FSA Results Don’t Tell the Whole Story #cisva

At the Catholic Educator’s Conference earlier this month Father Tony Ricard from the Archdiocese of New Orleans spoke in the keynote address.  His message was loud and clear for teachers in Catholic Schools: If you don’t see yourself first and foremost as a Religion teacher, get out!  He went on to say there are lots of jobs for people who just want to teach Math, Science or English.  There are public and private schools that do that stuff.  The reason we have Catholic Schools is so that we can form students in Christ.  No matter what grade or subject you are teaching you must help form the students in their Catholic worldview.

Recently the Fraser Institute released it’s annual rankings of schools based on the annual Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) test.  This test is deployed by the government each year to look for trends in education and academic achievement.  I am actually in favor of standardized tests when used for the right reasons.  I believe the government has every right, and the duty, to find ways to make sure the billions of dollars spent on education each year are well used.  The problem with the FSA test is that it is only a very small sample of one aspect of schooling.  It is certainly not meant to “rank” school from best to worst.  For one thing, the results as published by the Fraser Institute do not compensate fairly for ESL or special needs students.  They don’t take into account the socio-economic status of a population.  Yes, that information is in there if you dig, but the message the average reader gets looking at the results is that #1 is the best school and #900 is the worst.  This is simply not true.

There is so much more to school than just a single test score.  Being here everyday and seeing all the creative thinking, artistic development, athletic competition, and personal formation reminds me of just how much we do above and beyond academics.  Most importantly, as a Catholic School, our most important mission is formation of the whole student in Christ.  I am proud of the work our staff do with students each day in every aspect of school life.  Don’t get me wrong, we do just fine on the FSA test, but I never have and I never will use it as the number one reason for families to choose our school.

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Setting Expectations #cisva

A challenging part of being a principal is managing academic expectations.  When set too high, expectations cause frustration and disappointment.  When set too low, expectations can create a culture of mediocrity.  Two things are necessary when it comes to setting appropriate expectations: personalization and moderation.

For Aristotle, all virtues are to be understood as the mean (moderation) between vicious extremes.  Our goal is to be virtuous and avoid the two extremes. We must be diligent and create goals that challenge each learner to be their very best.  At the same time, we must not push too hard, setting expectations that are unrealistic and lead to low self-esteem, frustration, and a loss of the love for learning that is innate in every child.

When it comes to expectations for academic achievement, we can push too hard.  Each student is different and our expectations for each student need to be tailored to their own abilities and goals.  Each child develops differently.  While there are standardized math concepts, sight word lists, and expected “words read per minute” for each age level, these should be taken as rough guidelines and not held as absolute.  It is not much different from developmental milestones like rolling over, crawling, or walking.  Some kids develop later than others and a child that walks at ten months is not necessarily smarter or more athletic as an adult than a child that starts walking at 13 months.  As long as there is consistent improvement there is no need for concern.  The same is generally true for academic milestones.  To demand the impossible from students with challenges in their learning is unfair and disrespectful to them as learners.  We need to meet each child where they are at and tailor their programming and our expectations to their level.

The challenge as a principal is being the person that effectively holds the tension of expectations between the extremes and between all stakeholders.  Parents and teachers sometimes have different expectations based on their own hopes, experiences and knowledge of student development.  Setting expectations for each student that are challenging, fair, and respectful is key to working together as an effective school community.

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Why I Send My Children to Catholic School #cisva

I have been working in Catholic schools for 18 years.  For the past eight years I have had the privilege of serving as Principal at Cloverdale Catholic School.  While I have done my best to improve the school over the years, I believe the school has done even more to improve me.  CCS is not your average, run-of-the-mill elementary school.  The faith life of the school, the personal commitment of the staff, the inclusion of students of all abilities and differences, the growing and vibrant community, and the child-centered appreciation of fun make CCS not just a great place for me to work, but a place where I have chosen to send my own children to school.

Faith comes first at CCS.  Our teachers are committed to developing the children in their appreciation of the love of God.  From this love bursts a desire to live an ordered and moral life.  Our students receive religious instruction and opportunities to pray daily.  We also celebrate weekly Mass, Adoration, and Confession.  Celebrations of traditional and communal Catholic prayer are balanced with personal prayer and praying with scripture.  Our students are given every opportunity to open their hearts to Jesus and grow in faith.

The staff of CCS are chosen not solely on their resumes and curricular expertise, but also on their love for God, teaching, and for developing the whole child.  Our teachers give of themselves both in the classroom and outside of it through extra time spent with students in a variety of extra-curricular activities.  Most importantly, staff see their time at CCS as part of their vocation and ministry; not just their job.  As a result, students feel welcome and wanted in the classroom.

