I have always enjoyed meeting with a group of people who are interested in starting a NativityMiguel-modelled school. They share a dream and everyone is envisioning the possibility of what will be. The group is energized by a spirit that anything is possible if we commit to it together.
Even better is visiting a school in its first year. The pioneering class of students has arrived and they have “Only Child Status.” There are no students in a grade above or below, all attention is on them. This is a remarkable time for care, education and formation. (Br. Larry Schatz, founder of the San Miguel School of Minneapolis, remembers the fall of their first year. Four students were enrolled with four staff members. If a pencil fell from a student’s desk there were two teachers there to pick it up!) For the founding group, though, reality has set in – real students with real families with real impact and real struggle. There is also a real sense and real understanding of the leadership, time, resources, talent and commitment it will take to thrive in our educational mission and model. Yes, to dream is bold; to do is a bit insane.
A school in its first year is even more hopeful and more beautiful than the dream. The presence is purposeful, the relationships are authentic and the growth is real; such was my visit to San Francisco Nativity Academy in Houston, TX last month.
San Francisco Nativity Academy is unlike other NativityMiguel start-ups in two ways. First, the first class of students is Pre-K 3 year olds. Another class of 3 year olds will be enrolled each year as the school builds to a PreK 3 to 8th grade. While a number of our schools have dipped into elementary grades to enroll students earlier or have been embedded the NativityMiguel model into K-8 schools, this is the first NativityMiguel school to start with 3 year olds. (Epiphany School, a 5th-8th grade school in Boston, is starting an early childhood component next fall and Escuela de Guadalupe in Denver now enrolls Pre-K 4 yr. olds.) Almost all of the students entered speaking very little English and the home language of all students is non-English. While the school is already seeing exceptional English language development, they know their mission is not a sprint. It will be another 9 years before the pioneering class graduates from 8th grade – true patience in the journey. San Francisco Nativity Academy has set benchmarks to ensure that students are reaching the appropriate milestones along the way. The first is that they are Kinder-Ready by the start of Kindergarten and the second is that all students are reading at grade level by the start of 3rd grade. Naturally this is a different scenario than starting a middle school that enrolls 5th or 6th graders who are entering with deficits.
The second is that San Francsico Nativity Academy, in its first year, is in a building that it owns and plans to be in permanently. When the founding board was presented with the opportunity to buy a school building attached to an apartment complex that houses a population of students the school intended to serve, they jumped knowing that it was a big leap with risks. This certainly puts the faith in faith-based. While there is precedent here, most NativityMiguel schools rent a few rooms in a church, school or community school and then move as the school grows. The first floor of Nativity Academy houses the first class and the classrooms have taken shape after renovations. As one heads upstairs on the tour, much work still needs to be done. For any dreamer though, this is the story that will unfold and that will require a lot of sweat and hard-work. It will be wonderful to visit again in ten years and see all three floors filled with students as the pioneering class heads into 8th grade.
In our schools, we are all dreamers in some way or at least we need to be if we are to working toward a vision for a just future and have faith that we will get there. We also need to be realists. Our students, families and graduates are enduring a violence and poverty that can have traumatic and tragic consequence. This is not an easy journey. As I was finishing this blog last week, one of our school leaders informed me that one of their graduates was shot and killed on Thursday:
She was with a young man who was a ‘target,’ as is said around here. Wrong place at the wrong time. An 11th grader at one of the public high schools. Tough stuff. We’re supporting the family and will continue to.
For as much as we are inspired by the dreams that are and will be realized, we are compelled by the reality of dreams that end too soon.