Monday, May 30, 2011

Colegio Juan Wesley - Guatemala

As visitors approach Colegio Juan Wesley, an elementary and secondary school in San Cristobal Totonicapan, Guatemala, they behold colorful letters across the siding of the second floor: “A Dios sea la Gloria,” (To God be the glory).  Over 300 children, from preschool to b├ísico (high school), attend this school—and dozens of work teams  throughout the year as well.  This past week, 7 students from Front Range Christian School, 1 other chaperon and myself served Colegio Juan Wesley by helping in the construction of a new vocational school.  Our eyes were also opened to the challenges of education in the developing world.

Timoteo Chocoy, the Director of Juan Wesley, hosted our team for the week. We stayed at the Wick House (a house for former missionaries), and were fed each day by Mari Lu, Timoteo’s hospitable wife.  We spent the week singing (to 3 different groups), preaching (this was just me), doing a Sunday school lesson, and hauling rock. Our hands were put to good use as we carried rock and sand for 2 1/2 days to the second floor of the new vocational school, which was to be used for the cement mixture.  Aching backs were the norm, but after Timoteo gave us the tour of the current school, much of which was built by short term teams, it became apparent that this work was worth the effort.

The vision for the school was born out of deep love and desperate need.  Originally a mission of the Primitive Methodist Church in San Cristobal, the school quickly grew out of the church building and needed a new building.  The vision for a school on the campus of Camp Shalom, near the Quiche Bible Institute, was born. Phase 1 would be the primary and secondary school. Phase 2 (which we were working on), would be the vocational school, a training institute which would give students the opportunity learn a trade – mechanic, carpenter, accountant, etc—and gain the skills for employment in Guatemalan society. Phase 3 would be an extension site of a Christian university.

Why the school?  First, the quality of public education in Guatemala could be described as poor at best.  Absent teachers, ignorant of curriculum, teaching in classes of 40+ is the norm. The average years in school for a Guatemalan citizen, even if they do stay in school, is less than five.  A quality, Christian environment, with well trained teachers was in such demand, the only barrier to doubling their size overnight was tuition costs. Second, the school was launched for the sake of mission.  For Timoteo, the school is a field of evangelism to the hundreds of students, over half of whom are non-Christians. Third, education is often the only way out of poverty.  The economic pressure for a child to stop school after elementary school and begin working is tremendous. Not only can families not afford the modest tuition ($15/month), but children are often expected to begin working in the fields or in the family business at a very young age—thus permanently limiting their social and economic possibilities.

Here’s my question: how do we make schools, like Colegio Juan Wesley, work for more students?  This is inherently a complex question. Quality teachers, competent administrators, and educational facilities are all central. But most issues come back to funding.  Tuition only covers about half of what it costs to educate a student, not including new projects.  What is needed is creative solutions for funding schools.  We need more donors who will provide scholarships to students (only $350 / year).  We also need creative solutions for funding schools. What about building businesses in the community which could give half of their profits to the school? Or what about using the vocational school to produce ready-made products for market, thus providing a measure of operational funding (this idea is already in the work)? Or could high school students work one day a week for Christian-owned companies and businesses, giving the student valuable work experience and the school their wage as a compensation for tuition (check out the Cristo Rey model)? 

“No margin, no mission,” a recent head of school said at a marketing seminar.  This negative margin, to which most schools can identify, really needs to return to the forefront of educational conversations, especially among leadership. The developing world, including the children at Colegio Juan Wesley,  are waiting for creative solutions.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Race to Nowhere

A movement is afoot in the United States questioning America’s achievement culture in education.

Today the Denver Post did a special article on AP exams.  The author did several interviews with students at Boulder’s Peak to Peak Charter School, Colorado’s “most saturated public Advanced Placement environment.” Apparently 96% of its students take AP courses, which has made Peak to Peak #37 on the list of top high schools in America.  They even do pre-AP courses for students too young to take regular AP courses.  The author cites another case of a principal in Pueblo who instituted a host of reforms based almost entirely on increasing the number of AP courses offered at his school.

But significant push back against an “AP is everything” culture is growing.  Several college officials have seen high school students with an impressive portfolio of AP courses enter college, as one enrollment official at Colorado College has put it, “devoid of the more elusive qualities of passion for learning, freshness of mind, curiosity.” 

Many high school students try to smash as many AP courses into their schedule their junior year in order to secure the college selection of their choice, and then “coast” through their senior year.   Regarding this attitude, the director of admissions at UC Boulder commented, "I completely disagree with that philosophy," he says. "The best students are good students and good citizens across multiple areas. I worry when there's so much pressure on students to take more AP that they start to cut some meaningful activity from a balanced life."

