became obvious the administration of Regis is clearly wrong in this case.

In a recent piece of commentary for the Denver Post, two former Regis students criticized and challenged the school’s action as both inappropriate and inconsistent with stated policies and precedent in the school’s student media program. Harvard University student Madeline Proctor and Seattle University student Sophia Marcinek were editors-in-chief of Regis Jesuit’s Elevate magazine when they attended the school. As has been widely reported, the students explained how Regis High School’s clearly stated policy establishes that “school officials… shall not practice prior review or to censor any student media.” Yet, following the publication of an opinion piece supporting the “right of choice,” school officials violated their own policy, recalling the entire magazine and firing the two faculty sponsors. Such action is not only hypocritical but an egregious overreach of power and a betrayal of trust between the school, its students, and the staff.

As a former altar boy and a graduate of Catholic education, I understand and believe deeply in the institution of faith-based school. For a brief time in my adolescence I considered pursuing the Jesuit path. A key to that interest was an advisor who explained to me how the Jesuits are scholars. First and foremost, the Jesuit order is pious and devout in the Catholic faith, but it is also an order committed to academic and intellectual rigor. The Jesuits are not afraid of debate. The Jesuits do not hide from intellectual challenge. The Jesuits embrace the pursuit of scholarship and inquiry. Clearly, the Jesuit history of practicing and deepening their faith through education in the arts, sciences, and philosophy would seem to indicate an openness to debate and discussion. Nothing could be more important and relevant to cultivating young minds to be astute thinkers.

Thus, the Regis administration’s reactionary response is all the more problematic for its abdication of the spirit of education and the tradition of the Jesuit Order. An equally troubling condition of the current censorship is the school’s hypocritical rejection of not just its policy regarding student media but also the contradiction of the values and practices the school publicly preaches and promotes. In the Denver Post, Proctor and Marcinek point out how the school’s own website claims “We do not teach our students what to think; we teach them how to think.” That’s a dubious promise at best. The school also establishes as its mission the responsibility of being “called to create environments in which our students may encounter and engage multiple points of view that are presented thoughtfully and respectfully.” Clearly, nothing could be more blatantly inaccurate in this case.

In the 1990s a popular fad among Catholic and Christian young people was the wearing of bracelets which asked “What would Jesus do?” It was a reminder that the Christian faith is not simply a label – it is an expectation. Especially in the case of Catholic dogma, the Church expects the faithful to follow the path of Christ in their actions, choices, and daily living. Faith is more than just claiming belief and attending weekly services. It’s a way of life. We should, to the best of our ability despite our inevitable and inherent flaws, try to live as He lived.

So, in the case of a ninth grade student who writes an opinion piece for her school newspaper advocating for the right of choice, what would Jesus do? In response to that column which was cleared for publication by two staff members who simply followed established school policies, what would Jesus do? I’m fairly certain Jesus would never stifle the thoughts, ideas, and questions of students. And, other than the money lenders in the Temple, I’m positive Jesus wouldn’t fire anyone.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Schools are in crisis -- and always have been

This week's column for The Villager:

"Everything about American education is getting bigger all the time: the number of students enrolled, the amount of dollars it spends--and the vast amount of pedagogical gobbledygook. As it gets bigger, more and more people are insistently asking: is it any good? The complaining voice is not that of a few carping malcontents but a multitude of doubters deeply skeptical of what is being produced in the way of a people who should be personally content, socially responsible, and politically effective. Thoughtful parents – often aghast at what is being done and not being done – organize, agitate, protest and petition.”

While the passage above would seem to be an accurate reflection of contemporary America in 2022, the words actually come from an article entitled "U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis," which was published in LIFE Magazine on October 16, 1950. Though we like to look to the past with nostalgic rose-colored glasses, all was clearly not well in the post-war years portrayed so placidly in television shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days. So much for “the Golden Age” of America when all kids were above average. For as long as there have been schools, people have been complaining about them. The kids complain about the work. The teachers complain about the kids. Parents and taxpayers complain about the teachers. And everyone complains about “schools these days,” decrying the state of public education and offering dire warnings about the future.

As I’ve noted before, the education system is simultaneously a great American success story and an inadequate institution which regularly fails to meet the needs of its most vulnerable members. Every year when standardized test scores are released and seized upon by the print media and the talking heads of television, the country frets about the abysmal scores which would seem to indicate that few students can read. The literacy battles will continue to wage over theories and pedagogy with terms like phonemic awareness, whole language, balanced literacy, and calls to simply get “back-to-basics.” However, anyone criticizing literacy today might want to remember that Rudolph Flesch wrote and published Why Johnny Can’t Read back in 1951.

