Of Many Things

Yet another Nativity-model middle school? Yes, this unique educational effort aimed at children from low-income families continues to grow, with new schools sprouting up annually across the country. A former teacher myself at the original Nativity School in Lower Manhattan, I attended the opening Mass and reception at the most recent of them—Brooklyn Jesuit Prep. At first the Nativity schools were for boys only, and a number still are. But increasingly they are for girls too, or for both sexes. The new school in Brooklyn, for example, which runs from grade five through grade eight, is coed.

 

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Although space constraints prevent some “new starts” from beginning until grade six, administrators believe that grade five is optimum if children are to develop their gifts early enough to counterbalance the negative effects of the violence-ridden neighborhoods in which many of them live. Fortunately, the new Brooklyn school, in a poor and primarily African American neighborhood, operates out of a spacious building that made a grade-five start easy.

The first Nativity school continues today in the same former tenement building it has occupied ever since. Latino boys make up the bulk of its student body, but the almost 40 Nativity-model schools in other cities show a wide range of cultural and racial diversity, including youngsters from Muslim backgrounds. Although most schools generally view themselves as Catholic, some identify themselves as nondenominational—a stance that can help with fund-raising efforts. Some, in fact—like Academy Prep in St. Petersburg—were begun by secular groups. Still another, in the Boston area, was begun by an Episcopal layman. This variety suggests the remarkable flexibility of the original model. Nondenominational, Catholic or other, however, all strive to incorporate a spiritual dimension.

One key to the schools’ success lies in their small classes—typically 10 to 15, with the overall size of the student body in any one school under 100. These limited numbers ensure maximum attention for individual students. Nor are the latter chosen from among the most gifted. What is sought is not outstanding intelligence but commitment to persevere. This is one of the criteria for acceptance, a concept emphasized during the extensive application process. Teachers—some of them volunteers or interns right out of college—tend to be young and willing to accept stipends rather than full salaries.

Tuition is low, sometimes nothing at all, and is never a factor in the decision to admit a student. But it costs money to operate the schools, and toward this end help is constantly sought from foundations. The most generous to date has been the California-based Cassin Foundation.

Now fund-raising has taken on a new and hopeful dimension through a collaboration with another group of middle schools of like mind—the so-called Miguel schools, operated under the auspices of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. A more recent undertaking than the Nativity model schools, the first Miguel school opened in the early 1990’s in Providence, R.I., but already 14 are spread across the country.

Both the Nativity schools and the Miguel schools have a network with a coordinator, whose role is to provide support for individual schools. And each has its own Web site: www.miguelschools.org and www.nativitynetwork.org. Together they have produced a handbook in CD format on how to begin a school of this kind. They have also formed a national foundation, a collaboration between the two networks that will both widen fund-raising possibilities and strengthen their common mission of offering a first-rate education to low-income children of all faiths and backgrounds.

The students I taught have now reached early middle age, and one is on the board of directors of the Nativity School in Manhattan. Two from a later period attended college—as do most—and then returned to the Lower East Side to teach where they first began, a sign of their perseverance and their desire to make a return to the school that gave them an early boost in developing their potential.

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