By William Bole
May 3, 2021 — In a daunting era, Jesuit schools forge new ways to care for the whole student
Seven months after sending a thousand students home amid the gathering storm of Covid-19, Sacramento’s Jesuit High School opened its doors again this past October, offering a hybrid of online and in-class learning. But it was hardly a matter of just “opening doors.”
During the summer, teachers and leaders had been gearing up for the next normal. They spent weeks staging the hybrid classroom, rehearsing the roles of instructors, students inside the classrooms and students connecting remotely at home. “A lot of it was just making mistakes and learning from them,” recalls Michael Wood, the school’s principal. Among the lessons: making sure the remote students could hear their peers inside the classroom (microphones strategically hanging from ceilings helped).
When school reopened, the landscape was different from the Before Times. For one thing, two distinct cohorts were hopscotching between classroom and remote learning on different days. And the word “testing” took on new meaning, as students queued for twice-weekly coronavirus screenings. Donning masks, they’ve continued to learn and engage with each other every day—even though most of their city’s public schools were still fully remote as of March this year.
All through the pandemic, Jesuits West schools have spearheaded new ways of educating and serving their students. And they’ve been doing it the Jesuit way, by looking after the whole student—academically, spiritually, socially, emotionally and materially.
“One of the hallmarks of Jesuit education is adaptability, and as I look at these schools, how they’ve transformed the ways they do education overnight, it is heroic,” says Timothy Caslin, provincial assistant for secondary and pre-secondary education at Jesuits West.
“Their adaptability and hard work leave me speechless. Across the board, they’ve provided the best possible Jesuit education at this strange time.”
For any school, it’s been a monumental struggle to just meet academic needs in the era of lockdowns and social distancing. For Jesuit schools, the challenges can be even more profound. By virtue of their mission, they’re called to embody the Jesuit concept of cura personalis—care for every person in all of their dimensions. “That’s the difference a Jesuit education makes,” Caslin points out. “It’s about the curriculum, no doubt. But it’s also about: How do you care for their spirits? How do you tend to the whole person?”
Altogether, there are 18 secondary and pre-secondary schools in the Jesuits West Province, along with five universities. The pandemic has presented each one with different hurdles and opportunities, depending on variables such as where they’re located and whom they serve.
In Portland, St. Andrew Nativity School brings Jesuit education to a distinct population of middle school students. In keeping with the broader Nativity model, the school charges no tuition, and the essential requirement for admission is eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch under the federal school lunch program, indicating a high degree of need. So, almost by definition, Nativity’s students come from families left most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life during the pandemic. Family members may lack health insurance, or work at frontline jobs with greater exposure to the virus—or lose those jobs.
At the start of the lockdowns, Nativity pivoted not only to online education but also to the role of social service provider. Service to students and their families was hardly unknown at St. Andrew’s prior to coronavirus: The 10-hour day there begins with breakfast at 7 a.m. and ends with an extended day program. The school had also helped families with emergencies such as job loss and eviction, but with the pandemic, the aid was dramatically ramped up. Teams of volunteers began delivering meals to families, many living at the far reaches of Greater Portland. All of the families have received gift cards for groceries; school staff has also arranged rental assistance through private donations and a county program. Lizzie Petticrew, the principal, puts it simply: “People living on the margins are still there, during a pandemic.”
As classes went online, school officials took other measures, like seeing to it that each student had a reliable internet connection at home. The school also hired five teaching assistants, who could, among other tasks, alert teachers to when students had a problem or a question (and later on, as in-class instruction gradually began, the assistants also helped teachers give equitable attention to those logging on at home). Counselors taught coping strategies and stood on full alert for emotional flare-ups. Staff members made regular calls to parents, checking on how students (and families) were doing academically and otherwise.
Like much else in the world, the school’s morning assemblies migrated online during the remote learning phase. Four times a week, the assemblies gave Nativity’s 82 students another way to stay engaged with the Jesuit mission through Gospel readings and reflection upon spiritual themes. “Virtue-al” Awards went each week to a half-dozen students who, nominated by teachers, exemplified key characteristics of Jesuit education (openness to growth and commitment to justice, to name a couple).
