Steve O’Neil, new Vail Christian head, has local students looking globally | VailDaily.com

Steve O’Neil, new Vail Christian head, has local students looking globally

Steve O'Neil, center in the blue shirt, is Vail Christian High School's new head of school.

EDWARDS — Steve O'Neil was three hours from a paved road deep in the African bush, eating goat meat cooked over an open fire and talking with Mossi villagers. It stirred something in his soul, something familiar, something he loves.

Someone has to help these people, O'Neil said to himself and his family. That someone would be him and the students in the private school Tanzania he was running at the time. Some of those students were children of great privilege — prime minister's and parliament members' kids — who had never seen poverty, although it was so close.

In the light of that fire, the seed of an idea took root that would change O'Neil's approach to education and life. "Glocal," a hybrid of global and local.

"Outwardly focused" is how O'Neil defines it.

Look for that term as Vail Christian High School's new head of school is O'Neil.

VCHS students should have a relationship with their community and the entire valley, O'Neil said. They do, and it will grow, he said.

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VCHS does lots of things well: academic excellence, college prep and placement; relationships with students, parents and the faculty; faith in God and each other.

"Our faith is essential to who we are and what we do, but everyone is welcome inside our tent," O'Neil said. "Wherever and whomever you are, you're welcome here."

Education everywhere

A great education teaches students to ask tough and occasionally uncomfortable questions, including those that go straight to their souls.

"We want them to ask the hard questions. Is there a god? Is Jesus his son? What better place to ask those questions?" O'Neil said.

VCHS facilities are great, but … "a great education can take place under a tree," O'Neil said.

The generous financial aid program helps families pay for a VCHS education, O'Neil said.

One-room schoolhouse

O'Neil was born and raised in Rochester, New York, a boomtown at the time. Cold winters drove the family to the Florida Gulf Coast.

He wandered up to Wheaton College in Chicago where he met his wife, Denae. He fell in love with her and Colorado at about the same time after spending some time working on a dude ranch.

They started their education career in a one-room schoolhouse in Sedona, Arizona, working with kids from substance abuse programs, kids in the juvenile justice system and Native American kids on the reservation. The adventure program was whitewater rafting, backpacking and all kinds of other outdoor adventures. O'Neil was the education component, which leads us back to that one-room schoolhouse.

He worked in a few private schools, but foreign work kept tugging at him.

O'Neil's history and social studies classes tend to encourage students to find north on their moral compasses. Students are challenged to examine the issues of the day, then ask where they're taking a stand. If could be anything, but for him it was Africa. As a Wheaton student, he had worked in West Africa on a mission assignment, so he had some background.

He said he felt a little hypocritical, doing relatively little, while there was so much suffering in places such as Africa. His history teaching tends toward moral responsibility, and what we ought to do to stand up for those who are suffering, especially with a Christian perspective.

"What were Christians doing during the Holocaust? Did they take a stand."

"What was happening with Pol Pot? Was anyone taking a stand?"

To Africa we go

So he and his wife packed the family and headed to Africa for three years. O'Neil led an international school comprised of students of more than 40 nationalities and wide ranging religions, or sometimes no religion. His wife taught there and his kids went to school there.

"The diversity was beautiful. It was very impactful on me," O'Neil said.

Many of the parents were on the front line of the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The prime minister's children went there, as did the children of many members of parliament — that country's elite.

About half of that school's students were from those elite families and had never seen poverty when O'Neil arrived. They soon would. Service projects put students face-to-face by getting them into communities.

That, O'Neil said, is "glocal," connecting students to their world and their community through service.

Back in the U.S.A

After three years at Haven of Peace Academy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he brought his glocal mindset back to the U.S., as head of school at Westminster Schools of Augusta, Georgia. He was in Georgia, but he had Colorado on his mind.

Former VCHS head of school Jeremy Lowe was headed to Texas, and there was an opening. O'Neil visited, sat in the office with a bunch of students and listened to them talk for an hour about what they love about their school, and what they didn't.

"The students sold me on the school in many, many ways, especially their passion for their school," O'Neil said.

What they love most is the faculty, O'Neil said.

"For them it really is a calling, a vocational calling," O'Neil said.

Fine tuning

He says Vail Christian High School is great — "This is a precious jewel" — but he has some plans for fine tuning.

• Global and glocal involvement, connecting students to their world through local and world service.

• Develop renaissance people by growing the fine arts. "It brings the human spirit alive," O'Neil said.

• Expand the school's Success Center. VCHS can be tough academically, and its Success Center keeps students from falling behind and becoming discouraged.

• Innovations are on the horizon. They'll take some risks, because that's how you grow and improve, O'Neil said.

• Experiences, because people learn by doing. In the education industry it's called experiential learning, and connects students to their community.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

If You Go

What: Vail Christian High School admissions coffee gathering

When: 8:30-9:30 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 27

Where: Vail Christian High School, the west building, 31621 Highway 6, Edwards

Cost: Free

Information: Go to http://www.vailchristianschool.org, or call 970-926-3015.