We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

landonIn my previous blog, I stated that one of the greatest opportunities ahead for the NativityMiguel Coalition is leveraging the collective power of so many dedicated individuals who support our schools locally as leaders, teachers, volunteers, donors and partners and inviting them all to connect and engage more fully in the broader movement.

My blog this week, which will be my last in this position, looks at the greatest asset and opportunity of the NativityMiguel Schools as we look ahead – inviting and leveraging the power of our graduates.  We have over 6,500 graduates of member schools in the NativityMiguel Coalition now and each year another 650 students will graduate. That is 6,500 new graduates every ten years!  Truly, our grads are the heroes in my book.  They are the dreamers and the fighters.  Our graduates exemplify what it means to be courageous, selfless, determined, persistent, fierce, and strong, and they teach us to love, praise, celebrate and rejoice in gratitude. I don’t mean to simplify, romanticize, exaggerate or gloss over the stories of our graduates when I say this.  They have worked hard, tirelessly facing struggles, challenges, pressures, discrimination and distractions at a formative age that many people will never know.  I have heard many of our graduates say that at times all of it loomed so unsurmountable that it would have been easier to give up.

I have often utilized an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s Mountaintop speech as I did with a Tedx talk recently at the Nativity School of Worcester and in opening our Ready to Lead training last month.  This speech ends with the following:  We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

Our students benefit from mountaintop experiences that allow them the opportunity to look out and see the promised land, a vision of peace and justice for our communities that has its origins and its endings in the kingdom of God. The NativityMiguel Schools aim to deliver a rigorous and formative education that prepares students to be loving and contributing members of society who act upon a vision of the promised land and do what they can to ensure that we all get there someday.  All students deserve access to an education with a similar mission and purpose, it is only just that we deliver on this promise for the students and families enrolled in our schools.

Through the power of facebook, I have been able to follow the young men that I taught in Baltimore who are now grown men with amazing personal and professional lives.  Their posts often underscore that our graduates have personal experience with the stories of injustice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.  When the riots and protests erupted in Baltimore a couple of years ago, one former student from Baltimore posted the picture above on line with the following:

We are out here protecting corners and informing the young people. People may disagree but we understand. We are here to say we love them. And we want justice for freddie gray.

I also was connected with the compelling sermon of another student from Baltimore who has utilized his gift of music to inspire others toward that vision of justice.  I urge you to watch and listen to his sermon on YouTube.  This is why NativityMiguel Schools are so important.  The voices of our graduates need to be heard and lifted up rather than silenced or squandered.

It has been 25 years since the riots in Los Angeles.  A recent documentary on the National Geographic channel linked those riots to the Watts Riots 27 years earlier and the sparks of both of those riots are the same as what we have recently seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities. NativityMiguel Schools have the critical responsibility to ensure that such riots do not happen again.

Our role is to reassure our students that the promised land is real and accessible for all, that they belong and have value in this land, that this promise is theirs as much as it is anyone else’s, and that their work, play and prayer has a purpose far beyond individual success.  We present to them that in their lifetime we will get to a time and place in which love, freedom and justice is the order and we challenge them that they are as responsible for reaching this promised land as anyone else, even when there are obstacles in their way.

As I mentioned, this is my last blog in this position.  This is not a mic drop moment; I am passing the mic over to someone else because this message needs to continuously be amplified. I am ecstatic that Danny Perez will be leading the charge.  Who better to be the voice of this movement than one of our graduates.  To quote Fr. Jack, “This is where it is supposed to go. Leadership by those who were formed to lead. This is absolute proof of the success of the model.”

The NativityMiguel school movement is still in its infancy; or perhaps at 25 years old, we are celebrating our commencement just like many of our grads.  I believe our schools collectively stand on the cusp of a new wave of both struggle and brilliance ahead.  This is a critical gauge for our schools.  If our NativityMiguel education has accomplished what it was supposed to, our graduates in their personal lives and professional work will be the mind, voice and spirit of progress in all of our communities and will be at the forefront of the next generation leading the way forward.


It was 20 years ago this summer …


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.      

SullivanWhen 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. 




