The first time I travelled across the Bay Bridge from Oakland, I was not quite 25 years old and leading a group of high school students from Portland, OR on a mission trip to Tijuana. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of San Francisco awaiting us and remember that night staying at a parish in Chinatown and running to Coit Tower the next morning. From the hills to the bridges to Alcatraz and the Cable Cars, it is a city with striking features that make an enduring impression.
My second memory of San Francisco was meeting Catherine Ronan Karrels, the founding President of DeMarillac Academy, at St. Boniface parish in the Tenderloin. The school building was undergoing renovation as they were getting ready for the pioneering class of students. (It would actually be after the New Year by the time they moved into the school so nearby Sacred Heart Cathedral High School welcomed them in for the first semester.) Wearing our hard hats, Catherine enthusiastically showed me the plan for the entrance, offices and first classrooms. It is important to establish that DeMarillac Academy is a school directly and intentionally in the heart of the Tenderloin District next to agencies serving the marginalized, the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill and others in vulnerable, desperate situations. Catherine shared a vision of hope for students who were growing up in a neighborhood defined more by hopelessness.
Last month, nearly sixteen year later, I had the opportunity to visit DeMarillac Academy again, to meet with Theresa Flynn Houghton who is in her first year as President and to see the growth and expansion of the facility and the school community. I was able to meet one of their graduates who had returned for a visit and the new 4th grade class, many of whom had siblings that had graduated from DeMarillac Academy. The banner in the entrance to the school shows the many faces of the school with the words “It all starts with a dream.” I remembered back to my first visit and to the dream that Catherine had articulated so well.
The Tenderloin is still a neighborhood where people with great needs go for services and support. Over the last sixteen years the tech industry though has boomed and is practically on the Tenderloin’s doorstep, building and renovating office space and looking at ways to house the growing number of employees who are coming to the city for opportunity, such as buying and updating units that have been occupied by DeMarillac families and others in need. There is a movement to ask the right questions (Are there ways to accommodate these changes without displacing individuals or eliminating services? Are there ways for these corporations to be involved in improving the neighborhood for all interests, not just their own? Are the corporate incentives such as tax credits, funding opportunities and community service initiatives authentic in their aim, just in their delivery and beneficial to all?) though the disparity in two realities is clear.
My visit also allowed a chance to reconnect with Mike Anderer who has been part of the NativityMiguel movement from coast to coast. (Mike helped start the San Miguel School of Camden, led the San Miguel School of Chicago, has been influential in the growth of DeMarillac Academy for the last six years, and has been appointed the founding President of the Cristo Rey School of Oakland.) I first met Mike when I was leading a group of high school students from St. Paul, MN on a mission trip that included a visit to the San Miguel School of Chicago. I have always valued his wisdom and thoughtfulness as a school leader interested in creating deliberate and intentional organizational culture.
Mike told me about his work in the Tenderloin neighborhood on behalf of DeMarillac Academy including ensuring safe passage for all children and advocating for supervised injection sites. While he serves on the board of a local community development organization and is involved with local police initiatives, he will say that most meaningful use of his time is getting to know everyone in the Tenderloin including the corner drug dealers and individuals frequently sleeping on cardboard on the streets. All of these encounters are opportunities to share our generosity with others, and being abundant with our generosity comes back to us in tangible ways and in ways that we may never know.
Looking back on my sixteen years of visiting DeMarillac Academy, I believe this is the core to their success in the Tenderloin, seeing each person as a human deserving of dignity and honoring their story no matter how far removed it may be from our personal story. Faith is foundational to their education, as it is with all of our schools: Each individual is the holy presence of God, our relationship with each individual is the holy presence of God, and our mutual generosity is the holy presence of God.
While in California, I also had the chance to visit DeLaSalle Academy in Concord, about a half-hour northeast of San Francisco. Having worked for the last sixteen years at the national level, I greatly cherish the many educational leaders who I have come to know. I was accompanied on the tour by the amazing Mike Daniels, who replaced the incredible Catherine Ronan Karrels at DeMarillac Academy and is now Director of Education for the San Francisco-New Orleans District of the DeLaSalle Christian Brothers, a position previously held by the extraordinary Gery Short. For the first time, I met the tremendous Marilyn Paquette, the founding principal of DeLaSalle Academy. Being one of the first teachers that worked with the visionary Br. Lawrence Goyette in the first few years of the San Miguel School of Providence, Marilyn is someone I heard of often though we never had the chance to meet until now. The visit was wonderful with eager students describing the many projects that are on display throughout the school.
DeLaSalle Academy, which is funded by private donors and accessible to underserved students from economically-poor families, is actually a non-tuition middle school program of tuition-driven DeLaSalle High School. The program shares human resources, business and technology personnel with the high school and middle school students are able to access various opportunities at the high school. All students graduating in the pioneering class this spring will be attending DeLaSalle High School next fall though this will not necessarily be the path for all graduates in the future.
Earlier in the day, I met with Karen Hammen who is starting a similar program at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco modelled on a similar program at Brophy Prep in High School in Phoenix. These also are all similar to the founding story of the San Miguel School of Washington DC which started as a program of St. John’s College High School.
I strongly believe that NativityMiguel Schools and the NativityMiguel Coalition amplify a critical message built on three beliefs:
1. All students regardless of gender, race, creed or neighborhood, deserve a quality education.
2. Private, faith-based schools are uniquely position for deliver an academically excellent and holistically formative education that prepares students for success at the next level of education and for professional and personal achievement.
3. Private, faith-based schools in all cities need to remain accessible and relevant options for educating marginalized students from impoverished families in all communities.
NativityMiguel Schools were founded on these beliefs and these beliefs have shaped our model and anchored our mission. These beliefs have driven thousands of committed people from high schools, colleges, corporations, nonprofits, government agencies and neighborhood organizations as well as our schools, who have thoughtfully considered how our schools will thrive, adapt and evolve in the future to stay true to these beliefs.
While our model can change as evident in these new programs, our mission needs to be authentic to its beginnings – sharing our generosity to remain present in the education of the economically-poor and marginalized.