It seems an unlikely place to start a school with a strong faith tradition—the formerly Communist Czech Republic. Yet as Josef Horehled, a priest of the Czech Province of the Society of Jesus, explains it, “This is what we need, a Nativity-type middle school in the Christian tradition, one that reaches out to the children of poor minority families who remain on the margins of society.”
Nativity schools are about to go international. Father Horehled learned about the so-called Nativity school model while he was studying in Dublin. A former teacher at a Nativity school, Tomek Nogaj, who at the time was a Jesuit seminarian, told him all about it. Since its beginnings in New York City more than 30 years ago, the model has spread throughout the United States, offering quality education to boys and girls from low-income backgrounds. The schools keep classes small, seldom with more than 12 students, and emphasize not only academics but also spiritual development. “I had been looking for a missionary-type assignment of this kind,” Father Horehled said during a visit to America House, “and my superiors encouraged me to think about starting something educational in the northwestern part of the Czech Republic, where religious faith is all but nonexistent.”
That was two years ago. Much has happened since then. Accompanied by Jack Podsiadlo, an American Jesuit long associated with Nativity schools in the United States, Father Horehled was touring Nativity schools on the East Coast early in 2007 to learn firsthand how they operate. With his background as a vocational teacher in a school for what he referred to as “difficult youngsters, a number of whom had learning disabilities,” Father Horehled is well qualified for his new assignment. The new school is expected to open next fall in the northwestern region of the Czech Republic known for its agnosticism and anticlericalism.
Stuck on the Margins of a Border Town
The target city is Usti nad Labem, near the German border. (Labe is Czech for Elbe, referring to the River Elbe that flows through the area.) Poverty levels are high, and with a high unemployment rate, social and racial problems abound. The area was artificially repopulated after the Second World War, when the Germans who lived there were ordered to return to Germany. Other groups were brought in and obliged to work in various industries, which at the time were thriving. But later, in the post-Communist era, many of these industries closed, and the working class and their offspring found themselves adrift. The turn of events worsened existing social, racial and economic problems.
The relative newcomers in Usti (as it is familiarly known) include Roma people—commonly referred to as Gypsies—Vietnamese and, most recently, undocumented Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans who have come in search of work, despite the high jobless rates. The Vietnamese originally came during the years of the Vietnam War. “We were good friends with the Vietnamese government at that time and shipped weapons there,” Father Horehled said, “so in return they sent us Vietnamese workers as a way of repaying the Czech government by their labor.” A few of the Vietnamese immigrants and their offspring are Catholic, but, as he explained, “they are afraid to show their faith openly in a culture that disdains faith.” The Roma people suffer as a despised minority, brought in from neighboring Slovakia as part of the repopulation effort. The outsider status of such groups has led Father Horehled to give priority admission to a number of their children in the new school. “The goal,” he observed, “is to help them and their families to become better integrated into the wider society of the region and to learn to live peacefully together.”
Teaching courses with religious overtones will be difficult in the antichurch atmosphere of Usti, Father Horehled realizes, “and therefore we must be careful to assure the parents that the students will not be obliged to take part in formal religious practices.” By contrast, he was surprised to see the ease with which students take part in religious activities in Nativity schools in the United States. At the beginning of each day, for example, faculty and students offer prayers—an eye-opening revelation for him during his visits. Soon after arriving, Father Horehled attended a meeting in Baltimore of teachers from the Nativity and Miguel schools. (The latter, sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, are based on much the same principles as the Nativity model, and the two have merged into what is known as the NativityMiguel Network of schools.) He spoke of being “stunned” at the sight of hundreds of faculty members all praying together in the same auditorium, clearly not something that would happen in his part of the Czech Republic.
A Pre-Evangelizing Approach
His own approach to religious instruction, Father Horehled noted, will be along the lines of pre-evangelization: “We might ask the students to think of religion as a kind of phenomenon that is normal for some people, and not something resorted to by those who are simply ignorant.” Or teachers might suggest that students think about someone they love who is suffering, and how best to deal with that difficult situation. “People can be poor not only on the educational and social level,” he observed, “but on the spiritual level too.”
Motivation will also be a challenge for the Nativity students in Usti. “Among many young people there,” Father Horehled said, “especially among the Roma people, there is a feeling of ‘why should I study?’” Again he noted the contrast, “During my visits to schools here, I asked one student how long it took him to get to school in the morning. The answer was one hour.” The reply suggested the student’s strong motivation to learn. The building Father Horehled hopes to obtain, a former school that the city is selling because of a drop in enrollment, is just 10 minutes by bus from the city center. Distance will be no problem for incoming students, nor will operating expenses. The Czech government contributes financially to the European Union, which in turn may provide up to 60 percent of the school’s operating expenses. “The outlook for funding from that source is good,” Father Horehled said, “so long as our school is careful to involve children from minority and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.” He also hopes to have the school officially recognized by the Czech Ministry of Education, which would then be an additional source of funding.
Tuition in the NativityMiguel schools is typically a modest monthly fee, around $35, though a parent’s inability to pay would never lead to a child’s exclusion. It is a hallmark of Nativity schools that they are not “tuition driven.” Instead, the major operating costs are covered through grants and outside donations. In Usti, however, all education is free, though parents at the new school will be encouraged to assist with special needs. If a new computer is needed, Father Horehled might say to parents: “We should have a new computer. Could you help us purchase one?”
Part of the original Nativity concept focuses on the need to work with children in middle schools—grades 6 through 9—rather than waiting until the high school years, when negative behavioral patterns are largely set. Because of the Czech government’s educational requirements, though, the new school in Usti will not have as free a hand in its curriculum as NativityMiguel schools; but, said Father Horehled, some of the Czech government’s rigidity has loosened. Students who may be performing poorly in reading and other basic skills when they enter, he explained, “must be educable.” Social service agencies, aware of the projected opening of the new school, have offered their assistance in such situations. The agencies especially support what he termed the school’s “social pedagogy” approach, or integration into the wider society of groups traditionally relegated to its margins.
The combined NativityMiguel Network schools now number 64 in urban areas around the United States. But in something of a groundbreaking move, Usti’s new Nativity Christian School—its official name—represents the first international endeavor of its kind. Much remains to be done before it opens. The faculty has yet to be chosen, though a woman with extensive teaching and teacher training experience has already accepted the position of director, the equivalent of headmaster in the United States. Besides Father Horehled, as president, another Jesuit, a brother, will participate and be in charge of building maintenance. The new undertaking promises to bring an element of faith into an area of the Czech Republic that has long lacked it and to bring hope to a marginalized group of people long exposed to racism and societal neglect.