Note: This is the second half of a keynote address that Tom Nolan, founder of Loyola Academy and Access Academies in St. Louis, presented at our Regional PD Day in February. The first half was posted last week.
If the animating spirit of our mission is social justice, and if we keep it alive by being aware of the needs of our students and the presence of God, what might be the measures of success of our educational mission in the years ahead? I’d like to suggest that our future definitions of success may be different than those that we employ now.
As any of you who’ve been part of a new school know, our sense of success changes over time. When NativityMiguel schools first began, success was usually measured by survival. For example, when Loyola Academy opened in the summer of 1999, we had very simple measures of success. Will we get an occupancy permit so we can open the doors for the first day of school? Will we be able to meet payroll every other Friday? Will any of our grads get into a college prep high school? These and similar benchmarks were very real, very basic, indicators of success. But as time went on, as we gained a bit of institutional maturity, there were new measures: we tallied how many who started in the 6th grade completed the 8th grade; we calculated how much more our annual appeal raised this year when compared with last year; we charted how many graduates were accepted to the top tier of college prep high schools; and so on.
Now that most NativityMiguel schools in the country have moved beyond survival into maturity, we may want to think about new measures of success, new ways of assessing how well we carry out our mission. These new measures of success might be divided into two categories. First, those that pertain to the individual school’s operation; second, those that pertain to collaborations with other schools and organizations. Allow me to suggest three measures of success that pertain to each school’s operation.
We will be successful when each of our students not only graduates from high school and is accepted for post-secondary study, but when each student successfully completes a post-secondary education.
NativityMiguel schools view their task as providing a top-quality middle school education which, in turn, results in their students being admitted to an appropriately rigorous secondary school. With help from graduate support directors and others on the school staff, these students then complete high school and are admitted to college or some post-secondary opportunity that prepares our graduates for a professional career. Our grads, however, don’t stop being our grads when they head off to pursue the next level of education. We continue to care for them, and support them in various ways, albeit informally. I’m suggesting that as a new measure of success, we make the informal, formal, that we define success as completion of a post-secondary degree. That doesn’t mean that we assume the same financial responsibility as may have been the case through high school. But it does mean that we adopt new and various forms of programming and challenge ourselves and our school communities to see our students through to the end of their post-secondary education.
We will be successful when we who are teachers and administrators and staff members approach our tasks in a holistic manner, rather than operating in functional silos.
Another measure of success will be the ability of each’s school’s staff to operate in ways that are genuinely holistic, that avoid a hyper-specialization, a kind of unnecessary narrowing of job descriptions that creates a “silo” mentality. When most NativityMiguel schools began, everyone did everything. My friend Terry Mehan, one of the Loyola founders, served the school as development director, as Spanish teacher, as advisory group leader, and, with great generosity, was the go-to guy when someone threw up in the lunch room. But as our schools have matured, have added staff and become more focused, one possible error is a kind of specialization that misses the synthetic nature of our mission. When that happens the math faculty doesn’t fully appreciate the role of the art teachers; the reading instructors don’t always see how they can contribute to the work of the graduate support director; the fundraiser may not fully value the functions of the maintenance staff. We may not return to the helter-skelter days of our beginnings, but if we are emphasizing a holistic approach to the education for our students, we must mirror this value in the interaction among those of us working in the school.
We will be successful when each of our schools has achieved a level of governmental and financial stability that ensures the long-term sustainability of that school.
This means that we have a strong, energetic board of directors and a solid fund-raising operation augmented by a serious endowment. When Loyola Academy began more than15 years ago, my absolutely greatest fear was that we would operate for a few years, achieve some modest levels of success with our students, and then fade away because we did not have a strong board of directors and or because we would simply run out of money. That would have been another blow to a community that had so many promises broken over the years, promises made by politicians, by church leaders, by educators and others. I don’t need to tell you that dashed hopes are as deadly as debilitating poverty. So, please, build very strong boards, boards that are aggressive, caring, hard-nosed, generous. And build a fund-raising system that not only cares for the annual budget but sees the creation of a significant endowment as a measure of success.
Even as we strengthen our individual schools with new, school-specific measures of success, we might also consider other measures of success that flow from collaborations that reach beyond our customary boundaries. Let me suggest three in this category.
We will be successful when, through various forms of collaboration and resource sharing, the NativityMiguel schools in a given community are able to educate even greater numbers of children than they do when operating alone.
Helping one another, and pooling our talents and treasure, is not a new idea and many our schools are already doing so. In cities across the country we’ve seen joint summer programs, multi-school college visitation experiences, and similar efforts among NativityMiguel schools. But if we take this a step further, for example, with shared faculty, shared purchasing of goods and services, joint fund-raising ventures, and so one, we may be able to increase our enrollments and, in so doing, increase the scale of our operations, allowing even greater numbers of students to receive a NativityMiguel education.
We will be successful when we have helped the Catholic community, especially the more affluent sectors of the Catholic community, to appreciate the moral necessity, and financial possibility, of providing effective, faith-based education available to the poorest among us.
Regarding the Catholic community, I think that we may have a special opportunity. Nearly all NativityMiguel schools have deep religious roots and most of these are in the Roman Catholic tradition. But from 1960 to 2006, Catholic school enrollment dropped from 5.2 million students to 2.3 million students and the number of Catholic schools fell from 13,000 to 7,500. The vast majority of these school closings have been for financial reasons, and the outcome of this trend is that Catholic schools are more and more becoming available only to the affluent. In the midst of this period of decline and retreat from low-income communities, the NativityMiguel schools are stunning beacons of hope and accomplishment. Along with their first cousins, the Cristo Rey high schools, the NativityMiguel schools clearly demonstrate that Catholic education should, and can, be made available to students and families who are not privileged, to populations who have so much to gain but heretofore have experienced so little access. By demonstrating to more affluent Catholics, and to Church leaders, that the provision of quality, faith-based education to the economically disadvantaged is part and parcel of the Church’s fundamental mission and, and is an achievable objective, then we have fostered, in a new way, both the mission of the Church and the mission of NativityMiguel.
We will be successful when we join with other school communities – especially public schools – to seek systemic approaches to the reform of education of low-income children.
Most NativityMiguel schools are doing a great job by just about any measure you might apply. But we might ask ourselves how to measure success beyond the walls of our schools. How do we help other schools who share our mission, our concern for educating economically disadvantaged students? Do we see ourselves as helping make a difference on behalf of the public schools that the siblings and cousins and neighbors of our students attend? Are we ready to partner with those schools in common academic, athletic, community-service ventures? Do we advocate for public policy issues, for example supporting a bond issue that will put a new library in neighboring public elementary school? And what about our long term goal of ending poverty? Are we willing to testify at a house or senate hearing on behalf of Medicaid expansion? Will we encourage our board members and donors to support tax reform and school reform measures that will help all students in our city to receive the type of education that we wish for our own students? We have credibility in many arenas that we may not even be aware of, and that trust can allow us to bring our light, our success, into areas beyond the immediate. We can be a light unto the nations, but we can’t keep our light under a bushel basket.
These are different measures of success – and I’m sure you know others that are just as suitable as these – but they are attempts to stretch our thinking about our mission, to help us see our mission in ways that do not contradict but complement our founding objectives. They are, in the end, measures of success that may help take us to new and more expansive ways of achieving our fundamental goals.