Perez Named as Coalition’s Executive Director

Daniel Perez has been named the next Executive Director of the NativityMiguel Coalition by its Board of Directors. He will begin in this position on July 1, 2017.

As a graduate of Nativity Mission Center and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, Perez has personal experience with NativityMiguel education and the opportunities it delivers for each student to reach their true potential. He will lead the Coalition with the same mindset:

“My underlying goal for every student and colleague I encounter is to help him or her realize their true potential through support and guidance,” Perez said. “We need to improve education in our communities with sound, research-based pedagogies that empower students and staff alike.”

Perez has extensive experience working in NativityMiguel Schools as Principal, Graduate Support Director and teacher at St. Aloysius School in Harlem and Nativity Mission Center in New York City. He also shared responsibility as interim Co-Head of School at St. Aloysius for a year. In these positions, he has been integrally involved in the growth and development of NativityMiguel Schools at the national level having served on the Graduate Support Council and presented at various conferences. He begins this position with a solid understanding of the demands and opportunities of the NativityMiguel Schools and knowing well many of the school leaders who are engaged in the Coalition.

“In my various positions, I have always appreciated that I was part of a bigger community in which my struggles, successes, and hopes were recognized and supported by like-minded educators,” Perez said.

For the last year, Perez has served as Assistant Principal at LaSalle Academy in New York City. He has also earned a Master of Science in Education (Administration and Supervision) from Fordham University, New York, NY.

“Danny Perez is uniquely qualified for this position,” said Nancy Langer, Chair of the Board for the NativityMiguel Coalition and President of The NativityMiguel Middle School of Buffalo. “On behalf of the Board and all member schools, we look forward to working with Danny to meet the distinct challenges of our educational mission and model and to strengthen our impact in marginalized communities across the country.”

Sharing Generosity in the Tenderloin

d3The 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.

Demarillac2My 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.

d6DeLaSalle 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.

Where is the Outrage?

IMG_1610Often when I visit one of our schools, school leadership and board members are primed and practiced to make the case for the depths of poverty and educational inequality in their city.  After all, NativityMiguel Schools were founded to serve the economically-poor and break the cycle of poverty through a quality, accessible education.

When I was in Rochester last week the local weekly newspaper featured a cover story on poverty that caught my attention.  Like our schools, the article presented unfortunately impressive stats to build a context for the story: The statistics on Rochester’s poverty rate are daunting: of the nation’s top 75 metropolitan areas, we’re the fifth poorest city. We’re the second poorest among cities of comparable size. We have the third highest concentration of extremely poor neighborhoods. And the Rochester school district is the poorest urban district in the state, with more than 80 percent of its students qualifying for free or subsidized meals.  Of course, to families living in poverty, stats like these are meaningless.  Poverty is tough regardless of where the city may rank.

The article profiled James Norman, a long-time crusader for the poor who spent his entire professional life combatting the effects of poverty and advocating for better systems and policies in Rochester.   The article frames the complexities of housing, education, jobs and the justice system that weigh on the poor, and the biases, myths and lack of understanding that distance many in society from taking action

A critical question was posed to Norman: Where is the outrage?

His response: “There isn’t widespread outrage among a lot of people, because they have rationalized that this is the natural order of things, and you can’t do anything about the natural order of things. I believe generations in the future are going to wonder what the hell we were thinking.”

Everyday, NativityMiguel Schools witness the poverty that exist in our communities.  The impact of these conditions on our children fuels our outrage and emboldens our resolve.  For NativityMiguel Schools, poverty is not the natural order of things; such conditions can not be accepted, neglected or ignored.   We ultimately work toward a day in which our schools will not be necessary because the need does not exist.  While we are always inspired by stories of students and families who have broken the cycle of poverty, we remain steadfast to a vision in which the systematic cycle of poverty is broken for all.

NativityMiguel schools are not alone in this vision; we depend on partnerships with many other organizations.  When I visited the Nativity Prep Academy in Rochester, I met Marlene Bessette, Executive Director of the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, who was touring the school and opening the door to greater collaboration.  Catholic Family Center offers “compassionate and comprehensive services to families and individuals in need – especially the vulnerable and those facing poverty – to help them achieve their full human potential across all stages of life.”  Our schools work in tandem with many organizations and people who are committed to breaking the cycle of poverty through healthcare, housing, job training and more, and together with the students and families we serve, we work toward a vision of just communities without poverty.

