PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Quilma Perdomo wants the best for her two boys. A single parent in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence, R.I., she works two jobs and struggles to provide the basics — food, shelter and clothing.
Quilma's boys are just two of the many finding help and hope in a group of new schools springing up across the nation to help children in poor, high-crime neighborhoods.
Several years ago, her eldest son, Miguel Castillo, began showing signs of despondency. His grades fell; his cheerful attitude turned somber. Quilma knew her son's experience with his overcrowded public school was contributing to his malaise, but she couldn't afford to send him to a private school.
A friend told her that Brother Lawrence Goyette, a Christian Brother, had started a small school for boys right in her neighborhood. It was called the San Miguel School and it sounded promising.
“I went to talk with Brother Lawrence,” Quilma recalled. “I told him about my son, and he accepted him [for enrollment]. Everything changed. I noticed a big difference in Miguel's grades, in his homework and his attitude.”
Miguel graduated San Miguel three years ago, and went on to La Salle High School, one of the most respected high schools in Rhode Island.
This year, Quilma's youngest son, Javier Castillo, was received into the fifth grade at the San Miguel School.
Brother Goyette, a member of the Long Island-New England province of the LaSallians, knows what a difference an education makes in the lives of boys from the inner city. He's worked as a teacher and school administrator in New York City and Rhode Island for going on 20 years.
In 1993, with a meager budget, Brother Lawrence opened the doors of his newly founded school to 13 inner-city boys in grades five and six.
The Christian Brothers decided to name the school after St. Miguel Febres Cordeiro, a Christian Brother from Ecuador canonized in 1984 by Pope John Paul II.
Rather than establish the San Miguel School as a diocesan institution, the Lasallian province decided to keep the school private, maintaining it under the jurisdiction of the Lasallian Christian Brothers.
Providence Bishop Robert Mulvee told the Register he “thoroughly appreciates” the service of the San Miguel School even though it's not affiliated with the Diocese of Providence or the Catholic schools of the diocese. “We welcome its presence,” he adds. “The school offers a great service to the community by assisting inner-city boys in attaining a quality education.”
The San Miguel School expanded rapidly after its modest beginnings. A seventh grade was added in 1994, an eighth grade in 1995. The first graduation was held in 1996 and, today, the school has 62 students and four classrooms.
And Providence was just the start.
In 1995, a San Miguel school was opened in Chicago; another followed in 1997 in Camden, N.J. Last year schools opened in Memphis and Minneapolis, followed this year by new schools in Portland, Ore., San Francisco, St. Louis and on an Indian reservation in Montana.
There are now nine schools, seven of which are middle schools. One is a pre-school, another a high school. The common denominator at all San Miguel schools is a commitment to helping at-risk children.
The typical San Miguel School student comes from a single-parent home where English is not the first language. Many San Miguel students don't know their father's whereabouts, have a sibling or parent who has been through the justice system, and have failed to thrive in a neighborhood public school.
The cost to send a student to San Miguel School is about $6,000 a year. In most cases, parents pay anywhere from $600 to $800 of that; the rest is paid by individual sponsors and businesses. “The kids are very conscious of that,” says Brother Lawrence. “They know there are a lot of people out there who help us.”
Once a week, to show their appreciation, the children visit nursing homes, daycare centers and pitch in with community-cleanup projects.
Jamal Burk, a 13-year-old student at the San Miguel School in Providence, is among a group that visits the elderly. “Sometimes we bring maracas, tambourines and drums for them,” he says. “We get a beat going and they play the instruments. It's good exercise for them.”
Jamal, who has attended the San Miguel school for three years, says what he likes best about the school are the teachers. “If you are struggling in class, they help you,” he adds. “They always have time for you.”
When Jamal graduates and heads for high school, he will not be forgotten by his teachers and mentors. Like all San Miguel graduates, he will be tracked closely, offered ongoing academic guidance, and assisted in finding financial aid if he chooses a private high school.
Asked to explain the extraordinary dedication to students in evidence at San Miguel, Brother Lawrence cites his order's founder. “St. John Baptist de la Salle recommends that we [cultivate the growth of] the total child, not just see to their education,” he says. “We take them where they're at, and we will help them for as long as it takes.”
In this way, the San Miguel schools offer at-risk youth something in short supply in their neighborhoods: hope.
Mary Ann Sullivan writes from
Durham, New Hampshire.