The following story appeared in the May 26 Idaho Catholic Register.
Principal Mike Caldwell cites the creation of Our Lady’s Garden on the Bishop Kelly campus as one of his proudest accomplishments. Caldwell, his son, Braden, and his classmates did much of the manual labor for the garden. Caldwell designed and built it with help from math and engineering students. English students chose the readings while art and engineering students collaborated on the art for the Stations of the Cross. An art contest was held to devise the patterns on the rosary walk. Horticulture students were involved in the plants for the garden. “Today there can be as many as four classes using the garden at the same time,” Caldwell said. (ICR photo/Vero Gutiérrez)
By Gene Fadness
When you ask Mike Caldwell, the retiring principal at Bishop Kelly High School, what he enjoyed most during his nearly two decades at the school, the answer comes quickly: “That’s easy. It’s just being around these kids we get to work with every day and being around the faculty and staff who care so much about kids and the mission of what we do at BK.”
He relishes seeing the change in the students as they progress through their four years. They come in the door as freshman, uncertain, reserved, even
a little frightened. “When they walk across that stage at graduation four years later, the change is remarkable to see.”
However, graduation season also brings with it a certain angst for teachers and administrators alike, Caldwell said. “One of your greatest fears as
a principal is losing a student. In the summer of 2016, we had a suicide,” he said. Summer is also a time when kids engage in more risky behavior. “So we always pray and hope that we get all of them back in August.”
“I remember last May going through that same thought process, praying that all our students would be safe and come back in the fall. One month later, my worst nightmare as a principal came true when we lost two of our students. And my worst nightmare came true as a parent when one of them was my son.”
Braden Caldwell and Henry Warner, both 16, died in a car accident on June 12, 2022. Another student was seriously injured, but recovered. Braden and Henry had just finished their sophomore years at BK.
His son’s death is not the primary reason Caldwell is choosing to retire after nine years as principal and eight years as a teacher and coach at Boise’s Catholic high school. He was considering retirement anyway, but Braden’s tragic death did serve as a catalyst for Caldwell’s desire to take what he has learned at BK and his years with the Idaho Digital Learning Academy and apply that experience to a new position with BLUUM, a Boise-based non-profit that prepares teachers and staff with tools to be more effective and increase educational opportunities. The organization works primarily with public charter schools but wants to expand to help public schools as well, especially those in rural areas. Caldwell’s role will partly be providing outreach and partnerships to expand BLUUM’s network of schools.
The last year at BK has been especially bittersweet, Caldwell notes.
Sweet because of the way the BK family supported Caldwell and his wife, Amy, and their daughters, Ashton and Sage, in the wake of Braden’s death. “What the BK family has become to me and my family is much bigger that I could have ever thought.”
Bitter because of the daily reminders of what Braden and his family are missing. “Every day, you see the kids he was with; you see the events that are a constant reminder of what he should be doing. This year would have been his first prom. Then, there is tennis season and mountain biking season; all painful reminders of what he’s missing and what we’re missing as parents.”
Between the date of last year’s accident June 12 and the Aug. 1 start of school, Caldwell struggled with if and how he could cope.
“Every day, I wondered if I was going to be able to do it. August 1 was looming. Would I be ready to start? Honestly, I wasn’t ready and I wondered throughout this whole year if I was ready, but I just kept showing up, first hoping I could get through the next minute, then hoping I could get through the next hour, and then day by day. Many times I would be driving to work and saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this today,’ but I would show up and now, all of a sudden, it’s May.”
Painful memories notwithstanding, he does not regret those daily decisions to show up. Coming to a supportive family at BK and immersing himself in the lives of its students became a healing exercise.
That supportive staff is due, in part, to Caldwell’s own leadership ability, said Rich Raimondi, who retired last year as Bishop Kelly’s president.
“Key to his effective leadership, in my mind, is that he realized that hiring outstanding staff and taking care of them by showing them respect, valuing them, supporting them, and utilizing their talents, were the absolute best ways to put students first. And he made sure everyone had fun along the way,” Raimondi said.
CALDWELL, WHO turns 50 this year, grew up in Soda Springs, a small town in southeastern Idaho, one of the few kids in town who was not a member of the dominant LDS Church. He was not Catholic, either. His dad did not practice a faith and his mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. Because of her faith, birthdays, Christmas and Halloween were not celebrated. He was not interested in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, but did go with friends to the LDS Church on occasion.
In 1992, he enrolled at Boise State University, working toward a degree in education. He originally wanted to be a high school counselor but ended up teaching mathematics, health and physical education.
During his third year of college, he moved into a house on Cole Road in Boise and met Tim Brennan, BK’s legendary football coach, who asked Caldwell if he would like to be a volunteer assistant coach for the freshman and JV football team. Other than living close to the school, Caldwell did not know much about Bishop Kelly. He ended up coaching the freshman and JV Knights through his college years.
He met Amy while a student at BSU. She was from Rupert, in south-central Idaho, and part of a Catholic family. The two were married by Father Henry Carmona at St. Nicholas Church in Rupert.
