Michael Van Hecke
Michael Van Hecke is president of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
Our school is independent, lay-founded and run, and recognized by the diocese as a Catholic school. Our K-12 school is one of 25 private Catholic high schools in the diocese (the other 25 are diocesan or parish high schools). Most of the other private Catholic high schools are run by religious orders. Our school enjoys the same independence as those.
What grades does your school serve?
Our school serves K-12 students. We limit class size to 12 students for K-3rd grade, 15 students for 4-6th grade, and 18 students for 7-12th grade.
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
Our vision is to maintain the faith-filled educational community that aspires to wisdom, virtue, holiness, wonder, ascent to Truth, humble inquiry, a habitual vision of greatness, beauty and goodness through hiring and admissions. In both hiring and admissions, we never just “fill a seat.”
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
We are based upon a Christian anthropology while neighboring schools, unbeknownst to them most likely, follow a curriculum and pedagogy based on a secular anthropology, ala Dewey. Unfortunately, given the typical requirements of credentials for employment even in Catholic schools, most teachers, principals and even diocesan leadership have been formed in the secular educational philosophies and practices. So, through no fault of their own, they are missing out on so many of the joys and benefits that derive from educating from a integral philosophy based on a Christian anthropology.
How often do your students attend Mass?
As a school, students attend Mass once weekly plus each first Friday. Additionally, we are able to offer Mass one other day per week just before school.
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
The Faith is not so much “integrated into” as much as it is part and parcel of who and what we are. It might be more accurate to ask how the subjects of learning are integrated into one’s growth as a more full human being. After all, everything we do—intellectually, socially, culturally, etc.—derives from our creation as a child of God destined to spend eternity with Him in heaven. The Faith is the substratum of all, and actually is the biggest motivational factor to study all disciplines well, for in them is truth. The more we understand truth the more we understand Truth.
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
All subjects are studied in light of the faith which unites and integrates truth because it derives from Truth Himself. We hire teachers who have a broad range of knowledge so that they can agilely move between disciplines to draw out truth and understanding in any given subject. In other words, examples from science or theology will be as easily present in a history or literature class and vice versa. They help cement in the mind of the student the reality of the integration of truth. That being said, we do have a strong alignment and integration amongst our history and literature courses, which we build in thematic tandem. Not surprisingly, theological works and ideas also pepper every aspect of this course because salvation history overarches all.
Are you able to share a required reading list by grade?
Yes. In addition to the school reading list, we strongly promote The 1000 Good Books list as the best place to go to guide a child’s reading such that they are formed with healthy literature rather than dis-formation which comes from mainstream children’s reading lists, e.g., Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We also give faculty some latitude to teach those works (within a list) that they are most passionate about and understand more deeply, working “with the grain” of the faculty, whom we trust.
What is your school’s enrollment? Has enrollment been steady in recent years?
Our school's enrollment is 190, which is functionally full.
For the last decade-plus we have been functionally full, meaning there are the occasional empty spots in a class here and there, with waitlists at most levels.
What is your school’s tuition? Do you offer a sibling discount? If you offer financial aid, how many families receive it and what is the average grant?
Tuition is $6,800 for K-8, $7,800 for high school. Child two and three receive a tuition discount of approximately 15%. Children four and beyond are free, except for a $240 enrollment fee.
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
Parents are close to the school and other families, given the familial nature and size of our school. They are very involved in our fundraisers, social events [Oktoberfest, Family Dances, etc.] and parent night. Mostly, however, they are principally occupied by raising large families.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
Yes. Our teachers all love their Faith, the families, learning, and each other. This is manifested through the frequent gatherings they have with each other outside of school, and by the amazing conversations that occur daily around campus on matters of Faith, children, literature, history, music, science, and much more, all with an eye to discerning truth.
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
Two things lead me to say that parents are satisfied:
They exhibit joy and happiness on campus and at social events. This, by the way, scatters what is the common cancer of some schools, parking lot gossip.
The retention rate of students/families is over 90% over the last 15 years, indicating parents are mostly happy since there are many other options for schooling in the region.
What are you doing to intentionally build and strengthen your school community? How do you communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of your community connect with each other?
