The National Catholic Review
George M. Anderson
Larry Siewert, co-founder and current director of graduates at N.J.M.S. in Milwaukee, gives individualized attention to Jeremy Torres, a sixth grader.

Growth, growth, growth: this is the experience of Nativity-type middle schools—schools often based in whole or in part on a model developed at the Jesuit-sponsored Nativity Mission Center School in New York City, which began in 1971. Over three dozen schools are well established; others are either beginning their first year or are still in the process of formation. The majority of the middle schools are clustered in the East, but others are springing up across the country to the West and Northwest. A new Jesuit-sponsored school, for example, is scheduled to open in Portland, Ore., in August; another in San Jose, Calif., will begin around the same time. Still another will also begin during the summer, the Joshua Nativity School in Harrisburg, Pa.

The Nativity model, with its small classes, has been replicated by non-Jesuit sponsoring groups and individuals—male and female, Protestant, Catholic and those with no religious affiliations. Academy Prep, a Nativity-type school, was begun in 1997 by a group of St. Petersburg citizens. The Loyola Academy in St. Louis, Mo., was started by two lay people, though with strong Jesuit support. It began in September 2000 with a sixth grade and will add a seventh in 2001 and an eighth in the following year. Still another lay-sponsored school based on the Nativity model will open in San Diego, Calif., with an after-school and Saturday program starting in September. Beginning an abbreviated program like this, along with some form of summer camp, has proven helpful in selecting prospective students.

At a January conference of Nativity schools held in St. Petersburg, Fla., the founder of the San Diego school, David Rivera, described his students as primarily Hispanic and African-American. With slight variations, this is the basic profile of the more than three dozen middle schools represented at the conference. Depending on the region, students may also include Cape Verdeans, Asians, people of Arabic extraction and others. All are from low-income backgrounds living in areas marked by the poverty that is endemic in many American cities.

Low-income status is a criterion for admission to Nativity schools. Some administrators use eligibility for the federal lunch program as a measuring stick, others ask parents for copies of their 1040 tax return forms. Another criterion is reflected in the phrase “at risk,” which may point not only to poverty, but also to factors like single-parent family heads. But as several people at the St. Petersburg conference pointed out, the phrase can be misinterpreted. Rosario Sanchez, assistant principal at the mostly Latino Nativity Jesuit Middle School in Milwaukee, said that when the school was preparing to open, media coverage using “at risk” as a descriptive term led some to assume that incoming students would be “tough kids.” Now, several years later, in a swing in the other direction, the school has acquired a reputation in some quarters as serving “smart kids.” But neither is correct.

The middle schools do not seek out the brightest, and some students may even enter with low test scores. What is mainly sought in prospective students is a commitment to persevere. Perseverance includes a willingness to accept extended class days—far longer than those of public schools. Mother Caroline Academy in the Boston area, sponsored by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, has an evening study hall, as do a number of other middle schools. Believing that the evening study hall is important, but also realizing the dangers of the streets after dark, the academy administrators hired a bus to get the students home after the study hall. Another Boston area school, Epiphany, begun by an Episcopalian layman, expects students to arrive at 8 a.m. and remain until 8 p.m., with breakfast, lunch and dinner provided. Do students there and elsewhere object to such long days? It would appear not. During one of the break-out sessions at the St. Petersburg conference, an Epiphany administrator said that some parents come for their children in the evening by car, but when the horns sound, the students inside often do not want to leave.

Early arrivals at the St. Petersburg conference had an opportunity to visit Academy Prep and admire its new buildings and tranquil setting on two and a half acres of tree-shaded grounds. The majority of the other middle schools, however, are located in neighborhoods marked by the chaos and myriad problems of inner-city life. In her most recent development report, Mary Bourden, R.J.M.—principal of the Washington (D.C.) Middle School for Girls—wrote of what her students have to contend with in terms of “surviving the daily traumas of life in this troubled neighborhood.” Her neighborhood ranks among the country’s highest for rates of childbirth to teenagers and for deaths of teenage residents.

The Washington Middle School for Girls began in the most makeshift of locations: a single room in the basement of a housing project. The next step involved expanding to another floor of the same building, with the use of a lunchroom next door in a Baptist church. But now, as it prepares to see its first eighth-grade class graduate in June, it has moved into a more spacious facility in the same neighborhood. This type of gradual physical expansion from cramped surroundings into larger and better-appointed space is characteristic of the way middle schools have started and grown. Mother Caroline began in 1993 in an unused convent built to house 12 nuns; over the next several years, 60 girls were crammed into its limited space. Finally, it was able to acquire what an administrator described as “an abandoned welfare building,” which, after an intensive capital campaign, was renovated. A new gym is now under construction.

A start-up school in Detroit, Our Lady of Guadalupe, will begin in the same humble way, using rented space in a Catholic elementary school when it opens its doors in September. The newly appointed principal hopes that eventually her school will have a place of its own. Our Lady of Guadalupe is being sponsored by a group of women’s congregations. The same is true of the just-begun Marian Middle School in St. Louis, which is now completing its first year. The director explained that several of the eight sponsoring congregations of women religious conduct high schools for girls. Wanting to diversify their high school student bodies, the congregations see the new middle school as a way of preparing minority students to move on to their own schools after graduation.