After graduating, he accepted a position in 1998 in Garden Valley teaching high school math. After two years there, he learned that Bishop Kelly had an opening for a head wrestling coach and an assistant football coach. He took the job, which also included teaching math, geometry and pre-calculus. At the same time, he was completing his master’s degree in education administration from the Boise campus of the University of Idaho.
After he was awarded his administrator’s certificate, he was hired in the summer of 2004 to serve as assistant principal and dean of students under BK Principal Bob Wehde.
The atmosphere at BK and the fact that he and Amy were starting their own family led him to consider more deeply his own faith life. He recalls, in particular, the compassionate way the BK community responded when Caldwell’s grandfather died during his second year teaching there.
He enrolled in RCIA in 2003 and was baptized in the spring of 2004, a retired BK teacher as his sponsor. Obviously, Amy, a lifelong Catholic was pleased, but Caldwell says he never felt pressure from her or others at BK to become Catholic.
WHILE TEACHING at BK, Caldwell was also teaching a few hours a week for the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance, created by the Idaho Legislature to provide online learning opportunities for Idaho students. His experience at IDLA made him realize how far behind BK was in using technology to enhance learning.
“We had one computer lab used only for technology classes,” he said. The idea that each student should have a computer to supplement classwork in all areas, not just in technology, was not part of the BK paradigm at the time.
Caldwell’s experience updating BK’s technological offerings, led to his leaving Bishop Kelly in 2008 to become IDLA’s director of development, in charge of online principals throughout the state. He was six years at IDLA before to he started to miss being around students and teachers in a setting other than a virtual classroom. He replaced the retiring Bob Wehde, the man who hired him at BK in 2004, as principal in 2014 and has been there since.
While enthusiastic about the technological advancements in education he was able to help implement at BK, he is equally as concerned about technology’s downsides: the ubiquitous presence of social media and the ascendancy of AI, or Artificial Intelligence.
The biggest change in students from when he began in education a quarter century ago is in mental health, Caldwell believes. “With all the societal influences, especially the social media they are consumed with, we deal with far more mental health issues. It was accelerated when COVID hit and kids were sent home and isolated.”
Caldwell’s response during COVID earned him high praise from colleagues, including Raimondi.
“He defied the prevailing sentiment back in 2020 by having kids attending school in person, which Mike strongly felt was best for students’ academic, emotional and social development And that we could do it safely,” Raimondi said.
Caldwell developed an instructional and operational plan for the 2020-21 school year that provided a “roadmap to an exceptional learning experience for students and a safe place to come to school and work. And he led a nearly flawless execution of the plan, resulting in only five days during the school year when we were remote and no serious COVID outbreaks at the school,” Raimondi said. “No other school in Idaho or the Northwest can make that claim.”
Caldwell believes the impact of AI on education will be profound in both positive and negative ways.
“We’re at the beginning of a whole new paradigm in our world, not just in education, but in everything that will be impacted by AI,” he said. “AI makes tasks that we typically associate with education or the workplace so much easier, but there are still skills and knowledge that we need to be able to help kids grow in,” Caldwell said.
With Google came on the scene in about 2002, the “world was at your fingertips, but it didn’t make our role as educators any less, just different,” Caldwell said. “AI adds just another layer, but in a significant way. It will force educators to focus more on the process of learning as opposed to the product or what a student shows you he has learned. If we just focus on product rather than process, we will not know whether the student has really learned or just figured out how to get technology show you he learned it,” Caldwell said. “What happens inside the classroom and the interactions between students and teachers becomes even more important in the learning process,” because AI will make it easier for students outside the classroom to produce work that may not represent what they have learned. Ironically, modern technology should lead to a greater awareness of the value of traditional, classroom learning, he said.
Like any technology, AI will have advantages as well, Caldwell said. “It can strengthen the learning process by helping the student become more efficient and become a higher-level thinker.”
While issues such as mental health become more acute, there are also bright spots in modern education.
Students are more globally aware, again due largely to technology and are better able to grasp the nuances of a complex world, Caldwell said.
“In the end, kids are still kids, trying to discover who they are. They will always surprise us with the great things they do,” he said.
Colleagues and friends of Caldwell are honoring him at an open house on Wednesday, June 7 from 6 to 9 p.m. on Lachiondo Plaza on the BK campus. Beverages will be provided. The event is open to the public.
Caldwell will take some time off this summer to bike with his daughter along the northern Spain portion of the Camino de Santiago, before he begins his work with BLUUM in the fall.
Although, he has left Bishop Kelly twice and returned, he does not anticipate that will happen again. BK will be in good hands under the leadership of incoming Principal Sarah Quilici, he said. “In a few months from now, I will be envious of Sarah because she has this job. I’m fully aware of what I’m going to miss, but I get to hand it off to someone and I respect and trust.”
Caldwell leaves Bishop Kelly on his terms, “feeling accomplished and grateful for the time I’ve had here.”
“I’m not running away from something I’m tired of or can’t wait to be finished with. I’m leaving in a place of satisfaction and gratefulness. It’s been a great vocation for me.”
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