Of course, it’s disappointing to learn that as few as 40% of middle and high school students read anything outside of assigned schoolwork. But is that any surprise considering all the toddlers and pre-school kids out there playing with their parents’ cell phones and watching endless videos online and on television? Can schools really have that much influence on literacy rates when teachers may be the only people to ever tell kids to put the phone down, turn the TV off, close the laptop and pick up a book? In expecting schools to influence and change the behavior of students, it’s helpful to remember that between kindergarten and high school graduation, children will spend roughly 10% of their time in school and 90% of it elsewhere.

Obviously, schools and schooling are no guarantee of success and achievement. Educational institutions represent an opportunity for growth and learning. And while the opportunity must be guaranteed, the outcomes gleaned from students, families, and communities are generally commensurate with what they put into the institution. And that includes the faith, trust, and resources of stakeholders. With nearly fifty million children in K-12 education, the staffing of all those classrooms is no small task. Forbes and Bloomberg have recently reported on the coming crisis in education, as fewer people enter the field while an increasing number of teachers are leaving at a time the demands and expectations placed on schools increase on what seems like a daily basis.

The most important consideration is to be pragmatic about what schools can and should be expected to do, as well as acknowledging and accepting the limitations. Many of the controversies, concerns, and criticisms about schools today are simply distractions at best, as are warnings of a crisis. The very nature of schools can be messy and unsettling at times. In a column on education and the role institutions play in our lives, David Brooks discussed a Harvard study on the purpose of education. According to the report, “The aim of a liberal [arts] education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

Schools may be in crisis, but no more or less than they always have been.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Serving Up the Best Education

This week's column in The Villager:

Serving Up the Best Education

I have two college degrees, two professional certificates, and I’ve worked in my field for nearly thirty years. Yet I still believe the best education I ever received were the years I spent in my teens and early twenties working in a restaurant.

The restaurant world is a job experience and an education quite unlike any other. There’s a special fraternity among workers who know the intensity of a dinner rush, the frenzied choreography of cooking on the line, the subtle ballet of taking orders and delivering dishes, the ordered chaos of clearing and resetting tables. And the camaraderie of a restaurant crew tends to create a tight bond, especially because the required hours often infringe upon the social lives of the workers. Still, I wouldn’t exchange the hours I spent peddling pasta for anything. Life on the restaurant floor taught me as much as any class.

Restaurant jobs are, of course, part of the service industry, and the term server is now synonymous with waiter and waitress. Waiting on people is still the essence of service, which means restaurant work requires an inner calm that can test the patience of anyone. Yet, it can also be quite rewarding. In the classic comedy Arthur, the title character played by Dudley Moore tells his date, “Aren't waiters wonderful? You ask them for things and they bring them... It's the same principle as Santa Claus.” There is a unique pleasure in providing customers with a pleasant dining experience, and we learn a lot about life and ourselves when we do it.

Much of what students learn during the course of a K-12 education is actually quite arbitrary, even trivial, and not necessarily applicable to what we call real life. In fact, the answer to the age-old question of students, “When am I ever going to use this?” is likely, “Never.” Education is not a utilitarian practice of job training skills. However, the soft skills that come from attending school are indispensable to living a successful life. Organization, time management, communication, collaboration, and personal responsibility are not generally listed in any syllabus or curriculum guide. Yet they are as integral to education as books, and those skills are the essence of the service industry as well.

Many educators, researchers, and employers agree that the EQ is more important than the IQ in predicting success. That term EQ refers to the “emotional quotient,” as opposed to the standard but somewhat ambiguous IQ as a measure of intelligence. There are many highly intelligent people who never quite achieve the success commensurate with their test scores. Other highly successful people who lack academic credentials often achieve because of qualities developed in the workplace rather than the classroom. My Dad was fond of saying, “there are many people who are far smarter than I am, but you won’t find anyone who works harder.” The spirit of hard work has a special meaning for people who can calmly weather a Saturday night dinner rush. Business writer Daniel Pink has written extensively about the value of the non-academic skills necessary to success. Whether it's The Power of Regret or the importance of Drive, the soft skills of service work can be uniquely relevant to success.

Over many years in education across numerous school systems, I always notice and appreciate what I like to call the “wink-and-a-smile kids.” They might not be the best students from a purely academic standpoint. However, they are the kids who improve a class simply by being there. These are the people I would want on my team, regardless of the task and often in exclusion of any academic qualification like test scores, GPA, or even a diploma. These are the people who could sell me a car or a steak dinner just based on character and hard work.