Hiring, admissions, and relationship building. By intentionally working on becoming friends to all, we are intentional about communicating and being present—especially at social events, carpool line, etc. One of the most effective communication tools I have used for over 30 years is a weekly letter. Early on, that letter was sent on blue paper to make it distinguishable from the school announcements. 30 years later, it is still called “The Blue Letter.” Generally the front features a letter from the headmaster (or a guest “column” by a teacher) and the back contains announcements, calendar events, and the like. The front side may contain a teaching, an article excerpt, a poem or quote, or even a recounting of something from the school Mass or a class. Over many years, with 30 or more of these letters each year, we start to convey a vocabulary, e.g., truth, beauty and goodness, a culture, a conversation, and a philosophy which undergirds the nature of our school community. It provides a base for us all to think about and discuss. This, in turn, helps enculturate new families into the life of the school and the long-developed intellectual traditions of the school. A final comment: our school is intentionally small so that we can retain the intimacy necessary for relationships to exist. This policy helps ensure communication is easy and natural.
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
All of these and more. Of course we share many resources provided by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, too. As a member school, we are able to use the many resources ICLE shares with her member schools. We do have parent education nights, providing a speaker to talk about topics within the curriculum, or maybe germane to parenting. Also, as mentioned above, our weekly Blue Letter is a rich source of frequent and regular formation which spurns discussions amongst faculty, parents and even older students sometimes—a great catalyst for developing a community of learners.This singular tool of formation has been so impactful that it gets shared by families to grandparents, other relatives and various friends. We have grandparents and alumni ask to be included in the weekly Blue Letter mailings so they can be edified by the teachings.
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
The community/family nature of the schools is probably most important, but only because that community is based on an esprit d’ corps based in a deep Faith. If it derived from anything less, the community would not be so valued. I can only attest to this because I have been told this so many times over so many years—it is the one thing that has most moved people.
How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to tell your school’s story and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what your school offers that others don’t.
For 15 years we have not recruited. We built a strong, mission-imbued school, especially through our admissions and hiring, and word of mouth has kept it full. This is so strong that, on average, every year we have one family move from across or out of state in order to be near to our school so they can become part of it.
How much have you needed to sell your community of parents on the value of the education and formation your school offers? How many parents seek out what your school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
Our school was founded in the Catholic liberal arts traditions, so no sale was needed. We were founded for families in the region that wanted this unique and rich educational option. Our school benefits from seekers who know of what we are and want that specifically. What seems to resonate most with parents is our reputation of providing the best of the Catholic educational tradition, especially in faith, wisdom and virtue. What they are often fleeing are the errors that have overtaken the progressive factory model of education, e.g., tech obsession, state standards driven classes, ideologies (especially SOGI, Critical Race Theory, etc.).
How do you determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your application process? What shared values do current families expect you to protect as you add new families to your school community?
A recommendation from a current family goes a long way. We often meet with the parents and students even before an application is given so they are clear on who we really are as a school. We also get to know them a bit. A shadow day and testing follow, along with one more interview. What we are expected to protect is the vibrant love and respect for the Faith, along with the innocence of their child.
They expect us to help them in their duty to build the theological, intellectual, moral virtues. They also expect a school free from the secular ideologies and educational fads that have subsumed modern education in general.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Short of the Holy Family actually applying, I use them as a model to consider when thinking of the attributes one might apply to a candidate for teaching. I think of Jesus knowing all, enraptured by all of the beautiful attributes of God found in creation, and loving every single person—every one! Imagine a teacher who has a love and grasp of knowledge across many, many areas of knowing, and who loves children. Mary, is all loving and sacrificial, the principal component of a great teacher. One who will do the harder thing for herself, because it is the better thing for the child. And then there is Joseph—humble, strong, just, chaste, prudent, faithful, etc. c.p, Litany of St. Joseph. In addition to that, Joseph was deeply knowledgeable and hard working when it came to his craft. He was the model of “work ethic.” These are traits to see in a well-round teacher. To add to that, who would not want a teacher that exhibits some of St. Joseph’s other notable characteristics—Model of Workmen, Zealous Defender of Christ, Lover of Poverty (just kidding, of course) and, the middle school boy’s favorite, Terror of Demons.
