by Rita George Tvrtkovic
Polo shirts and shorts for school uniform? Soccer penalties for discipline? The Jesuits' Nativity school concept has adopted a couple of new twists as it makes its way across the country.
The idea behind Nativity schools is to educate and motivate inner-city middle-school students in a supportive and disciplined environment. Keep classes small, shower plenty of personal attention on the students, make school days long and highly structured, and get students to dream of success in high school and also in college. Then stand back and watch them respond.
The first Nativity school was created by the Jesuits in 1971 on Manhattan's Lower East Side to provide junior-high education to low-income Latino boys with potential. Nativity schools sprung up over the years in other inner-city locales in Harlem, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Omaha. There is a growing number of non-Jesuit Nativity schools sprouting up and even some secular examples.
Four new Jesuit-sponsored Nativity schools (in St. Louis, New Orleans, San Jose, and Portland, Oregon) have retained the essential aspects developed in the East, but each is distinctive. We present a short description of teach of them.
Students at Loyola Academy in St. Louis, one of a string of successful Jesuit middle schools, opened in the fall of '99.
Loyola Academy began serving St. Louis in the fall of '99. Saint Louis University High's former president Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ, wanted a junior high that would help kids get the start they needed to make it into and out of high schools like Saint Louis University High.
He gathered a group in the fall of '97 to explore options and latched onto the Nativity model. After visiting Nativity schools in Baltimore, Omaha, and Milwaukee, Sheridan and his committee began tailoring the model to fit St. Louis.
"Our goal is to serve students from the entire metro area," says Loyola Academy director Tom Nolan. And they do come to this centrally located school by bus, car, and rail from all over the city and suburbs; some even come over the Mississippi from East St. Louis, Illinois.
In many ways Loyola Academy is no different from other Nativity schools: it serves 38 boys in grades six and seven (eighth grade starts this fall), 85 percent participate in a subsidized lunch program, most are African-American, many are from single-parent homes.
But in one area Loyola is unique: its disciplinary system, created by principal Frank Corley, takes its cue from soccer. All students have one red and two yellow cards. Commit any fouls like chewing gum, wearing saggy pants, or talking in class, and you lose a yellow card. A more serious offense such as showing disrespect to a teacher will cost you your red card. At the end of the week you get your cards back. But lose all three and you get detention. Three red cards lost in a month gets you an in-school suspension.
"We have had very, very few problems with discipline," says Nolan. "Middle school boys can be rambunctious, but if parents support school rules, their boys will generally be fine."
Take an old furniture building on New Orleans's Barrone Street and start dreaming big. Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, lost his battle with cancer just this April but has left behind a Nativity school that opens this fall, staffed and run by a dedicated group of laypeople.
Down river from St. Louis, Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, had a vision similar to Fr. Sheridan's. He had taught at the Jesuit high schools in Dallas and Houston and had been president at Jesuit High in New Orleans. He wanted to provide a quality education to New Orleans kids from The Projects, a poor neighborhood near his parish, Immaculate Conception. His dream-turned-reality, Good Shepherd School, opens this fall.
"We've gotten a tremendous start, a big impetus from laypeople," said the dynamic Tompson, who quickly garnered support for the school from parishioners such as Ronnie Briggs.
Briggs, involved from the get-go, helped Tompson find and renovate an old furniture warehouse that will be Good Shepherd's home. He now serves on the school's board.
"When we present the Nativity idea in the community," says Briggs, "we say, 'you can either give us $10,000 now to educate these kids, or by age 18 they'll be dead from drugs or guns or you'll be paying $40,000 a year to incarcerate them. Your choice.' "
While most Nativity schools are for boys grades six through eight, Good Shepherd will be a full-fledged coed school, k through eight. This fall it opens with kindergarten and first grade, fifteen students per class. Each year two more grades will be added.
