By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Says Patty Coover, a mother of six who pulled four of her own kids out of a parochial school to enroll them at Ville de Marie:
"I'm absolutely thrilled it's not accredited. I think accreditation has gotten to be--how can I put this?--I think it's worthless. We have all these schools accredited and we have kids who can't read and write? "I put my trust in someone like Chris Speier and his wife and the teachers in that school and my own ability to discern things. . . . My kids are learning in that school, and that's all I care about."
The academy's status with the diocese (whose schools are all accredited by the North Central accrediting association) is a stickier issue. Officially, church leaders are noncommittal about Ville de Marie. "I know there is a school over there," says Father George Matanic, vicar for Christian formation (head of education) for the diocese. "Our basic feeling is that parents make choices. People are quite aware that we support choice for education." Unofficially, they have to worry about the drain on their own schools when some of the most committed and devout parents see a need for an alternative to existing parochial education. Ville de Marie appears to be a reaction to the evolutionary changes in Catholic life that have occurred over the past few decades. The students' early emphasis on Latin, for example, is a throwback to the days before Vatican II modernized some of the church's rituals in the early 1960s, including switching Mass from Latin to English. Speier and the founding parents are careful to avoid criticism of the church or its parochial-school education, although they say their school is a correction of a whole society's failed attempt at educating itself.
"The primary educator should be parents," says Rich Eneim, citing a long-held Catholic philosophy. Before the Tempe homebuilder and his wife helped found Ville de Marie, their three children were home-schooled. "Nobody knows your kids better than you do; nobody has the same desire for their success that you do. When you boil it down, we feel it's our job. And if there is some delegation of the responsibility, we think it has to be done very carefully."
Ville de Marie parents say their friends from church are curious about, but respectful of, their decision to veer from the flock. "We get sort of the same response that we were used to when we were home-schooling," says Rich Eneim.
How the children of Ville de Marie feel about their alternative education is hard to judge and, ultimately, not all that important. Their parents have made this decision for them, and they abide by their parents. The students, at least at the high school level, are bright and totally attentive in class, yet capable of an energetic, all-class, seven-on-seven co-ed basketball game at lunchtime. Their school day is not a long, grim march toward enlightenment. Because of Ville de Marie's size, big-school extracurricular activities can't be offered, but older students who have attended other schools say they don't miss such opportunities. Parents say the reduced class size and dress code work to reduce peer pressure, and the students genuinely seem to appreciate the absence of distractions such as $150 sneakers. "It's one less thing to worry about," says one. @rule:
@body:A Ville de Marie parent describes the academy as "a safe harbor in a storm" for her children. In addition to being the school's spiritual leader, chief administrator and gym teacher, Speier also plays the role of harbormaster. He knows he is part of something special and something somewhat fragile. Yet it's doubtful that Chris Speier's baseball buddies would be too surprised to learn what he's done with the rest of his life. "Nothing surprises me about him," says Mike Sadek, a catcher for the Giants in the mid-1970s. "He was destined for something like this." Speier admits he sometimes wrestles with his current destiny. Though the rewards of running Ville de Marie are many, he says he's had to divert time away from his own family to help enrich the families of others. A project that began as a way to help his own kids has him now helping almost 80 of them. It's been more work than he ever imagined. "Would I do it again? I don't know," he says. "I was overwhelmed at first, but now I love it. When you get thrown in the water, you learn how to swim.
"I don't take credit for any of this. The school's here because God wants it to be here." And there is the tug of his past life. He tries to stay close to the game, or at least close to old friends who still play the game. Not surprisingly, one of Speier's closest friends as a player was Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs' soft-spoken slugger who winters locally, and the two try to stay in touch. "Right now I don't miss playing baseball," says Speier. "I miss the moments. I miss being out on the infield in the ninth inning with a game on the line."
In a career full of memorable moments, his favorite moment is the first one--his first game as a big leaguer. He had met his future wife just days before; the Giants opened on the road in 1971, against San Diego. He walked in his first at-bat in the first inning, scared to death. "Then I went out to the infield," he says. "I was taking ground balls from Willie McCovey. I stood there for a moment and looked behind me, and there's Mays in center field. And on the hill is Marichal. I just said, 'What am I doing here? Wake me up.'
"I can still actually feel the same feeling I had then.