Thoughtful people across the country have been questioning the sanity of the AP system.  A new educational documentary entitled Race to Nowhere (of which my school is hosting a screening next week), questions many facets of “America’s achievement culture.”  After a young girl in her community committed suicide after performing poorly on a math test, director Vicki Abeles went on a crusade to uncover the distortions of the American educational system.  Unveiling student testimonies about stress, burn-out, cheating and pressured performance, Abeles has taken issue with a culture that sees success as 7 hours of school, 4 hours of extra-curricular activities, and 3 hours of homework per night. 

The film doesn’t make the case that AP exams are inherently bad or pressure-filled, but it certainly does make us all ask the really fundamental question, “To what end do we educate?”

And this culture introduces other problems. Many high achieving students graduate with a sense of entitlement, and an expectation that they’ll succeed anywhere they go.  But, as the film points out, when many young graduates are given a situation in which there is no clear problem and no clear solution (ie, no syllabus), they are paralyzed with confusion.  Skills like abstract thinking, creativity, and problem solving (the types of activities done by people who lay on the grass and stare into the clouds) are few and far between.

Christians also must critically evaluate their own academic pursuits as well.  Do we want to achieve (and have our children achieve) so that we can get into the best school, to get the best job, to get the best house, and to be “happy.”  Is happiness, by any measure of the term, really determined by your GPA or your college degree?

Are we educating young people to be whole individuals, to succeed in family life and civic life as well as their careers? Or are we producing top notch achievers who are used to pushing ahead of the pack, but very seldom think about going to the back of the pack to lift others up?

Race to Nowhere is a film that ought to be seen by anybody interested in education. And the long-term validity of AP exams should be questioned by every student and administrator who believe they are the silver bullet to educational success.  The people of God must really ask themselves, once again, “Why?”  We need a redefinition of success in education based not on the throne of achievement, but on the cross of service.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Strategic Planning

There are some skills that are taught in school. Others you have to learn for yourself.

When I graduated from seminary, I was filled with idealism, as any young person should be.  Yet as I manned a desk at the adult education program where I worked, and served part-time as a pastor of a Hispanic congregation, I quickly realized that few were interested in my global aspirations.  And I myself realized quite quickly that vision alone could not change either myself or the people or institutions around me. I needed the means to do so.

At the same time, I was repeatedly exposed to those very means. During my last few months at the seminary, I dreamed up a program that I dubbed “The Presidential Intern Program.” A lofty name, for sure, but it was really just a cover to let me hang around the seminary’s executive team for 3 months. After months of interviews, and even a sneak peak at a confidential board meeting, I realized that all these leaders had a common language. They all had “strategic plans.” 

As the current VP of development explained, “Strategic simply means that your future plans are trying to accomplish a stated purpose.” Strategic was the opposite of random and reactive. Being strategic simply meant that we had a clear idea of where we wanted to go and how we were going to get there.

One of my favorite professors at Denver Seminary, Gary Hoag, now president of Generosity Monk, has been coaching me monthly on spiritual leadership and strategic planning. Under his tutelage, he’s shown me that strategic planning is far easier than I once thought. It’s basically composed of three parts all of which are trying to accomplish a vision or goal: (1) strategic initiatives, (2) objectives, and (3) tactics.  Step 1: Pick 3-7 major areas, strategic initiatives, that you need to accomplish your vision for the year. Step 2: Select objectives that you believe will accomplish those broad initiatives. And step 3: make for yourself measurable action steps, “tactics”, that you’ll use to chart future progress toward major goals.

This three step process may sound boring, but in my two years after graduation, I’ve had the chance to quietly observe a bevy of organizations. And I can honestly say that those (schools included) who have a strategic plan tend to be purposeful and successful over the long haul. Those that don’t tend to be ruled by the urgency of the moment and the latest, greatest idea, only to see it fizzle out after a couple of months.  Good, long term planning, often called “strategic planning” is, many times, the difference between high performing schools and the mediocre.

Strategic planning, as it is now practiced, is an invention of post WWII American business culture. Walter Kiechel III made this case in his book Lords of Strategy.  So, it’s safe to safe that the idea is not necessarily Christian. It is a temporary tool to get things done. 

Having said that, we should not forget that Jesus’ life and ministry was laden with clear purpose.  Many times he told his disciples, “The Son of Man will be betrayed by the Pharisees and teachers of law. He will be killed and raised again on the third day.” Jesus’ eyes were resolutely fixed in Jerusalem.  He knew what he had to do.  And as has breathed his last breath, he triumphantly declared, “It is finished.” Mission accomplished.  I am in the darkness, they are in the light.  I am punished, they are rewarded. I am dying, they will live forever.   Salvation has been won.

Christianity is a worldview that sees God on a mission. His purposes to redeem humanity from the moment of the Fall never faltered. From Ur to Patmos, God is moving history to its redemptive ends. He is focused on the goal: the redemption of all things in the New Jerusalem.

Strategic planning is not a necessity for all ministries. But leaders in God’s mission had better have a clear idea of where they’re going. God does.