Good Shepherd's principal, Vanessa Chavis, is lay, as are the teachers and the school board. The school will maintain a strong Jesuit connection through the inspiration of its founder and also through the involvement of nearby Immaculate Conception, whose parishioners will help mentor the students.
"Our school reflects the Ignatian insight that total involvement in the education of the child is how you change a child," said Fr. Tompson, shortly before he died this April after a long battle with cancer. But he has left his legacy, Good Shepherd, as proof that success is possible with the support of many: parishioners, teachers, board members, the greater community, parents, and students.
In the 1920s and 1930s in San Jose, California, Sacred Heart Parish's neighborhood bustled with Italian immigrant families. But by the early 1970s, many had left for greener pastures, and the parish school closed due to lack of enrollment.
That building comes back to life this fall, though. The renovated school will house Sacred Heart Nativity, serving youth in what is now a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
A diocesan priest, Fr. Mateo Sheedy, Sacred Heart's hard-working pastor, dreamed of a Nativity school for his parish beset by gangs, joblessness, and poverty. He didn't stop until he had gotten the archdiocese and the Jesuits involved and had raised over $1.5 million to open the school. He died of cancer last fall, but gave life to a dream.
"The current parish community is very happy to see the building being revitalized," says school president Fr. Peter Pabst, SJ, "and the former parish community, long relocated elsewhere in San Jose, is glad to see their old school being transformed into something new."
Something new, indeed. Hallways that used to be filled with Italian students in plaid uniforms will be home to Latinos in polo shirts and shorts. "Our uniform will be a bit unusual," admits Pabst. "But in California, polo shirts and shorts may work better than ties and trousers."
Sacred Heart is in partnership with other local Jesuit schools, Bellarmine Prep and Santa Clara University. "The Jesuits are celebrating 150 years of ministry in the Santa Clara Valley, and our gift to the Valley is this little school that serves the same kind of folks Santa Clara University was first founded to serve," notes Pabst.
Mike Blach, a contractor helping to renovate the school building, summed up the incredible potential this Nativity school has to enrich the community:
"One boy will graduate from Sacred Heart and then go to Bellarmine, where I went. Then he'll go to Santa Clara, like I did. He'll make both of those schools a better place because of the diversity he offers.
"Then he'll come to Blach Construction and work with us and make our company a better place because of his background. We all benefit."
When St. Andrew opens its doors this September in Portland, Oregon, the Nativity school concept will truly be a continental phenomenon.
The school is adjacent to St. Andrew's Church, a Jesuit parish known throughout Portland for its commitment to social justice in an area where public schools have struggled with problems ranging from poor test scores to difficulty in retaining administrators.
The idea for this Nativity school came from Scott Powers, a layman with strong Jesuit connections. A St. Andrew's parishioner and a teacher at Portland's Jesuit High, Powers was so inspired by Boston's Nativity school that he rallied the support of his pastor and parish council to start a similar school.
While most of St. Andrew's current applicant pool are African-Americans, they are diverse confessionally, several Baptists, Pentecostals, and two Muslims among them. Only one of 30 prospective students so far has identified himself as Catholic. The students are ethnically diverse as well, with many hailing from various African countries. The fact that the student body will be coed will add to the mix.
St. Andrew's traditional Nativity curriculum will focus on language arts and math. All students must attend after-school study hall from 4:30 to 6:30, and programming will extend into Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Students will spend the majority of each day expanding their minds.
"I want this school to be a place where the adults run out of things for students to read, write, draw, add, graph, analyze, and paint long before the students run out of the desire to learn," says St. Andrew's president, Fr. Kevin Connell, SJ.
After meeting prospective students this past spring, Connell is confident that such learning will take place.
"One of my greatest pleasures is receiving phone calls and e-mails from former students who tell me about their successes," Connell continues. "Looking out at the roomful of eager St. Andrew's applicants, I can't help but wonder what Aiesha, Ramazan, Isaiah, Jacob, Samir, and their classmates might have to tell me in a few years."