Friday, June 20, 2014
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI | Going on 40, St. Brendan High School is about to get a massive facelift.
For starters, the school will begin construction on a new building — its first ever, since the three buildings and cafeteria now on site were originally built for the seminary next door, St. John Vianney.
Set for completion by December 2015, the new building will house offices, state-of-the-art labs and special classrooms for St. Brendan's four academies. These are self-contained "schools within a school" that put students on a path to specific careers in business and law, medicine, visual and performing arts, and the so-called STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math.
This first phase of the planned renovation will cost about $11.2 million and includes upgrades to St. Brendan's athletic fields. Another two phases, encompassing renovations to the classrooms, gym, cafeteria and pool, are planned over the next 10 years.
"Its a big deal for our school, in which we never built anything," said José Rodelgo-Bueno, St. Brendan's principal since 2012. "Basically, we have one big field and we do everything there."
The revamped fields will include separate spaces for soccer/lacrosse, baseball and softball, and track. Best of all, they will be available for use by teams from St. Brendan's feeder schools in southern Miami-Dade County, including "little St. Brendan" next door.
"It makes sense that we support each other," said Rodelgo-Bueno, whose enthusiasm and flair for innovation are spurring a renaissance at the archdiocesan high school.
With an enrollment of nearly 1,150, "St. Brendan is the largest archdiocesan high school in Miami-Dade County," he said.
In terms of fame, however, it lags behind its next door neighbor, the Marist-run Christopher Columbus High School. It's not that the schools are rivals, since St. Brendan is co-ed and Columbus is all-boys. Marist Brothers also taught at St. Brendan, and one served as principal until two years ago.
But the school tends to get overlooked even physically, wedged as it is between Columbus and St. John Vianney Seminary. Founded in 1975, St. Brendan until did not even own its buildings: They had been borrowed from the seminary when it closed its high school. Ownership was only transferred this year.
St. Brendan's relative anonymity will end, however, if Rodelgo-Bueno has his way. "We have a mission to be the number one school in college and career-readiness," he said.
A native of Spain, Rodelgo-Bueno worked in the archdiocesan Office of Schools before joining St. Brendan's faculty as a geometry, Spanish and Italian teacher in 2010. Prior to that, he taught economics at the college level for four years.
His passion for education and economics led him to obtain a doctorate in the "economics of education" and he recently authored a book, "The Teachers Will Save U.S.," where he outlines his prescription for the survival, and success, of Catholic education in the 21st century.
It's a prescription that takes into account growing competition from charter schools, which are privately-run, publicly-funded and free; and the religion-averse environment that young people confront in college and beyond.
"Were not going to disappear if we have a vision. Money and students follow vision," Rodelgo-Bueno said.
St. Brendan's academies represent the implementation of that vision.
The academies function like majors in college, with students, classes and even clubs grouped under each academy's area of study. Students begin focusing on a particular area after freshman year, and even though they don't have to enroll in an academy, most do.
The goal is to help young people discern a career before they get to college, when changing majors gets expensive; to give them experience and internships along the way that will get them admitted to more prestigious colleges and universities; and to increase their chance of getting scholarships that make those schools affordable.
It's exactly what parents are looking for, Rodelgo-Bueno said. "We provide faith and service, which is good. But in addition to faith and service, we have to provide all the other things that charter schools and even public (magnet) schools are providing."
The academy model also results in a Catholic education that challenges students to mature.
"They can start having this conversation with God: What do you want me to do? What is Gods will for me? They have to find their path in life. But you have to challenge them," Rodelgo-Bueno said.
Since the academy model was implemented two years ago, enrollment has increased. "Suddenly, we are the number one choice for many families. And we are very proud," he added.
St. Brendan also is investing in technology: Not just iPads for each student and Apple TVs in each classroom but high-definition 60-inch TVs streaming a student-produced newscast and bulletin announcements throughout the school; a medical model named HAL that can be programmed to mimic myriad ailments; and a rolling robot that allows students who are ill to attend classes from home or the hospital.
All of that costs money, Rodelgo-Bueno admitted, "but our children deserve it."
Eight years ago, St. Brendan also pioneered an exchange student program that has brought as many as 80 young people from Italy and Spain to study at the high school, for as few as three months or as long as one year.
The idea for the program came from Rodelgo-Bueno, who at the time worked for the archdiocesan schools office.
Some St. Brendan students will be traveling to Europe soon to spend a few months at a partner school. The high school also began offering classes in Mandarin Chinese this year.
Rodelgo-Bueno does not take full credit for all of these initiatives, however.
"This is Catholic education coming from my founder," he said, referring to the late Father Luigi Giussani, founder of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation. Rodelgo-Bueno is a member of the worldwide CL Fraternity.
Father Giussani wrote that "only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life's needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction."
In other words, Catholic education has to teach young people the importance of Jesus in real life, when they go to college, when they hang out with their friends, and when they are on the job.
"Putting doors on the ocean is impossible," Rodelgo-Bueno said. "What we have to do is, inside that ocean, propose something that is so attractive that everyone wants to come here."
His goal is to see that St. Brendan's students are "super prepared for college and careers, and at the same time, they dont lose their faith in college."