Of Many Things

Marinas with sailboats under a blue sky over the Hudson River—that peaceful view from the train stood in marked contrast to my destination, Newburgh, N.Y., a city long suffering from economic downturns. A year had passed since my first visit there to a school for girls from low-income families, based on the NativityMiguel model that includes small class sizes and an extended day. Now my destination was a similar school for boys, the new San Miguel Academy.

The Rev. Mark Connell, the academy’s president who met me at the station, spoke of Newburgh as one of the four poorest urban centers in the nation. In the midst of such a scene, I was soon to learn, was a haven in which boys from 11 to 14 could have a learning experience aimed at developing gifts that might otherwise remain buried.

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Minutes after I entered the school, housed in space rented from a Methodist church, a Latino student stepped forward with a firm handshake and, introducing himself, said, “Welcome to the San Miguel Academy.” His poise was one benefit of an education that includes instilling a self-confidence that many lack when they begin their first year.

The student body is roughly two-thirds Latino and one-third African-American. Although the school is named after a 19th-century Ecuadoran saint-educator, Miguel Febres Cordero—a de la Salle Christian brother—both Father Connell and the principal, Lois Dee, O.P., try to dispel the mistaken perception of the academy as a “Spanish school.” Outreach efforts to the African-American community make it clear that the school is open to all so long as their incomes are low enough to meet federal guidelines for free or reduced price lunches.

As with all NativityMiguel schools, tuition is low, and inability to pay is never an impediment to acceptance. Parents generally work in factories or in the area’s apple orchards. Both Father Connell and Sister Lois were dramatically reminded of the city’s poverty when nearby Mount St. Mary College offered a gift of beds in mint condition. Father Connell, who is the chaplain and campus minister as well as a faculty member, rounded up students, loaded a truck with the beds and drove through streets near the school. “We ran the beds up two and three flights of stairs,” he said, recalling one apartment in particular. “A little girl looked up and said, ‘Is that a bed for me?’ I realized she’d never slept in a bed, but on some blankets on the floor in the corner.” At times the academy helps with rent payments. Initially, Father Connell and Sister Lois said, they thought they were educating children. But soon, they realized “we were taking on the whole family.”

Even with only two grades in place at the time of my visit (there will eventually be four in all, grades five through eight), in just two years test scores have risen by almost two grade levels. Sister Lois spread the score reports out on the table where we sat together in the assembly room by the kitchen. “When I’m feeling tired at the end of a long day,” Sister Lois said, “I look at these scores and think, ‘It’s all worth it.’”

As in other schools around the country that follow the NativityMiguel model, the extended day is long indeed, to ensure maximum possibilities for learning in its widest sense. It begins at 8 a.m. with breakfast and continues till 5 p.m., with lunch and a healthy snack along the way.

Two LaSallian volunteers, and a de la Salle brother who is a master teacher, along with other staff members, create not only a fertile learning environment, but also one through which, as Sister Lois put it, the close relationships make clear to all in the building that “we are a family.” The school year actually begins with a five-week summer school, in part to prepare incoming fifth graders for their new experience.

What pays for the special features that distinguish NativityMiguel schools? Funding is a constant challenge, since the per-student cost is $10,000 a year. In addition to grants from foundations, the lay board of trustees plays a major role in fundraising, Father Connell said. Other schools based on this model may lie in the future for the mid-Hudson Valley. Both he and Sister Lois envisage the possibility of two more, in the nearby cities of Poughkeepsie and Kingston, forming “a triangle” of NativityMiguel schools. Fulfillment of that dream may lie far in the future, but at least one corner of the triangle is off to a promising start.

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