CCS is proud to welcome students of all different religions, ethnicities, languages, and abilities.  There is a culture of caring not only among the staff, but also among the student body.  Students with disabilities are nurtured and provided resources they need to reach their personal full potential.  It is an integral part of our mission to serve all with great love just as Jesus would.

The community of Cloverdale Catholic School and Precious Blood Parish is relatively small.  Whether you are at a basketball game, Sunday Mass, or the annual Parish Bazaar, families have many opportunities to pray, learn, and play together.  There is no shortage of ways to get involved and connect with other parents and children.

Since our school is full of children, it makes sense that we have a lot of fun.  Our beautiful and spacious playground makes for great opportunities for both creative and structured play.  Our teachers get in on the fun too, planning popcorn sales, themed activity days, teacher vs. student sports, and spirit days.  Although we take our jobs seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.  This sense of fun makes CCS someplace both adults and kids can look forward to going to each day.

Catholic schools are great places to live, work, pray, and play.  CCS is a special school and I am proud to be both the Principal and a parent.  If you are a parent at a Catholic school and you have reasons for sending your kids that I have missed, please post them in the comments.

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Opportunity for Positive Change in Education #cisva

Change is hard in any industry.  What motivates change in business is usually the need to adapt to new markets and technologies to keep up with the demands of consumers.  Some companies, Apple comes to mind, try to be constantly on the cutting edge of change, introducing new ideas before the competition and creating new sources of revenue.  No one knew they needed an iPad until Apple invented it, and now everyone thinks they need one.  However cool and interesting the innovations seem, change in the business world is really done to either hold on to the market share you have or create new ones to achieve one goal: make money.

Education is a different kind of business.  What motivates change in education?  There are conflicting sources to answer this question.  If we go back to Ancient Greece, Aristotle talked about what it meant to live the “good life” as a human being.  To him, the good life meant living the life of a fully developed intellect.  Humans were made to think and understand as fully as possible the transcendental realities of truth, beauty, and goodness.  To him the goal of learning is to develop your mind so that you can be logical, rational, and thoughtful.  To be fully human is to experience this life of the mind.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is an industrial view of education that sees schooling as an opportunity to train for the workplace.  In this view, children go to school to learn the skills and information they need to be productive and positive members of society.  In this view, education is a means to achieve economic prosperity for the individual and for the community.

What I see when I look at the world today is a world that needs a lot more of Aristotle’s view.  God created human beings for so much more than we are demonstrating right now.  One need only look at the U.S. presidential election to see the complete failure of the education system to develop thoughtful, rational voters with an eye for truth, goodness, and beauty.  At the same time, the system hasn’t created much in the way of hard working, resourceful, talented workers either.

If you listen to the BC government’s news releases about the new curriculum, it’s all about getting kids ready for the workforce.  They talk about “the jobs of tomorrow” and “the changing workplace”.  Hearing these words, one would expect that this was an industrial view of education, but really the changes to the curriculum are rooted more in Aristotle’s view than they sound.  The new focus on thinking, communicating, and responsibility has the potential to develop the life of the mind.  The new curriculum represents an opportunity unlike any I’ve seen in my 20 years in education.

As I said at the beginning, change is hard in any industry.  This may be most true in education.  Since we do not and adapt to pursue profits, we need to unite behind a common cause for change.  The new curriculum represents an opportunity to unite behind the pursuit of the life of the mind and developing students’ intellect.  As Catholic schools we can use this new curriculum to refocus on truth, beauty, and goodness.  It will not be a smooth and easy road, as we are all used to things being the way they are.  It will require thoughtfulness, patience, and goodwill from all stakeholders but it will be so worth it!

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After a Month of the Redesigned Curriculum #cisva

BC’s newly redesigned curriculum came into full effect this September and our teachers and students have been hard at work implementing the changes.  I am proud of and excited about the things that I see going on every day at school.  Teachers are being creative and connecting with their students’ interests and skills in new and exciting ways.  Walking the halls and looking in I am delighted to see students growing in meaningful ways in the areas of Thinking, Communicating, and Personal and Social Responsibility.  Whether it is seeing Grade Twos building boats, Grade Sixes getting together as a group for team building challenges, or the Grade Fours making choices about how and where they best learn, school feels new and different, which is something I haven’t been able to say before.

