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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

-- Photos by Patricia Lefevere

Br. Kenneth Hoagland and his dog, Tobit
Values trump vanity -- ditching the dance

School earns kudos for canceling prom and its discontents

Uniondale, N.Y.

Taking an unpopular stand doesn’t always land one in the doghouse.

Br. Kenneth Hoagland displayed a file shelf in his principal’s office containing 5,000 letters he received in 2005 following the decision -- taken by the leaders of Kellenberg Memorial High School here -- to no longer sponsor the senior prom.

When Hoagland and his team ditched the dance, their letter to parents addressed more than the drugs, booze and sex associated with prom night. It also focused on a culture of affluence and decadence rife on Long Island and in much of America.

Weekend rentals in the tony Hamptons, motel rooms reserved by mothers for their teens, and limos hired to take students to “a booze cruise” offshore from Kellenberg High were examples of a prom culture that is “sick,” wrote Hoagland.

The event was no longer even “marginally compatible” with the school’s “philosophy of Christian education.” It was rather a show of “vanity ... one of the capital sins,” he wrote.

The statement made headlines nationwide. “Good Morning America” filmed a segment at Kellenberg. The Chicago Tribune ran Hoagland’s statement on its editorial page. The BBC weighed in, as did newspapers in Australia, Japan and Ukraine.

Only 19 of the 5,000 responses received at the school opposed the decision, Hoagland said. Initially some parents protested and wanted to run the prom themselves, but their sons and daughters opted instead for a dinner-dance cruise around New York City.

The rules: Only Kellenberg seniors were invited -- no outside dates, no alcohol, no limos, no tuxedos, no formal gowns, just suits and dresses as attire. The school would supply bus transport to and from Manhattan. The whole evening would cost about $130 per student compared with an average $1,000 on previous prom nights.

The tradition is entering its third year. Seniors enjoy it and parents are content too, said Hoagland, a Marianist brother now in his 14th year as principal of the coed school, which along with a Latin Middle School, educates 2,485 students.

Kellenberg’s philosophy of “civility, order and respect” is contained in its motto, “One heart, one mind,” which pupils see sculpted in large letters at the entrance of the school alongside a mural of the Holy Family depicting Jesus as a teenager.

Hoagland said his greatest challenge comes in trying to educate youngsters in the faith in a culture that is antithetical to religious and spiritual concerns. “Religion shapes the atmosphere here,” he told NCR.

A student’s day begins with a prayer videoed into all homerooms. Each class opens with prayer. At lunchtime some 100 students choose to receive Communion in Maria Regina Chapel. The chapel’s walls, altar, stained glass and furnishings are the handiwork of the Marianist community, whose 15 members live and teach on campus.

Students in school uniforms brush elbows daily with priests and brothers in their black suits and ties or black cassocks. They also see the six canines that are part of the community and regulars in the school. Kellenberg’s third floor houses the order’s living quarters as well as Emmanuel Retreat House, whose staff offers programs designed to help students be more aware of the power of God in their lives.

Each month two liturgies are simultaneously celebrated in the auditorium and gymnasium and the sacrament of reconciliation is available at all times and conducted over two days in Lent for the entire student body. The Marianist provincial, Fr. Thomas Cardone, serves as the school’s chaplain. Along with a chaplaincy staff of six, students have access to a range of spiritual resources not always available in Catholic schools.

Todd Lemieux (see related story), a member of the chaplaincy team, is one of Kellenberg’s 21 religion teachers. With a faculty of 125, only the English department rivals religion in the number of instructors. “When I have parent-teacher conferences, I tell them: ‘This is what your tuition is going for; the rest you could get at a public high school,’ ” Lemieux said.

As he shows off the school to a visitor on a bright winter day, he points out “all the purple” -- Kellenberg is observing Lent. There are fewer snacks in the cafeteria and cheese is the only pizza topping until after Easter.

Besides teaching and supervising a musical worship and exaltation group, called XLT, Lemieux finds time to drive a busload of students to nearby St. Martin de Porres Marianist School in Uniondale when classes end. The Marianists took over the mission school for minority children four years ago when it had only 120 students and was in danger of closing. Today 475 pupils are enrolled in grades kindergarten through eighth. Kellenberg teens assist with afterschool activities.

The outreach is one of many examples of service that Hoagland points to with pride. After the positive outcome of the prom letter, school leaders hoped to use the moment to “tap into the generosity of our school family and see what we could do to help others.”

Along came Hurricane Katrina. Kellenberg wanted to send backpacks to three schools ruined by the hurricane. “I expected we’d get a couple of boxes full,” said the bemused Hoagland, petting his dog, Tobit. Instead students donated 2,400 backpacks, each filled with school supplies. Parents hired a truck and drove the loot to New Orleans.

During Advent students painted a home for unwed mothers and contributed so many supplies that there were enough to offer to four other such residences on Long Island. The youngsters also collected new clothing and gave money to renovate St. Anthony House, a homeless shelter in the Bronx.

“Money is not evil,” the principal said. “At the end of our lives, we’ll only be asked: ‘How did you get it and how did you spend it?’ ”

Using it to buy alcohol is a habit that has brought heartache to Hoagland and others at Kellenberg. “Drinking is out of control here,” he lamented. Even though it happens off campus and on weekends, Hoagland said it has “developed out of the culture of excesses and affluence.”

Students -- girls as well as boys and some as young as 13 and 14 in the Latin Middle School -- “no longer just drink for fun,” he said. What’s cool today is binge drinking, where the idea is not who can chugalug the most, but “who can get drunk fastest.”

Hoagland is aware of such activities from students’ conversations, from weekend hospitalizations and from postings on the MySpace and Facebook Web sites showing students getting wasted. The recent deaths of two Long Island youths as a result of accidents caused by drunkenness has put a sobering tone on Kellenberg’s efforts to warn pupils about the risks they run when consuming alcohol.

The school employs a drug and alcohol counselor, “who is here far more than part-time,” said Hoagland. Students also have the opportunity to be in an “AA-like” 12-step program and to help each other in peer-support ministry groups that focus on the problem.

Like the bacchanalian aspects of the prom that could no longer be ignored, so too binge drinking caused the Marianist Province of Meribah, located in nearby Mineola, N.Y., along with the administrative staff at Chaminade -- a Marianist-run high school in Mineola -- to address the “plague on Long Island.” The four-page statement makes explicit that students who are known to abuse alcohol or drugs will be required to take part in a rehabilitation program if they are to continue at either Catholic institution.

Hoagland believes the mission of every Catholic school is to prepare leaders for the church. How to wrest students from the clutches of materialism, the bottle’s beckoning and the hormonal lures of adolescence remains a daunting task for any school administrator, he said.

“We continually confront expectations that you’re going to drink, you’re going to use drugs and you’re going to lose your virginity in high school.” Still Hoagland is encouraged that not all students drink and that many readily aid the poor and the homeless and visit those in nursing homes. Some 200 of them train as catechists and teach religious education in their home parishes.

And every year more than 2,000 eighth-graders in Nassau, Queens and Suffolk counties apply for the 500 freshmen spots at Kellenberg. In feedback from parents and community leaders, Hoagland takes heart that the school’s staff and faculty are doing something right. As if to underline the point, Tobit raises both ears, bounds onto the couch and -- like all hairy issues -- lands in the principal’s lap.

Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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