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HomeLocalCatholic EducationBishop Machebeuf High School: A transformative education through Catholic Liberal Arts

Bishop Machebeuf High School: A transformative education through Catholic Liberal Arts

This article is the third of a 10-part series that seeks to shed light on these and other tremendous things happening at Bishop Machebeuf High School. With the many rumors surrounding what Bishop Machebeuf is and isn’t, it’s essential to set the record straight. For more information about Bishop Machebeuf High School or if you are interested in applying, please visit machebeuf.org.

Part 1: Honoring the Past. Celebrating the Present. Engaging the Future. 

Part 2: Forming Disciples of Christ

Part 4: Dr. Bonta announces departure from Bishop Machebeuf High School; new president named 

Part 5: Creating Vibrant Student Life

Part 6: Continuing a Legacy of Athletic Excellence

Readers of the Denver Catholic may recall an article published in February 2020 announcing that Bishop Machebeuf High School planned to move from a two-track system, College Preparation and Classical, to a Liberal Arts curriculum with an Integrated Humanities component (a merging of the most successful elements of both tracks).

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While the Machebeuf team has successfully implemented these changes, some members of the Bishop Machebeuf Family didn’t understand why changes were being made and the reasoning behind them. “I think there were rumors and misunderstandings in regards to integrated humanities,” says Dr. Tony Bonta, President-Principal, “when in reality, the goal was that students would learn how to think critically and to speak more articulately their thoughts, their values, and their beliefs. So, when they are exposed to these great ideas and these great works in the curriculum as a whole, the integrated humanities seminar is meant to help them put all of this together, to integrate all this knowledge with their own unique and personal ways of expression.”

When reflecting on the academic changes made during the 2020-2021 school year and the reasoning behind them, Superintendent of Catholic Schools Elias Moo noted what the Church has held the standard for Catholic education to be.

“It’s two-fold. First, we want [Catholic education] to be liberal — in the classic understanding of the word ‘liberal’ from the Latin, ‘liberare,’ which means, ‘to free,’” Moo explained. “This means students are free to grow in wisdom and virtue: through learning history as the story of Salvation, where Jesus Christ made himself present in human history, through learning about mathematics and science as a revelation of the Creator — learning about logic and the laws the Creator used to make the universe so that in the course of study, they can develop this worldview. Second, because Catholic education is liberal, it has a method, and that method is the liberal arts. The classic understanding of a liberal arts school is the focus on those disciplines that enable people to be free: Literature, reading, science, math, history, theology… that through the pursuit and formation of the mind and the body, our students’ spirits would be elevated. Bishop Machebeuf was meant to be the opportunity to build a renewed school program that had as its driving force, the most important things.”

Dr. Bonta added, “Our goal all along has been to take the best of the value proposition of academics at Bishop Machebeuf and combine that with a pillar called ‘integrated humanities.’ So, yes, we still offer math and sciences. Yes, we offer theology. Yes, we offer languages, Latin and Spanish. We offer fine arts, physical education, and the part of the curriculum we call ‘integrated humanities.’ ”

The integrated humanities program is only part of Bishop Machebeuf’s core curricula

Peyton Stark, Dean of Faculty Mentoring and Instruction and Humanities Instructor, explained how the integrated humanities program works in simple terms. “On a basic level, integrated humanities is a combined English and History class. So instead of taking those classes separately, it’s all taught together, and it’s a seminar-based class. So what that looks like is we will read Great Books, and then in class, we share a primarily student-led discussion. So students read and then come to class to talk about ideas and encounter history through literature. They think about how the events of the past have shaped who we are today, but also how they’ve shaped the literature we are reading. The huge difference I see for students is, instead of showing a PowerPoint, which sometimes I’ll do — I will do a little bit of direct instruction — it’s a lot more of the students asking questions with each other, learning through reading, and also through discussion, which I think is really fun. It’s a little challenging at first for students because you can’t sit back in class; you have to participate. But I think they find it’s a lot more engaging.”

Ralph Pesce, Humanities Instructor at Bishop Machebeuf, identified the goal of the integrated humanities program. “The goal of our program goes beyond a mere academic program to touch upon every aspect of our students’ lives. It’s not a separate compartmentalized approach to education. The seminar is effective because it is not simply a tool for intellectual formation but also fosters habits and dispositions that impact the way students think and make decisions. In other words, the seminar is the place where students cultivate virtues like courage, patience, and prudence.”

Humanities instructor Ralph Pesce sees the fruits of Bishop Machebeuf’s approach to education every day. (Photo by Daniel Petty/A&D Creative)

“I choose to be at Bishop Machebeuf not just because I believe in this approach to education but because I see the fruits of it every single day. My interactions with students both inside and outside the classroom convince me of the success and value of this kind of education. I see students form friendships, become a family, and experience a vibrant, joy-filled transformation that only happens through the grace of the Holy Spirit,” Pesce added.