How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to tell your school’s story and connect with qualified teachers outside of your school community? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what your school offers that others don’t?
We recruit through the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education job board and career offices at the Newman Society colleges and universities. While we do not have any printed resources, we do have conversations with any interested party so that they can come to understand our basic philosophy of education and community. We specifically gel with teachers who are looking for a community of Faith and learning, and who are seeking a school where they can be free from the secular standards and ideologies, and free to pursue wisdom and virtue as a teacher with the other teachers, and with students.
How do you determine whether a teacher you are considering hiring will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect you to protect as you add new teachers to your school community?
Through a series of conversations we determine what the philosophical outlook of a candidate is, and what their breadth of knowledge and ability to communicate are. Well conceived interview questions like “What are you reading now?” or “How have/would you handle this following situation in a class?” let us know something of the candidate’s thinking and wisdom. Depending upon the position, timing and difficulty of deciding between two or three finalists, we might have them come in and meet some of the faculty and teach a lesson or two.
Families expect the administration to hire to mission, above all else. They want a sound teacher who possesses qualities found in the Holy Family so that truth, wisdom, virtue and heaven remain the goal while retaining an environment of joy and wonder in the classroom. Parents also expect a difficult-to-meet oscillating balance of rigor and peace. We do our best to find that balance through an environment that encourages frequent and open communication to the teacher and administration.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
There is a culture of ongoing informal growth in the intellectual, moral, and educational traditions of the Church and Western civilization. In addition to that, although I have been imperfect in effecting this, we assign a mentor teacher to any new teacher, and constant and open communication (and frequent peer visits) helps all teachers discuss new and better teaching strategies and how to meet individual students’ unique challenges. We also frequently use the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education for professional development activities utilizing Title II funding and our budget*.
*Regarding P.D. budget, we aim high to keep good professional development happening. It has proven to not only keep us desiring to learn, but since we are able to fund several faculty members to do things together, it also greatly enhances the intellectual and spiritual bonding of our faculty – provided, of course, we pick excellent PD. E.g, ICLE, Circe, Cana Academy, etc. Think in terms of 33-50% of a what a fulltime teacher salary would be, and include that in the budget. We also make use of Title funds and foundation grants.
One other thing….we have books that we consider deeply formative for a faculty. Studying these together as a faculty will help every teacher grow, whether a new teacher or a seasoned professional. They can also be revisited over the years.
Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain A Catholic Vision in a Secular Age, ICLE/Catholic University of America Press
The Heart of Culture: A Brief History of Western Education, Habiger Institute, Cluny Media
The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet
The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory
The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools by Archbishop J. Michael Miller
From Christendom to Apostolic Mission, University of Mary Press
What percentage of your school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue? How important is fundraising to the continued operation of your school? What works best to inspire families and community members to support your school? What doesn’t work? How have you created momentum in your fundraising efforts and what plans do you have to strengthen your fundraising program in the years ahead?
Approximately 70% of our school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue
Fundraising is essential to the continued operation of our school. Without it we would lose many students or have to pay our teachers wages that would be impossible to live on in Southern California. Some of our best students, with respect to the Catholic culture they exude, are scholarship students, so it is imperative we find a way to keep them at the school. Fundraising allows this.
One thing that inspires families and community members to give is to try to make a goal that seems reachable. To that end, we divvy up the total fundraising need. Since the beginning we have promulgated a policy of dividing the fundraising responsibility into thirds.
The office raises a third (personal relationships, foundations, direct mail). The board raises a third (gives or gets). The parents raise a third. For the parents, we limit ourselves to three events per year and do not burden them with wrapping paper, candy, popcorn or magazine sales – just the three. We have a jog-a-thon (kids), a gala (mostly moms run this), and a Golf-a-thon (dads).
For parents and community, the inspiration also comes from hearing the story of the school, told with love and conviction. That story, and the school being so markedly different than all the other schools in the area, attracts faithful donors, often even ones who have no relative even connected with the school.