While there are definitely changes, we have been careful not to forget the fundamentals.  Students are still heavily engaged in reading, writing, and mathematics, but they are doing so with newfound curiosity and energy.  Instead of just drilling 30 students with the same math questions at the same time, teachers are focussing on students’ individual levels of learning and knowledge gaps.  Students are still writing, but now in the context of their interests and choices.  Students are reading, but now with increasing purpose and critical thinking.  By adding choice and meeting the needs of individual students we hope to make school more meaningful while still building skills and knowledge.

It’s an exciting time to be in education.  While there are always challenges and adjustments when making a shift in thinking, I believe that overall this change is a very good and overdue one.  I’m excited about what the future holds.

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Care for Our Common Home (and School) #cisva

The theme for Catholic schools this year is “Care for Our Common Home” based on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.  The media’s emphasis has been primarily on the natural environmental aspects of Pope Francis’ teachings.  This is good, but Francis has a larger picture in mind.

What Pope Francis is trying to get people to do is to be more caring and mindful of how our actions effect others.  For example, when we pollute, we impact the lives of the poor around the world who are most vulnerable to environmental degradation.  On a very local level, however, we can consider so many of our actions and how they impact those around us in unintentional ways.

One example of how we can show care for our common home is by being safe and setting a good example for our children.  Sure, parking in the wrong direction or crossing not at the crosswalk may not result in immediate harm, but when a child sees an adult they respect do this they learn bad habits.  After seeing speeding drivers and jaywalkers they learn two things: 1) rules are subjective and 2) it’s okay to take risks.

Another seemingly small thing where we can show greater care is uniform policy.  It may seem like no big deal to wear a shirt without a crest or a pair of pants from Walmart, but in doing so you are effecting your child’s view of rules and lowering the standard for the entire school.  It’s not just the principal’s job to enforce rules.  It takes buy-in and cooperation from the entire community.

We can show care by welcoming new people into our community.  I know it can be awkward saying hi to some one you do not know, but think about how they feel?  We pride ourselves on being a welcoming community, yet I see new parents waiting alone after school.  We can show care by welcoming them and making them feel at home.

Pope Francis’ hope for the world is that we can be more mindful of how our actions, no matter how small, can impact the world around us.  We can think about greenhouse gasses and  oil spills, but we can also think of matters closer to home.  Let’s make this a great school year not by the grand things we do, but as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, by “doing small things with great love.”

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What Makes Outdoor Education So Special? #CISVA

At the end of every school year we ask our Grade Seven students to write about their best memories of their years at CCS.   The vast majority of students will put Outdoor Education at the top of their list.  That’s not just their best Grade Seven memory, it’s the highlight of their entire eight years at our school.  What makes Outdoor Education so special and why does it leave such a positive and lasting impression on the students?

The Party Factor – Of course one thing 12-year-olds love is hanging out with their friends.  Outdoor Education can be viewed as a three-day sleepover.  They love the freedom of staying up late talking and being “in charge” of their own cabins.

The Emotional Surge of Being Away From Home – Memories are made more lasting when they are attached to strong emotions. For many students Outdoor Education is their first experience of being away from family for an extended period of time.  This stirs up a myriad of emotions, especially when you add in the prayer and reflective activities students engage in while at Outdoor Education.

A New Experience of Faith – Many students have never experienced prayer and sacraments outside of their school, home, and Church.  At Outdoor Education we enjoy Mass on the side of a mountain overlooking the valley below.  Students also engage in evening prayer and see their faith and each other in a new way.

Getting to Know Their Teachers and Each Other in a Different Way – Students experience their teachers and their friends in a different way at Outdoor Education.  Everyone is just a little more relaxed, maybe more like they are at home.  Teachers can be themselves and students enjoy seeing them in this way.  Students also learn new things about each other and learn to be friends with completely new people.

A Break From Electronics – We do not allow the students to use any electronics at camp.  For some reason if you took away electronics at home kids would hate it, but at camp kids love it!  The break from screens gives them time to think, play, be creative, and be social.  The transformation is quick and noticeable almost immediately.

Experiencing the Outdoors – Most of us live very suburban lives with a small patch of grass and a nearby park.  Being in the wilderness changes things.  A sense of wonder and awe fills the students as they experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the great outdoors.

As a teacher I always liked Outdoor Education for all these reasons.  While being away from my own family for three days was a sacrifice, it was always good to see the growth in the students.  The benefits of these few days can be seen for the rest of the year.  I am so grateful to our own teachers who sacrifice family time to be a part of Outdoor Education.

Have you had positive Outdoor Education experiences?  Can you think of any other reasons it is such a special event?  Please leave your thoughts in the comment.  Thanks for reading!

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