It was 20 years ago this summer that I arrived in Baltimore to teach at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy (SILA). Some of you have heard me say that it was a George Will article, WHY THIS SCHOOL WORKS . ., that brought me to Baltimore. His description of the learning environment and formative relationships resonated with me. After visiting the school, it was clear that SILA was where I needed to be if I was going to learn “to be generous, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for a reward, and to serve and do God’s will.”
SILA was one of several schools that the Jesuits had recently opened to more directly and deeply serve students, families and communities struggling with poverty. These schools were a just response of Jesuit mission and timely application of Jesuit education and tradition to the immediate needs of young people who were facing tremendous obstacles in realizing any dream for the future.
George Will’s column was not the first time that I heard of this movement though. A fellow Former Jesuit Volunteer (FJV) had told me about his experience teaching at Nativity Prep of Boston. (I also had inquired with the esteemed Jesuit Al Hicks about teaching there as well.) At that time, faculty from both Nativity Prep and Mother Caroline Academy lived together in a rectory. My friend, who has since founded a Cristo Rey School and is starting a Building Excellent Schools Fellowship this summer, described the challenge and joy of teaching in this small fledging school. Mike Mayo, one of his fellow teachers at the time, captured the essence beautifully in his reflection Relentless Possibility which found its way to my inbox in Baltimore and which I have distributed at several NativityMiguel conferences. Mike would go on to be one of the first fellows at Building Excellent Schools.
When I first arrived in Baltimore 20 years ago, I was welcomed by Brendan Sullivan who was starting his fourth year at the school which itself was only starting its fifth year. I remember distinctly pulling up in front of 104 Madison, the faculty housing just around the corner from the school. Brendan had just returned from a training run for the Marine Corps marathon that fall. He shared that he had access to another number and by the end of that evening had convinced me to run the marathon as well – a very fitting metaphor for my three years at SILA and the seventeen years since.
I think how fortunate I was to learn how to teach in the company of such dedicated, mission-driven individuals. We were young and driven, and responsible for all aspects of the school. We were a group of educators ready to do whatever it takes, to go above and beyond, to deliver a caring, nurturing education that delivered academic and personal growth in pursuit of student ambitions years beyond their immediate situation. We were at school at 7:25 a.m. for faculty prayer and would still be there many nights at 9:00 p.m. getting ready for the next day. Saturdays and Sundays were sports and outings and more of the same. In my first year of teaching, I was in charge of Campus Ministry overseeing service and chapel plus many of us were taking graduate courses at Loyola University Maryland. We talked incessantly about our students and the school (and still do through email and when we get together) even when we were socializing on the weekends to the point that significant others and other friends initiated “No SILA” zones. The school was our life and our family, something to which anyone who has taught in a NativityMiguel School can fully attest.
I am amazed at the professional trajectory of my SILA colleagues: Brendan is now President of Nativity Prep of San Diego, Matt Lynch and Stacey Clements founded Chicago Jesuit Academy where Matt continues to serve as President, Matt Ormiston was one of the founding teachers at Washington Jesuit Academy and is now Middle School Director of an independent school in Virginia, Principal Jeff Sindler and Dave Farace are Heads of School at two independent schools. And those are only the teachers who stayed in education, others have achieved great things in medicine, finance, environment and advocacy. I am certain that the spirited, foundational experience of SILA continues to guide and shape their professional mission and vision.
