National Catholic Register


Middle Schools Prepare At-Risk Students for Higher Ed

BY Joyce Carr

June 23-29, 2002 Issue | Posted 6/23/02 at 1:00 PM


In a public school system that continues to graduate students with below-average skills and test scores, are poor students doomed to low-performance schools?

In a two-part series beginning this week, the Register looks at how some students are being helped.

NEW YORK — Three years ago, 14-year-old Francisco Rosario struggled to identify pronouns and verbs and recall what he read.

Today the graduate of Nativity Mission School, a middle school in Manhattan, corrects grammar and punctuation mistakes on his moth-er's assignments for her college classes.

Francisco's language arts grades jumped into the 80s and 90s after he transferred from a New York City public school to the Jesuit-run Nativity School for boys, from where three of his cousins also graduated.

The school in New York City's lower east side has prepared inner-city at-risk boys for high school and college since 1971. Outstanding results have made it a model for some 40 schools throughout the country, including the year-old Nativity Prep Academy in San Diego.

These campuses aim to lift their pupils out of poverty by providing a tuition-free, intensive academic program that equips its youth to succeed in higher education. Although these middle schools are not operated by parishes, most offer a Catholic, value-based curriculum.

The Whole Person

At the Nativity School in New York City, small classes, an eight-hour school day and attention to each boy's academic, spiritual and social development have led to high levels of pupil achievement. Currently 89% of Nativity students graduate from high school, 75% enter college and 41% graduate with a college degree. This record far surpasses that of other schools in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, Principal Charles Engel said.

Francisco said he intends to join the ranks of these graduates. He is now enrolled at Jesuit Xavier High School in New York City and said he hopes to attend college to prepare for a career as an attorney or business owner.

Daisy Rosario attributed her son's improvement to Nativity's teachers. “They are very devoted to the boys,” she said.

Fourteen teachers — most of them interns or members of religious communities — instruct a total of 47 pupils in sixth, seventh and eighth grades who receive help with homework during study periods and in the evening by tutors if their grades are below expectation, Engel said.

Prospective pupils become acquainted with the students and teachers during weekly visits to the campus. They are required to attend a seven-week summer leadership-training program at Camp Monseratte in Lake Placid, N.Y., where camp director Mark Lardner assesses their motivation to meet Nativity's demanding schedule. Boys enrolled at the school also spend each summer at the camp.

The camp schedule includes math and language arts classes, swimming and numerous games and sports. Two counselors work with groups of about 10 boys, who climb the Adirondack Mountains and hold nightly discussions about their goals for camp, home and school.

Some campers win awards for participating in optional competitions, such as creating science projects and memorizing poetry. One boy won a $25 gift certificate for reading 21 books at the camp.

Attending the camp in 1987 convinced Roberto Rodriguez that Nativity was the school for him.

Without this foundation, he said, “I probably would have dropped out of high school,” as did many other teens in his neighborhood, many of whom became scarred by gang violence, drug abuse and prostitution.

Instead Rodriguez graduated from Xavier High School and earned a degree from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1998. During his high school and college years, he assisted prospective pupils and other boys at Nativity School.

Today he conducts the school's graduate support program. Nativity pays part of their graduates' tuition to Catholic high schools, which most of them attend. They are required to return to the middle school at least once a week, where staff and volunteer tutors help with their homework. The school hires an instructor to prepare juniors for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Rodriguez helps them obtain scholarships and financial aid for college.

Catherine Hickey, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, gave Nativity Mission School high marks for developing the boys' positive attitudes.

“The school is academically successful in paving the way for their future,” she said.

National Model

On the other side of the country, lay directors and advisers of San Diego's independent Nativity Prep Academy believe the 18 fifth-grade Hispanic and black pupils who enrolled in September are also on the path to success.

It's an uphill road, said Principal Bob Heveron, explaining that the 10-year-old former public school pupils scored, on the average, at the third-grade level on standardized tests they took in September.

But he said he believes this deficit can eventually be overcome by the school's 12-hour day conducted by 10 full- and part-time teachers and tutors. The program offers field trips, sports, health services, camping, parent education and three free meals a day.

The teachers volunteer two years of service at the privately funded coeducational academy in exchange for a no-cost master's degree and credential in education from the Catholic University of San Diego.

They can see progress and improved attitudes in their pupils. Comments such as “I hate math,” have changed to “math is cool; it's okay,” said academy math teacher Tracy Pavey.

Religion teachers Caroline Sekula and Margaret Liegel noted the pupils' comfort in talking about God and praying spontaneously. They are learning to respect other races and religions and make fewer racial slurs, Liegel said. Through role-playing, they respond in a Christian manner to hypothetical situations, such as confronting shoplifters, she added.

Learning is not confined to the one-room school, however. The fifth graders observed invertebrates at San Diego's tide pools, saw gray whales surface in the Pacific Ocean and measured nutrients in Mission Bay, where they will dissect a shark and a perch during an upcoming science camp. These experiences are provided through the school's partnership with the Aquatic Adventures Science Education Foundation, said science instructor Lindsay Goodwin.

Opportunities to help disadvantaged children drew the teachers to Nativity Prep. Pavey, a University of Notre Dame graduate, said the children are teaching her “to appreciate the simple things in life — the three meals a day we take for granted.”

The academy will eventually enroll pupils in fifth through eighth grade, adding an additional grade each year.

Tom Beecher, director of the San Diego diocesan office for schools, said the school “benefits the community and diocese” and hopes it “will impact the lives of students” that its mission pledges to serve.

Joyce Carr writes from San Diego.

Next week: Peter Flanigan and Student Sponsor Partners gives hundreds of students the hope of an education and professional success.