In February of this year, with the easing of some Covid restrictions in Oregon, Nativity began phasing in the return of students to its spacious classrooms—at a time when Portland’s public schools were holding to remote education. “I think, for us and for many at Jesuit schools, all this has been the ultimate in cura personalis,” says Nativity’s president, Carolyn Becic. “We’ve had to take care of the whole person in ways few of us could have anticipated.”
That goes also for the five Jesuit universities in the province, surmounting their own challenges.
These are big institutions with residential populations, and the logistical maneuvers began with the evacuation of students, faculty and staff from campuses on a moment’s notice a year ago. And not only from campus: There were students abroad, including over 160 students at Gonzaga University’s program in Florence, Italy, where the virus was wreaking havoc. Removed somewhat from urban virus hotspots on the West Coast, Gonzaga in Spokane is the only one of the five that could generally bring students back to campus during this academic year, though campuses at the other four (Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara and Seattle University) were not deserted; still there, among others, are international and nursing students (the latter, in their clinical phases of studies). In a mammoth undertaking to care for each student, the universities have aided students who lost work-study jobs on campus and whose entire families lost their incomes. Schools have also set up call lines for students to reach out almost any time for help with emotional distress, or (in the case of campus ministries) for spiritual direction, says Father Robert Niehoff, SJ, provincial assistant for higher education at Jesuits West.
President emeritus of John Carroll University in Cleveland, Fr. Niehoff has stayed in close touch with university leaders. They’re talking about how, in the fall, schools might be able to “roll out, in a big way, an especially robust social experience and campus life” for students who have been starved of both, as he relates. Inviting students back earlier, in the summer, is one idea.
Meanwhile, at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, much is different, much is the same. Now the school is serving as a vaccination site for the wider community, using some of the same logistics and volunteer crews it continues to deploy for virus screening. There’s an online version of the popular Kairos retreats for seniors, without the hugging and the secluded retreat house, but arguably with the essentials—the faith journeys recounted by inspiring speakers, the reflection and the solitude. Partly to avoid Zoom fatigue, Wednesday is a no-class day. It’s for other pursuits like Frisbee and food trucks as well as tutoring and office hours with teachers. “They still talk about how great it is to be back at school—you don’t normally hear that from high school students,” Father John McGarry, SJ, school president, says with a knowing smile over Zoom.
“To me, it’s an example of how Jesuit education endures and thrives, while staying grounded in our core principles. It’s about flexibility and adapting to the needs of our times. All that says a lot about the efficacy of Jesuit education,” Fr. McGarry explains, as he and other Jesuit school leaders look to the future with hope.
A Time of Reckoning
Jesuit schools have stayed on mission during this era of the virus, but also in a time of reckoning with the harsh realities of systemic racism.
In Los Angeles, Verbum Dei High School serves an overwhelmingly Latino and Black student population. It is a Cristo Rey school, which means students, in normal times, work one day a week in clerical positions at sponsoring companies. They do so to help defray the costs of a rigorous college-prep education (which has remained demanding online), while giving them professional work experience. Like everyone else, students at “the Verb,” as it is known, saw headlines and images of racial turmoil in 2020, but as young men of color, they also experienced in a more visceral way the traumatic aftershocks of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis last May.
Against this backdrop, examining all aspects of how the school conducts itself has been a driving imperative, says Father Stephen J. Privett, SJ, president of Verbum Dei and a former University of San Francisco president. Verbum Dei has taken a probing look at the way it teaches American history, so that the “whole story is told, not just the white guy’s version of the story,” Fr. Privett noted in a Zoom interview together with the school’s principal, Brandi Odom Lucas. She added, “Students want to know that they also have a safe space to engage in conversations about race, in the context of their own experiences. They have that space at Verbum Dei. They can critique the world around them. There’s no hiding that.”
It’s not an easy conversation, but Odom Lucas brings a particular perspective to it. She recalls that as a UCLA undergraduate and afterward, she shied away from grappling with her own racial identity. She credits Jesuit mentors with helping her recognize that she was “trying to leave that behind, but that God loves all of me, including my Blackness.”
Odom Lucas, whose doctoral dissertation at Loyola Marymount University wound up tackling questions of race and religious faith, now sees herself “walking alongside” students at the Verb as they navigate similar issues in their young lives.
William Bole is a journalist who writes frequently about the Jesuits.