When you enter Imago Dei Middle School in Tucson you are visually welcomed by a beautiful mosaic, pictured here. This mosaic was seen by over 50 heads of school, instructional leaders and graduate support directors who were welcomed by the Imago Dei Community for our national conference this month. For those coming from the cold, grey winter of other parts of the country, we know what it meant to step into the comforting arms of warm sunshine in Tucson. This is the welcoming spirit of Imago Dei, the Image of God, and reflects the care and support that is core to their educational mission. The school serves a high immigrant and refugee population, and stories shared by three graduates were testament to a priority and call to welcome the stranger. The graduates spoke about becoming a part of Imago Dei and knowing they truly belonged. Imago Dei has done more than enroll immigrant and refugee students, they have designed an education and school culture that specifically meets their particular needs. The school team led by co-founder Anne Sawyer works with the families to advocate on their behalf and mitigate the many uncertainties and complexities of an immigrant and refugee’s journey. Trusting in this care and knowing they are valued, students are able to focus attention on academic learning and achievement. This is how Imago Dei Middle School and NativityMiguel Schools break the cycle of poverty through faith-based education; these students are not just occupying space for a time, filling a scholarship spot, or assimilating into the culture of another, they are the school community.
This mosaic tied in nicely to a prayerful reflection that was shared with me by Kristin Melley of the Roche Center at Boston College:
“We who dare to innovate are letting go of some things to make room for new opportunities. We are breaking with some customs in order to respond and recreate new ones that have meaning and truth for today’s students. We come together to imagine and plan the unknown. Some may think of this as a puzzle. But as we immerse ourselves in the hopes and desires of our students and families, it becomes clear that what we are building a mosaic. Mosaics are quite different from puzzles. Puzzles have pieces that snap together neatly to recreate something that already was. Puzzles sometimes have missing pieces that when fully assembled, become more glaring than the ones that are in place. Puzzles ﬁt together in just one way. There is only 1 way to assemble the pieces. So while puzzles are a great fun, they are not a great analogy for the organic and complex process of transforming education.
Note the shapes and sizes of each tile [in the picture]. The unique spacing between each one. And even though each piece is different, it is intentionally placed into the scheme to bring the vision to life. We are constructing our mosaics, carefully and thoughtfully identifying the individual tiles that will enrich our vision for our school community, mindful of the placing and spacing, considering which tiles go in and which stay out, and where in the scheme or layout the tile will be most effective.”
It was with this mindset that we came together for two days to share tools, resources, ideas, language, stories, knowledge, expertise and wisdom – each a tile with its own shape and color – and to determine how best to apply and adapt to our situation, circumstances, assets, limitations and talented individuals who comprise our school community.
The strength of our Coalition is learning from our schools. Compiling takeaways from participants, it is clear that our schools are both doing more and needing to do more to prepare our students to navigate their post-secondary journey whether it includes college or some other opportunity to continue their education and formation. While we have done well to support graduates through high school graduation, we need to do more to build a college-going identity starting in the entry grade, even as early as Kindergarten if that is the case. Schools discussed providing structured workshops for graduates verses unstructured study hall time, developing a graduate support curriculum and summer programs that reinforce this college-going identity, offering homework hour for those students who are failing and providing outside options for students who are thriving academically.
Our choice of language is important in building a school culture that embodies this hope and expectation. Our students are resilient and that resiliency has been tested time and time again. Our schools activate and support that resiliency to go beyond merely surviving and getting by. To do so, our principals and graduate support directors repeat and emphasize a growth mindset and provide strategies for students to right the imbalance when they are stuck in doubts of unworthiness. Paying attention to the mental health of our students is as important as measuring academic achievement. Mother Teresa Middle School shared a survey to measure student well-being and identify assets that can help our students persevere.
Our graduates need to know that they are not alone, that others who look and sound like them, who have come from similar backgrounds, and who have overcome similar feelings of isolation and uncertainty have persisted and succeeded. Gathering with other schools is a reminder that our schools, our students and our grads are part of something bigger and connected to a larger family.
It is also a great reminder that even though our students may be doing well now, there are more students we need to be pushing to serve. Given both the muddled confusion and precise clarity of what immigrants and refugees face in the next few weeks and months, this reminder is especially profound as we consider our role and position rooted in a tradition of welcoming the stranger.