Successful Graduates

photo 4Who would have known the Shakespearean roots of our GSP Conference? In late March, 40 GSP Directors and GSP Team Members assembled at Cornelia Connelly Center (CCC) in New York City to exchange best practice, discuss challenges and opportunities, and hear from experts both internal and external to the Coalition. We were honored to be joined by Jose Vilson, author of This is Not a Test and graduate of the Nativity Mission Center, who spoke to us in the CCC Assembly Room. It was there 20 years ago when Jose was a student at Nativity that he performed as Romeo in a collaborative production of Shakespeare’s play with CCC students. It turns out that Laura Ortiz, the current GSP Director for CCC and a graduate of CCC, also performed in that play. While Jose and Laura did not break into a recitation of the final act, it was a wonderful moment for two graduates to recall that middle school memory that has been etched into their adolescent development.

Jose also recalled summer camp at Lake Placid and teaching one of the new Nativity students how to swim which was especially remarkable since Jose had learned to swim not too long before that. That student was Adriel Guttierez, who is now the GSP Director for St. Ignatius School in the Bronx and another participant in the Conference. So here we had three of our grads, two of whom are now fulfilling a critical role in our schools and another who is a public school teacher and activist advocating for a more pronounced role of teachers in determining the best education for all students.

Irving Ibarra, a graduate of Nativity Jesuit Academy (NJA) in Milwaukee and now Associate Graduate Support Director there, was also present at the GSP Conference and remarked that Jose’s recollection of Nativity Mission Center and the school’s support when he was in high school and college reminded him of NJA, and that the way Jose spoke about Fr. Jack (see my first post) brought to mind Larry Siewert, who was Irving’s GSP Director. The next day, Danny Perez, a graduate of Nativity Mission Center and principal at St. Aloysius joined us to discuss the mindset shift from graduate support to alumni relations and Shannon Prentiss, a graduate of The Neighborhood Academy and College Readiness Officer there now, presented on Best Fit Colleges.

Jose, Laura, Adriel, Irving, Danny and Shannon are clear success stories by many definitions.  Success stories though may be one of the most difficult concepts for a school community to get its hands and minds around, especially since there are typically different definitions from internal and external stakeholders who are weighing in with their interpretations. At the conference we discussed how schools in the NativityMiguel Coalition define the trajectory of a successful graduate. How do schools know that they have been successful in educating their students and preparing them for the next level of education and beyond? What are the metrics and benchmarks in the short term (the sprint) that most likely indicate success in the long term (the marathon)? We talked about high school placements and high school graduation, ACT and SAT and extracurricular activities, college enrollment and college persistence, and we connected these benchmarks to the professional and personal success of our graduates and ultimately whether we have made good on our promise to “break the cycle of poverty through a faith-based education.”

We also discussed the shortcomings of such a conversation or any definition that attempts to fully capture success. Limitations abound because we are motivated by much more than the “economics” of a successful graduate. We accept that measuring certain attainable educational objectives which typically support a particular image of success is more straight-forward and less complicated than measuring how successful we have been in terms of realizing the purpose of education. While high school graduation is an educational objective that can be easily measured, our schools believe that a purposeful education has prepared our graduates to think and to explore critical questions, to develop and articulate ideas about our world, and to form character that contributes to a more loving society regardless of profession.

We know we are successful with a purposeful education when we see how our students and graduates successfully engage in the world.  At graduation each year, our schools tell stories to capture how students have grown and who they have become.  Our schools are able to tell similar stories of our graduates since we stay connected and nurture relationships with all of our graduates through GSP. Our goal is not one or two impressive stories to tell; as a small school community, we are able to convey the maturing story of all of our graduates. These stories are not void of data; rather we are able to go beyond the numbers and percentages to more fully and vividly measure our success.  Our schools understand that “success is not an escalator,” that there are many factors and variables that can impact a student’s success story along the way, that students who are on course for success can hit roadblocks, and that students who seem aimless and lost can pull the biggest surprises.

Simply put, yet complex in what it means for our definition of success, we need to be accountable and we need to be loving. This week, the Coalition will release our national data report in which we highlight our success according to a defined set of benchmarks and outcomes. From this data, we will also be able to identify areas of growth and improvement as we aim for educational excellence with 100% of our students and graduates. Our schools know that when we invite families, partners, supporters and donors to join us in this educational mission, we need to be transparent and credible that we are realizing the impact that we promised. At the same time, our mindset as a Coalition of faith-based schools is to value each student and each graduate as a blessing rather than a statistic; each student and each graduate is blessed and we are blessed by their presence, regardless of how they fit our definition of success. This is not a dismissal of data or a lowering of expectation. In a society and market that is quick to judge success (or lack of success), our schools believe in loving our humanity, no matter how it measures up on any given day or year, and honoring the sacredness in the possibility of what is still to come. As faith-based schools, we believe that there is a spirit and a purpose in each individual that is beyond our comprehension, beyond our understanding, beyond our definition, and sometimes we need to be patient with the hard data of success.

One final thought on success: our graduates from Cornelia Connelly Center and Nativity Mission Center lamented that the Lower East Side has become something completely different than what it was when they were growing up. Bodegas and apartments have been replaced by bistros and $1M condominiums. The parks may be cleaned of drugs and violence, but the people, families and cultural events that mean so much to them are also diminishing. While there are many who see this development as opportunity, growth, and success, these three alumni miss all that has been lost. Similarly, our definition of success should assess the costs. Has our education built upon the assets and gifts that were already present in our students? When our students graduate from high school and college, how well do they represent the core values of the communities that they grew up in? Have our graduates become the best version of themselves without changing who they are to the point that they are unrecognizable to family and friends? A successful education is both transformative and respectful so that a successful graduate is able to live greater in service of the sacred purpose in which he/she was created.

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