After leaving Baltimore in the summer 2000, I taught for a year at Cretin-Derham Hall (CDH), a Catholic High School in St. Paul, MN sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the DeLaSalle Christian Brothers. Also new to the CDH faculty that year was Susan Vaughn who was coming off of several years teaching with Br. Larry Goyette at the San Miguel School of Providence, a just response of Lasallian mission and timely application of Lasallian education and tradition to the immediate needs of young people who were facing tremendous obstacles in realizing any dream for the future. We connected reminiscing about the young men we taught in Providence and Baltimore and sharing the funny, inspirational and tragic stories from our respective schools. It was also the first year of the San Miguel School of Minneapolis and Board Member Lou Anne Tighe, who I worked with in Campus Ministry at CDH, introduced me to the founding team of Br. Larry Schatz, Karla Gergen, Ben Murray and Br. Dennis Galvin. This was also the year I first met Mike Anderer when I visited the San Miguel School of Chicago on a student immersion trip, as I mentioned in earlier blogs, and connected with Fr. Bill Johnson, who founded Nativity Jesuit Middle School in Milwaukee, about the possibility of working at their summer camp in northern Wisconsin.
I was finding that my SILA experience was mirrored in all of these visits and conversations. The founding and growth of each school depended on a similar confluence of educators who selflessly stepped forward to break a cycle of poverty that implodes dreams, impedes justice and limits access. I was hearing similar stories of vocation. In each person’s heart, mind and spirit, some burning, stirring nudge insisted on engaging in this work in a prayerful solidarity with the community. It was also evident that remaining in fidelity with this educational mission was joyful and exhilarating and humbling and exhausting.
Connecting these dots is core to understanding the NativityMiguel story that has driven me for the last sixteen years. I know this next sentence may affront some of you: the story is not Jesuit, or Lasallian, or Episcopal, though each identity is formative to the particular school and to the formation of its leaders, faculty, staff, students. This is true for the many other congregations, too numerous for me to mention here, and non-denominational groups who have started schools.
The story is also not based on a single founder whose idea has been precisely replicated in over 60 schools following a prescribed model. Even the founding of Nativity Mission Center in 1971 has always been characterized as the faith, brains and sweat of many. Though the NativityMiguel movement has taken root in so many communities with visionary, monumental leaders [Jack Podsiadlo, Mary Claire Ryan and Connie Bush, Larry Goyette, Bill Watters, Bill Johnson, Ed Durkin, Mary Dooley, Barry Hynes – and that is just by 1993] , it would be difficult to name one person as the founder of it all. There is no Mike Feinberg or Dave Levin of the KIPP Schools or even John Foley, SJ of the Cristo Rey Schools.
As someone who has been involved in the national, even international, story for sixteen years now, I have often wished we had a tight story of how one person steeped in one tradition founded a successful educational model and trained others with a precise mindset, lens, voice and heart to execute that model elsewhere. Conversations on branding and narrative, mission measurement and professional development and a clear strategic vision of where we were heading next would have been a lot simpler.
Yet, this complexity is one of our greatest opportunities. The NativityMiguel story has been animated by all of these congregations, charisms and traditions and together represents a balance of gentleness and audacity that is durable and formidable. The NativityMiguel story has also been animated by so many people who are, have been and will be invested in the mission of the NativityMiguel schools. I am always amused when our schools are faulted for not being scalable because our movement would not exist without the ever-growing scale of so many across so many lines who have said yes to the mission over the years. As George Will said in his article: Enough micro-solutions, and there will be no macro-problems. The NativityMiguel Schools believe that each board member, leader, teacher, staff member, student, family, donor, etc. is a solution.
From my vantage point, though, I am often in awe to think of what could be accomplished if we could more fully harness and leverage our collective strength of all these micro-solutions. I talk often with supporters of one of our schools who overflow with how incredible, fabulous, spirited, transformational the one school is. I will respond, “And there are more than 65 schools just like it.” What if we could keep them as invested locally and connect and engage them in this fuller movement that reaches thousands of young people? What if the stories of transformation could be spread, shared and owned across all congregations, charisms and traditions? For example, what if all of those individuals were encouraged to tell a colleague, friend and family member who lives in another city to inquire about a NativityMiguel School there because the school they support has special meaning for the?
The Coalition was established on a belief that we are stronger together than we are as a single school. Given how the story has unfolded for me over the last 20 years, I am ecstatic about the possibility of the next 20 years animated by the faith, investment, imagination and ingenuity of this collective strength.