The Marian Middle School receives some funding from the eight congregations, as well as additional funds from a corporation. In general, the quest for funding is ongoing and represents a major challenge for all the schools. Some foundations and corporations prefer not to give money to organizations with religious affiliations. For this reason, the St. Petersburg school identifies itself as nonsectarian. The majority, however, maintain their specific religious identity. They find that donors are willing to loosen their purse strings once they realize that half or more of the low-income students are not Catholic. Loyola Academy in St. Louis, for example, has only four Catholic students. This in itself, according to the associate director, has been a help in fundraising.

But again and again, whatever the affiliation or non-affiliation, school representatives said in effect, “Begin, and the money will come.” The word “providence” was also heard with some frequency in this context. The De la Salle Christian brother who has been a moving force in the rapidly spreading San Miguel middle schools and is now president of the one in Chicago, used the phrase “reliance on providence” when asked about the challenges involved in opening three more San Miguel schools in the fall of 2001. Start-ups of this kind are faith-based indeed!

In addition to fundraising, another pervasive issue discussed at the St. Petersburg conference concerned ways to find and keep teachers. As to the former, one school founder who has now established a second school, Nativity Prep in New Bedford, Mass., explained—in a phrase reminiscent of the idea that funds do come once a school is opened—that word spreads and teachers “just appear.” Having begun Nativity Prep in the Boston area, he was known as a person with proven prior experience. His own early firsthand experience stemmed from a year of teaching at Nativity in New York, the prototype of the growing number of other middle schools.

Teachers who do “appear” are, for the most part, young college graduates eager to commit themselves to a year or more of service in an inner-city educational setting. Most, however, arrive with no teaching experience. They receive room, board, medical insurance and a modest stipend. Because of the cost, ordinarily only a few older, seasoned teachers can be engaged at competitive salaries—usually just one when a school is getting underway. Part of their role is to become on-site trainers for their younger colleagues.

At the Holy Child Middle School in Manhattan, for instance, the experienced teachers team-teach with new faculty—a mentoring combination in the classroom that has proven successful. Even when there are not enough seasoned teachers to provide daily mentoring, other possibilities arise. Nativity Jesuit Middle School in Milwaukee has called upon the services of a master teacher who had moved on. As its administrator explained at the St. Petersburg conference, “We asked her to come back one day a week to help with the new teachers, and she did.”

Because the volunteer teachers remain only one or two years, there is a high rate of turnover. But there was universal agreement at the conference that their dedication and high energy levels outweighed the brevity of their stays and lack of experience. One principal said of them, “They have no clock,” meaning that they are willing to accept nearly endless hours of work and total availability almost as normal. Seasoned teachers may not be able to offer this. The principal of the start-up school in Detroit commented that with children at home, her hours will have to be less than open-ended when Our Lady of Guadalupe begins in September.

As volunteers become more experienced, some stay on well beyond their initial one or two years. Roberto Rodriguez, on the faculty of New York’s Nativity school, reported that some volunteer teachers there remain on for up to five years. He himself is not only a role model for students, but also something of a poster boy for middle schools. After graduating from Nativity, finishing high school and earning a college degree, he returned as a full-time paid staff member. He is currently in charge of the high school support program. One aspect of this program involves encouraging Nativity graduates studying in local high schools to return to Nativity in the evening. There they can do their homework in quiet surroundings that may not be available at home. For a middle school graduate like Mr. Rodriguez to come back as a faculty member is an administrator’s dream.

Much networking took place among the almost 90 educators, administrators and foundation representatives who attended the three-day conference in St. Petersburg. This was the fourth and largest such conference to take place. Representatives from newly begun schools and those still in the planning stage had an opportunity to speak with staff members of schools that are already underway. It was evident that a basic Nativity school model has evolved, one that can be replicated with relatively few changes. When the St. Petersburg school was still in the planning phase, the founders not only visited Nativity in New York but also flew the director to Florida to offer further advice. Speaking at the conference, its co-founder, Jeff Fortune, made it clear that the Nativity model had been followed in almost every respect. An administrator at a girls’ middle school that had used the same model described Nativity as “a school in a box with flexibility.” The box, so to speak, can be transported anywhere in the country, and the flexibility makes it possible to incorporate whatever changes might be necessary to take account of issues like gender or particular racial groups.

The schools are also eager to help one another. When the Mother Caroline school was preparing to open in the fall of 1993, the principal turned to Nativity Prep in another part of the Boston area for advice on an applications packet. A prep administrator simply sent over his own packet, which was then used with few changes. “It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel,” was another oft-heard phrase at the conference.

Although a network of Nativity-type schools, with an executive committee, has existed for several years, their growth has prompted a desire to formalize a structure. Conference participants voted to establish the position of national coordinator, and a few months later the California-based Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation agreed to provide three years of funding for the position. The coordinator’s responsibilities include facilitating the sharing of information through an annual conference, generating additional sources of support for the network’s activities at both the regional and the national level, collecting and analyzing performance data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Nativity model and encouraging the establishment of other Nativity-type schools. John J. Podsiadlo, S.J., longtime director of the Nativity school in New York City, was chosen as the first Nativity network coordinator.

At the first conference in 1997, only a handful of Nativity schools were represented. The size of this year’s gathering—with 90 representatives from over three dozen schools—gives reason to expect that the Nativity model will continue to be the basis of new middle schools in the years ahead. One veteran founder-administrator said early in the gathering: “If you educate inner-city children, 80 percent of our social problems would disappear.” An exaggeration? Perhaps. But few people who have seen what schools of this kind accomplish would doubt that they have the capacity to change lives and to develop in children gifts that might otherwise remain hidden forever.

Information on the Nativity middle schools network can be found on the Internet at www.nativitynetwork.org.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.