Working a restaurant floor truly can be the best education. I’d even go as far as saying everyone should work in a restaurant at some point, if for no other reason than to develop a sense of respect for the jobs and empathy for the people who do them. Restaurants are so pervasive in our experience that it’s hard not to believe we could even paraphrase the classic essay from Robert Fulghum about kindergarten and instead say, “All I really need to know about how to live I learned while working in a restaurant.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Sync Gallery in Denver

Visiting art galleries is truly one of my great joys. And the Denver metro area is a wonderful place to experience art. Recently I visited Sync Gallery, an art cooperative located in the Santa Fe Arts District. The gallery and the visit inspired me to write up a profile of the current show, and it was recently published by 303 Magazine.

"Sync Gallery Brings Connection to Denver's Art Community"

The gallery experience is all about making a personal, even physical, connection with art. As digital mediums provide non-stop access to images, and as artists reach an ever-widening audience via pictures on Instagram, there’s still no substitute for entering an art space, getting up close with the creations, examining and appreciating paintings and sculptures from many angles. That experience, personally connecting with art, can be found in abundance when wandering into Sync Gallery on Santa Fe Drive.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022


I've blogged this idea before, and in response to the first serious snowfall of the year, I'm revisiting it for my column in this week's Villager

I shovel.

This weekend Denver woke, finally, to several inches of snow which had accumulated all night and continued through the early morning. Because the wonderful white flakes fell on a weekend during winter break from school, there was no need to debate the granting of snow days for school districts. And, with so many people on vacation, city plows were free to clear the streets. So, as the kids slept, and the buses stayed nestled in their lot, I sipped my coffee and skimmed the paper while warming up and preparing for the task that awaited – shoveling the driveway and the sidewalks.

On each snowy winter morning, the scene is always the same. With my snow pants and boots, my heaviest coat and gloves, a bit of chapstick, and a giddy sense of anticipation, I stand on the garage stairs as the door slowly rises on command, and I get the first glimpse of the powder just across the garage threshold. It's always a bit different than it looked from the upstairs window. And as I step forward and push the first little path to check the depth, the weight, the water level, I always smile to see the darkness of the wet concrete reveal itself.

I don't understand people who don't shovel. What happened to shoveling? For as long as I can remember, shoveling is just something you do, like mowing the grass, getting the mail, and cleaning the dishes. But in many ways it's so much more. It'll certainly get your blood pumping, even as it brings a deep sense of calm and repose. The world just seems more alive at that time. Maybe it's the brightness across the drives, lawns, trees, and sky that accentuates angles you hadn't noticed before. At the same time, the calm muffled air relaxes the world and slows its pace. As the paths are cleared and the driveway comes into view, there’s a sense of order and accomplishment in a job well done.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that last winter for the first time in my adult life, I bought a snow blower. It was during that stretch of spring snowstorms which dumped more than a foot over a couple days, and my wife and I decided it was finally time to rely on a bit of technology to assist in clearing the hundreds of feet of concrete in front of our home. We always shovel the driveway for our retired neighbor, as well as the short stretch of common drive that leads to the street. With all that square footage to handle, the possibility of two feet of powder motivated our purchase. And looking back, I don’t regret it a minute.

When we first moved into our townhouse eighteen years ago, our neighborhood seemed to care more about the responsibility and the opportunity that a snowfall provided. My neighbor and I across the way would be out soon enough working on the common drive and trying to clear it before too many cars packed the snow down, perpetuating the time it would take to melt later. Of course, we always cleared the sidewalks and made a path for the mailman as well. As the kids grew, it always became a family affair, with each taking shifts and sections. And that second cup of coffee or hot chocolate was so much better after coming in from a round of shoveling.

These days I still shovel, but I mostly take care of the common drive and the sidewalks alone. Most of the other driveways remain covered in snow, with either cars buried, or deep tracks from when the owner just tramped out through the snow to the car and drove away. And the peace that comes from shoveling is missed by all the people who take the weather event to spend even more time in front of their televisions or computers or phones. Kids don't seem to wander the streets anymore with shovels slung over their shoulders looking for some quick cash, or simply the chance to help an older resident. And the general consensus seems to be that if the car can drive over the snow, there's no reason to move it out of the way.

But, for me, there is still a reason. The reason is, simply, I shovel. Because that's what you do. When it snows, you shovel.