In order for this to work, though, the headmaster has to Tell the Story. He needs to also regularly encourage parents, students and teachers to do the same. In particular, emphasizing elements such as the classical curriculum, the strong Faith, and especially the palpable joy are all very attractive. We also clearly demonstrate how inexpensive our school is v. public schools or even high-priced private and Catholic schools. A simple chart can be a good story-telling aid.
Here is what doesn’t work. (1) Demanding quotas or counting beans is a negative motivator. (2) Having too many fundraisers, especially those little ones that bring in just a small amount. We meet the small needs from your budget and put everyone’s energy into just a few major events.
Momentum in our fundraising efforts is generated by good will of all involved with the school, faculty and families, which translates into good will of alumni. Good will is generated by integrity to the mission coupled with a palpable joy that pervades the school community.
Building friendships with many donors, large and small, is critical. Do not underestimate the power of loving the small donor. She may send $10, but will also remember you in prayer. One early donor of ours was asked for $25 or $50, I cannot recall the original figure, but it was so small he could not say no. Five years later he donated $900,000.
Building giving patterns has also created momentum. We make small asks, prioritize regular communications (some asks, some just sharing stories), have an unusually (compared to most schools) strong sense of mission that is unmistakable to those visiting campus to see: (1) Joy and (2) a faculty, headmaster, staff and student body that read, discuss and honor sound, lofty, inspiring, time-honored truths and aspirations found in the best practices of 2500 years of education in Western civilization.
Future plans include more of the same!
Are you the primary fundraiser for your school? How many hours do you spend on fundraising every week? How many hours does other staff spend on fundraising?
I am the primary fundraiser, spending about 5 hours per week on the effort, though some weeks it may be 20 or more, and some weeks zero. The same amount of time demands fall on my office staff, too.
What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school? What are common challenges for schools operating under your model and what is your school doing well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
The board’s principal activity in practice is to advise the headmaster and raise money. Since they are also the legally responsible entity, policy changes must go through them. They also help adjudicate when something essential confronts the school. Two things have helped us maintain a healthy balance of administration:
The board allows the headmaster to run the school. They see themselves principally as advisors when the headmaster needs the wisdom of many counselors. This is the culture of the board.
The school handbook clearly delineates a communication directive, i.e., what concerns would go to teacher, which directly to the headmaster, and which to the board. If this is short-circuited, the up-level person can direct the one who has the concern back to the point of responsibility. This has helped curb many issues that might result in a manager’s micromanaging lower tier employees.
What is your school known for in your area?
Catholic classical education with a strong family culture.
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
Keeping mission in a modern world—technology is profoundly pervasive, even to good-minded parents.
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
Being a faith community that builds both the historical and sacramental education in their students, and, by extension, also builds the same for faculty members and parents.
What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of your school?
I think you covered it all. I would say, though, that I have been blessed with great teachers, great families, and a great board that have allowed us to start well and keep improving. Though God is the author of this all, I believe that what I have referenced several times is the proximate cause of the success—strong mission-based hiring and admissions.
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
We are based upon a Christian anthropology while neighboring schools, unbeknownst to them most likely, follow a curriculum and pedagogy based on a secular anthropology, ala Dewey. Since our philiosophy, curriculum and pedagogy works with the nature of man, it necessarily works better and more smoothly for all involved.
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
Classics Day is one school custom which is especially unique and profoundly culture building in that all students, K-12, and faculty divide into mixed-age teams identified with various countries, clans, or groups from Ancient, Medieval, or American history, and, following weeks of planning and preparation, participate in a day-long celebration of speeches, banquets and competitions, all centered on their group, e.g., Spartans, Romans or Alexandrians for Ancients Day.
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
Given the different areas of the school, it seems best to offer one resource per each of three areas of operation:
Material need: A local foundation provides an operational grant amounting to 20–25% of our annual fundraising need.
Learning need: No technology curriculum—students use books, novels and discussions.
School culture: Strong hiring and admissions based on Catholic mission.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
If I truly am limited to a single activity, it would have to be the prayer I rely on in good times and bad, though cultivation of friendship to all (faculty, student, parent, donor, etc.) is a close second.