tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, November 28, 2008

An afternoon of college football

Last weekend, my sixth-grade boy and I accompanied the 9th and 10th grade boys of Chesterton Academy to the Notre Dame football game in South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish lost to Syracuse, 24-23. Maybe they will do better tomorrow night at USC.

What a tremendous thing game day is on the campus of the University of Notre Dame! We arrived on campus about five hours before the 2:30 kick-off. Sounds like a lot of time, but it flew by.

Professor Charles Rice, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame law school, serves on the Chesterton Academy advisory board; he greeted us with donuts and shared a few kinds words.

We then visited the campus book store, which was abuzz with fans buying sweatshirts and memorabilia. The scene was as busy as Wal-mart at 6 a.m. this Black Friday. I found tranquility in the part of the store where they actually sold books. What a selection! Someday I really need to return to do some serious book shopping.

Coming out of the store, we ran into the Notre Dame cheerleaders, who were bundled up to accommodate the 26-degree temperature. They visited with our high school guys and we got a picture to commemorate the moment.

We toured the administration building, famous for its gold dome which supports a gold statue of Our Lady. Inside, the first-floor hallways are adorned with murals. I saw several depicting the life of Christopher Columbus. We visited other buildings before entering the Notre Dame Basilica, a wonder of church architecture. It is absolutely beautiful inside. Then we visited the Notre Dame grotto, located behind the church. It is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, France. The place was buzzing with football fans, many of whom took a few minutes to kneel and pray.

We had lunch at a tailgate party, courtesy of the father of the Chesterton headmaster. A long-time Notre Dame fan, he clued us into some team history and accompanied us into the game. But before going in, we waited for the Fighting Irish marching band, which must number in the hundreds of members. We followed as they marched into the stadium from the center of campus.

My boy and I had row-six seats at the 5-yard-line in this bowl stadium that seats 55,000. By kick-off, every seat was filled. We watched a great game with Notre Dame getting out front to a 23-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Syacuse score and then scored again with only 43 seconds left in the game to go ahead, 24-23. Notre Dame had a chance to win the game. With seven seconds left, they tried to make a 53-yard field goal but the ball missed the uprights and the Irish lost.

It was a great experience, although our feet grew cold from the snow and ice that were packed on the ground. It has snowed 10 inches the day before the game and although they had shoveled the seats off, the ground was covered with frozen precipitation. We left the game with about 10 minutes to go, running to the Basilica where we warmed up and waited for Mass to start. Apparently, they always have Mass 30 minutes after home games. What a great idea for Catholic football fans!

We slept well that night, staying in an economy hotel some 40 miles way in Chesterton, Indiana. For all of us, it was a great experience; and for my boy and I it was the source of memories we will carry with us forever.

The University of Minnesota, where I went to college, is moving into a new outdoor football stadium next season after have played more than 25 seasons at a domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis. I hope that the U of M is able to recapture some of that great football atmosphere that makes college campuses so special on fall afternoons.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thoughts on Chesterton Academy

Chesterton Academy opened in September and is off to a very promising start. The school has received a lot of attention; yesterday Chuck Colson featured The Chesterton Academy in his Breakpoint broadcast.

Here are some of the things I was looking for in a high school for my children. These are some of the key features we have built into the Chesterton Academy.

First, I wanted a school that thoroughly integrates the Catholic faith into a college preparatory curriculum. A good high school should teach teenagers math, science, literature, the arts, history, etc., and good study habits so they can legitimately apply for acceptance to any of this country’s top tier colleges. A good school should teach these subjects in the context of faith. While it is good to learn how to count when you study math, it is also important to learn what you are counting, that is, God’s creation. While it is good to study stories in literature class, it is better to study those stories in context of the overarching story of man’s relationship with God.

Second, I wanted a school that manifests that faith in a concrete way, in addition to the curriculum. For a Catholic, daily Mass and a faculty pledge of fidelity to the Magisterium are obvious manifestations.

Third, I wanted a school that is meaningful and socially relevant. I want a school that will prepare students to make a difference in the world, not merely get along in the world. Attacks on human life pose the greatest social injustice of our time. The Chesterton Academy is intended to be a shining affirmation of human life. We are preparing students to build a culture of life.

And we are preparing our students to take their knowledge and faith out into the world. Our goal is not to create a separate subculture, but to change the culture of death into a culture of life.

And, fourth, I wanted a school that teaches entrepreneurship, resourcefulness and leadership. So often people think school is the place you go to prepare to get a job. Well, I’d like to prepare students to create a job. I want a school that teaches students they can create their own future; they don’t have to look to a big company or the government to give them a future. The Chesterton Academy is a lesson in itself, along those lines. It was started by a group of parents who identified a need and figured out how to make it happen. Nothing is guaranteed; we are not getting any government funding. People can make things happen, but they have to try. I want a school that will encourage people to try.

The Chesterton Academy operates in a very modest facility. I wish it had better, but the facility it has is sufficient. The no-frills environment of the school teaches an important lesson. We live in an area where there are ample community resources. They should be used. We don’t all need our own private facilities with the latest bells and whistles. Let’s use what’s available to us, and be creative about identifying those resources.

Perhaps the biggest trap we set for our teens in today’s world is unrealistic materialist expectations. Kids are so surrounded by opulence and wealth that they get a false idea about the importance of “stuff.” By conducting classes in a modest environment, we are trying to promote gratitude, which I believe can be an effective antidote to excessive want.

The modest facility also helps us to keep our tuition relatively low, which I believe is very important. Typical schools that include Catholicism in their curriculum average around $10,000 per year, per student. For a family of four or five, relatively closely-space children, this tuition rate presents a sizeable obstacle to Catholic high school education. At Chesterton Academy, the tuition is $5,500 per year. I acknowledge that is still a sizable about of money, but at least it creates a more affordable option.

Nearly all schools offer students various levels of financial aid if their family cannot afford the entire tuition bill. This is laudable, although I have never been comfortable providing the personal financial disclosures necessary to request such aid. Furthermore, I suspect it would be difficult for parents to work collaboratively on school policy issues when, despite assurances of privacy, decisionmakers know which families have paid less to attend the school.

Every high school offers parents a set of trade-offs to consider as they decide where to send their teens. Some schools offer excellent opportunities for sports and extracurricular activities, but no catechesis. Others offer great facilities and curriculum, but at high tuition costs. Others, like Chesterton Academy, offer great teaching and curriculum but fewer amenities in the areas of facility and extra curriculars.

If you ask an eighth-grader “where do you want to go to high school,” they will typically identify a school that is pleasing to the eye, or a school to which most of their friends are going. I think parents have to consider the decision much more seriously. You only get one opportunity to educate your teenager. What lasting message do you want them to get during those high school years? You can judge relatively easily what your kids will learn from the curriculum, but consider also what they will learn from the environment of the school.

Dale Ahlquist and I started talking about forming a new high school in spring of 2006. We hired a magnificent headmaster and he has put together a stellar faculty. Several people have made generous donations to get the school going. Nine families have come together to send their kids to the school this inaugural year. Tonight, we are hosting a parents’ meeting regarding new students for the 2009-2010 school year. There are a lot of people who want the kind of school described here.

I certainly will write more about the Chesterton Academy as this venture develops. In the meantime, check out the school’s web site.