One of the misconceptions about Bishop Machebeuf high school is that the curriculum only teaches humanities. Some think they don’t offer math or science at all or don’t offer AP honors courses. Pesce refuted these rumors directly.

“This is not true,” he said. “We have a variety of courses because we understand that those are academically rigorous opportunities that contribute to the overall project. Our students learn to see the truth of reality in all things and their relationship to one another. We access this in everything from integrated humanities to art history, theater, and AP physics. It’s all present, and it’s all here.”

Harold Siegel, Assistant Principal for Academics, confirmed the variety of AP classes available within Bishop Machebeuf’s curriculum and clarified that, while Bishop Machebeuf doesn’t offer the breadth of AP courses other high schools do, it doesn’t impact graduates’ ability to get into highly selective universities. “We offer specific AP courses in Calculus, Biology, Physics, Stats, Spanish, and Latin with plans to add Chemistry and Art History. What’s important to know when students are applying to colleges is that it doesn’t matter how many AP courses they took in high school. What matters is whether or not their school offered AP classes in the curriculum and whether or not a student challenged themselves within the courses available to them at their school. So, suppose a Bishop Machebeuf student takes five AP courses, and another student takes 25 at another school and those two students apply to the same institution. In that case, they will not be measured by one’s volume of AP courses versus the other’s. The question is always, ‘did you take the hardest curriculum offered?’ We have students here challenging themselves in math and science as much as they can.”

Academic support is offered to help students shine, no matter their situation

Dr. Ted Snow, Assistant Principal for Student Services, provides guidance counseling, registrar and schedule development, and arrangements for students who need accommodations for disabilities. He said, “We’re not psychologists or psychiatrists, but everybody can use a place to take a break for a few minutes with someone who will listen. Students come to us for academic guidance questions when they’re thinking about where they might like to go to college, while they’re working through their class schedule, or if they’re having difficulty in certain areas.”

Academic support is an integral part of what is offered at Bishop Machebeuf. The high school works with an outside contractor, Ascend Learning. Dr. Snow described the benefits of this partnership. “What they do for us specifically is review documentation for disabilities or any barriers to learning, and then they approve what we call ‘learning accommodations’ and then they turn that into what’s called a ‘learning support plan’ or an ‘accommodation plan.’ Those are the things that we provide students when they have some barrier to learning. Ascend Learning takes that documentation and turns it into a plan to try to level the playing field for students. The intention is not to give an unfair advantage but to equally advantage students who have these documented barriers to learning, and that then breaks down into things that can be done in the classroom to help students be a part of the student community at Bishop Machebeuf without too much trouble.”

The faculty at Bishop Machebeuf does everything they can to set students up for success, including an academic support program that meets students where they are at, no matter their situation. (Photo by Daniel Petty/A&D Creative)

Dr. Snow also recognized that students come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. To address whether the Bishop Machebeuf curriculum is too rigorous for some students, he said, “Some students come to us ready for ninth grade, some come to us advanced, even ready to take a faster track in their academics. But we have students who may also not be on par with their age and grade peers, yet we believe they’re able. When we see a student who has the willingness and work ethic to grow into being more proficient students, then we use our summer Bridge Program to help them come aboard.”

The Bridge Program is new to Bishop Machebeuf, but Dr. Snow is encouraged by its early returns so far. “The semester’s not over yet. Otherwise, I could start quoting GPAs, but 17 of those 20 students performed as well as their peers this fall, even though coming in on paper, it didn’t necessarily look like they would. So that’s what the summer Bridge Program is all about. You know, it’s trying to start with students where they are and then moving them to where they need to be. The Bridge Program works to bring students in at a level of calm to feel confident and begin the semester and persist through the semester. They might need academic support, and we might require that of them— that may actually be part of their admission— but that way, we get them on par with the rest of their age and grade peers.”

The new curriculum requirements have come into place such that some students have been educated throughout the transition from the two-track system to one unified track. “The class of ’24 will be the first class to graduate under the new requirements. We are working with students between now and the class of ’24 to make sure that they graduate and that the change in requirements doesn’t hurt them or impact their chances for college or life after Bishop Machebeuf. But I’m excited about the new curriculum. I have seen it is more rigorous, and I have seen students rising to the bar. With the team that we have — with the faculty that we have — I think we’re going to do just fine.” Dr. Snow said. “We’re seeing real improvements in the students that were considered for academic probation or academic suspension.”

