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Straight A’s: Bishop O’Dowd President Steven Phelps

The leader of one of the East Bay’s premier Catholic high schools explains how a faith-based curriculum embraces tolerance and 21st century learning.

President of Bishop O’Dowd Steven Phelps

The mission of Catholic schools is to prepare young people to be exemplary global citizens. So explains Steven Phelps, the president of Bishop O’Dowd, one of the Bay Area’s acclaimed college preparatory high schools.

Located in the hills overlooking Oakland, O’Dowd comprises a diverse student population that includes kids from poor neighborhoods and the children of CEOs. Here, Phelps explains how O’Dowd draws both on centuries-old Catholic tradition and innovative technology—cutting-edge environmental science learning programs, a laptop per student—to prepare students to work and thrive in a 21st global society.


What is unique about O’Dowd?

What distinguishes this school from other schools isn’t any one program per se. It’s every thing together. Our test scores are very good, but you can get good test scores at other schools. We have very good athletic teams but so do other schools. What separates us is we have a great balance. We have tremendous arts programs. We obviously have good technology, which we use as a tool. Our academics are stellar, and we challenge kids.

"Our academics are stellar, and we challenge kids." // bishopodowd.orgAnd here you have a school that was impossible when we were kids. We have kids of all different ethnicities and social classes. We have a lot of very poor kids. We have rich kids here, too. We have 40 international students. We have kids of very many religions. We’re 5 percent Jewish, for example. We have a higher percentage of Jewish kids here than in the United States as a whole, or the Bay Area. We have kids who are openly gay or who have same gender parents.

Is that part of the faith, to be tolerant?

Absolutely, Jesus loved everyone. We want to treat everybody with respect, with graciousness and with love, regardless of who they are. If a kid screws up, fine. How do you grow? If they are selling drugs in the middle of campus, we’ll kick them out. If they’re alcoholic, we’re not going to kick them out, we’ll sit down with the parents and put them in a program. We tell students if you have a friend who has a problem, come tell the counselors. Editor’s Note: Based on an individual student's needs, O’Dowd offers professional counseling services for academics, collegiate sports, learning differences, and personal needs.”

When you talk about improving student outcomes what do you mean?

It’s about, how literate are you in mathematics and science, and how well do you write? Can you problem solve? Do you have the self-confidence to be creative? We know from research to be entrepreneurial, you need to have self-confidence. Well, how do you develop self-confidence? Do you have opportunities to grow and develop and succeed and fail and succeed and fail?

There’s no question in my mind that this generation of kids is not only the smartest generation that ever lived—as we were for our age group—they are the most socially-able. That stereotype you hear is that this generation of kids is not socially able because of Facebook: That’s just not true. You walk around our school – and it’s not just because it’s us—you’ll see the magnificent social interactions these kids have. It’s really heartwarming.

"The teacher has become a fellow learner with the student." // bishopodowd.org

How do you think your school is doing things better?

This school was set up as what an excellent school was in 1950. That was the industrial model. Where you had classrooms and every 50 minutes the bell rang and you moved onto the next thing. The teacher told you what to do. There were lots of textbooks and worksheets. That was and probably remains the best educational system in the history of mankind. It’s educated the entire planet. There’s nothing wrong with it, we could just do things better.

First of all, one does not need to go to school to learn anymore. A student can go online and find out about the Battle of Hastings. You first of all have to recognize that the role of the teacher has changed from an organizer and motivator to an expert who helps people puts thing together. The teacher has become a fellow learner with the student.

You’re proud of the fact of how O’Dowd incorporated technology in your classrooms. For example, you make sure that all your kids are equipped with laptops.

When you put laptops in kids hands, it can be very distracting but a very powerful tool, just like it is for us. Our students will be able to access information at a high level.

Wasn’t there was a debate at O’Dowd about whether to equip students with iPads?

Would you trade in your laptop for an iPad? Could you do your job? We’ll let students use iPads in class if they want, and we’ll let them use their smart phones. The bottom line is that tablets are not ready to replace laptops yet. They are good companion devices.

"You can’t predict what the world will be like but you can teach students the literacies that will allow them to grow and develop." // bishopodowd.orgWhat do you think is the best way to prepare students for the future ahead of them?

We’ll tell parents, we’re going to do the best we can to educate your kids for the decades your child will live. The truth is, half the jobs now won’t exist in 24 years. You can’t predict what the world will be like but you can teach them the literacies that will allow them to grow and develop self-confidence, risk tasking ethics, cooperative learning, writing skills, marketing skills and how to stay physically healthy.

Finally, how do you think American education has changed?

The way we are designing and funding education, at whatever level, isn’t sustainable. Look at the two biggest industries in the country, which are education and the medical industry. Well, the medical industry is almost up to 20 percent of the GNP. That’s not sustainable. And education has almost doubled in the past 20 or 30 years as a percentage of the GNP. It’s up to 6 percent. That means over a quarter of the gross national product is based on health care and education. Maybe that’s how it should be. But if you straight line the math for the next 30 years it will be 60 or 70 percent. That’s just not possible.

Straight A’s is part of a series of education blogs Diablo posts regularly.

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Added: 2017-03-07

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