Academic preparation for excellence in life beyond Bishop Machebeuf

Dr. Bonta reiterated what success looks like for a Bishop Machebeuf graduate. “The problem with the word ‘success’ is — in this context — it’s become a catchy buzzword. True success for us looks like this: That students follow their call, they follow the path God wants them to have, the call he’s placed on their hearts. In short, to live extraordinary lives. And the truth is, whether that’s as a single person, a married person, a religious person, whether that’s going on to college, or going into the military, or going into a formal religious vocation; the bottom line is that academics are only one of our four pillars. We want to help lead students to live the fulfilled life that God wants them to live. That’s the goal. Period. Because if you’re living your vocation, if you are who you are called to be, there’s going to be joy.”

Pesce shared his perspective on the high school’s vision of success. “The goal of all this in a practical sense is to teach them those habits of mind, skills, and understanding to read and understand anything they encounter in the world. As they graduate and leave the safety of Catholic schools, they’re going to be prepared to identify the lies of happiness, the falsehoods that the world offers them, and to seek the truth. By forming them in an academically rigorous curriculum, they’re absolutely going to be prepared for college or professions because what we believe at Bishop Machebeuf is that when we present the highest goods and the highest goals to our students, the lower ones come naturally and more easily. So things like literacy, comprehension, and writing are skills that are good and necessary, but they’re in service to something greater. What makes us different is that we’re pushing our students to seek the higher things; we’re helping them and supporting them to act accordingly. This is why I am committed to the vision of Bishop Machebeuf and why I stay here; so that our students may have life and may have it abundantly.”

Students at Bishop Machebeuf are encouraged to engage in rich discussions in class by participating in seminars. (Photo by Daniel Petty/A&D Creative)

Siegel is confident Bishop Machebeuf is succeeding in implementing the archdiocese’s vision for what a Catholic school should be both from his perspective as a parent of two current Machebeuf students and a 2021 graduate as well as in his role as Assistant Principal for Academics. “The curriculum at Machebeuf, in a way, should be the flagship high school curriculum because it is based on the Archdiocese’s vision for Catholic education, which is a Catholic Liberal Arts education. By definition, we are a Catholic Liberal Arts school. We are a member of the Newman Society and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. We seamlessly transition from what students learn in K-8 schools throughout the archdiocese. From my point of view, as a parent of Machebeuf students, ultimately, a Catholic school must be Catholic, and it must be a school. So there must be a faith component and an academic component. The faith component here is strong because of the strength of our chaplain, Father Julio, and the witness of the Servants of Christ Jesus and the Nashville Dominican sisters, who offer authentic witness every day. They are faithful, joyful, and completely in love with the Lord. Our curriculum gives students the ability to engage in the ‘Great Conversation’ from Homer to Josef Pieper. We have Shakespeare woven throughout the curriculum alongside getting to learn Latin and develop skills in the disciplines of the Trivium.  Combining these studies with our robust Theology program and really solid math and science, our students are receiving an education you won’t find anywhere else, perhaps in the entire country.”

He added, “Through the witness of the faculty, Machebeuf is a wonderful place for students to focus on the Beautiful, the True, and the Good across all disciplines in the process of becoming closer to Jesus Christ.”

Author’s note: To better understand the integrated humanities seminar and get a feel for the school’s academic environment, Mr. Pesce invited me to sit in on one of his humanities seminars. At the seminar, what I witnessed firsthand was completely impressive. One might imagine a group of average high school students to be mostly engaged, with perhaps one or two students nodding off in the back of the classroom. This image couldn’t be farther from the reality I observed at Bishop Machebeuf. To set the scene, a circle of tables was set up end to end, creating a “stage” in the center of the room. Once the seminar began, the assembled class of about 20 students started reading selections from Hamlet and leaning into — and I mean really enjoying — volunteering to embody a specific character within the brief passages of the play Mr. Pesce had chosen. The dynamic student-led discussions between these scenes were full of energy, joy, and excitement, and I found myself completely drawn in. Mr. Pesce would help provide context, as needed, or demystify a specific Shakespearean word or phrase the students might have been stuck on, but otherwise, the students themselves were completely empowered — and behaved as such; they asked questions of and challenged each other, addressing their peers as “Mr.” or “Miss” to maintain a high level of respect throughout. One young lady even chimed in to connect the material to a passage from Machiavelli. Another student referred to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Not a single student was unengaged.

John Wojtasek
John Wojtasek
John loves walking alongside brands and causes he believes in. Using proven storytelling and marketing frameworks, he develops clear messaging and communication that helps them serve more people with their life-changing solutions. A lifelong Catholic, John has served as a FOCUS Missionary from 2013-2016 and is passionate about building up the Kingdom and Family of God. John is a freelance contributor to the Denver Catholic.
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