As Norman emphasizes, this vision is anchored in a sense of moral responsibility.  For us, it is also grounded in our faith in God that calls us always toward social justice.   We are delivering a quality, accessible education and formation experience for students and families without means to ensure that they are able to personally and professionally become their best self of what God had intended.

While NativityMiguel Schools believe that education is one of the great equalizers, we also know that tuition is one of the great dividers.  In order to be accessible to those who would otherwise could not consider nor afford a private, faith-based education, we operate a non-tuition driven financial model.  NativityMiguel Schools are dependent on individuals, corporations and foundations with means to give generously each year in order to cover the costs void of tuition, or about 95%.  Some are amazed that we can operate like this without relying on public funding.  (Even in states and markets where tax credits and vouchers are available, our schools are still dependent on the generosity of others to fill the gap.)

We shouldn’t be so shocked by this selfless generosity; giving to NativityMiguel schools is also anchored in a moral responsibility and grounded in a faith that calls us always toward social justice.  Many of our donors and supporters are compelled by the need and understand well what it could mean if the formation and education that they had access to, or that their parents had access to, or that their children had access to, could be accessible to anyone who desires it.  Without hyperbole, it could mean that someday there would be no need for NativityMiguel schools; that someday we could become the best version of a just society as God had intended.

None of us can become complacent to the needs of the economically-poor.  We must remain outraged by the conditions we see everyday, and through prayer and grace, convert that outrage into a loving and generous presence that is committed to the most vulnerable today and to a vision of a world without need tomorrow.

Inspired by the Dream, Compelled by the Reality

IMG_1513I 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.

IMG_1514San 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.

IMG_1509The 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.

Thumbs on the Scale

HillbillyHillbilly Elegy is the story of the author J.D. Vance growing up in Middleton, OH and being cared for by his two grandparents who migrated from Appalachia Kentucky to Ohio to take advantage of the steel manufacturing shortly after WWII.

He describes the Hillbilly culture – a deep sense of loyalty to and love of family and country that could not shake the effects of poverty and violence – that stayed with his grandparents throughout their years  and is evidenced in his mother’s constant struggle with drugs, jobs and relationships.  Vance comes to understand growing up in this environment as having lived in trauma for so many years. Though he served in the Marines, graduated from The Ohio State University and received a JD from Yale University, Vance ‘still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.’

He writes about the improbabilities that a public policy solution will fix or heal the deep scars of this history, infers that the plight of the poor will always be there, and suggests that a more appropriate solution is through nurturing, caring social connections:

People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to solve the problems of my community.  I know what they’re looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program.  But these problems of family, faith and culture aren’t like a Rubrik’s Cube, and I don’t think solutions (as most understand the term) really exist.  A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class once told me:  “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things.  They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumbs on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”

His story, rooted in the culture and tradition of poor, white Appalachia, is similar to that of African-Americans and Latinos in other urban areas who struggle with poverty.  The complexities of his story align with that of our students. Generations of learned behaviors can not be undone overnight or even in a lifetime, especially if alternative dispositions seem to ignore, dismiss, confuse or contradict your identity.  It is difficult to accept claims that what you have seen or been taught is wrong when those experiences and lessons are foundational to who you are. Even if you choose to move away from the destructive elements of its grasp, emotions of abandonment and isolation and love and loyalty bring you back to the people and places that have been your home.

When he was in college, Vance began to learn about vast amount of research being conducted on individuals living in poverty including a study by Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  In his book, Vance reflects on the long list of ACEs in his upbringing and the influences that would counter these experiences.

I had not hear of the ACE study prior to reading the book and then this past week a principal in the Coalition emailed me to see if I knew of any schools that administer the ACE test to assess factors in their students’ lives in order to respond with the most appropriate and necessary supports.  (I haven’t heard of any school doing this so please let me know if your school does use the ACE test to make the connection.)

Ultimately NativityMiguel school communities become one of the “thumbs on the scale” for our students.  We need to know what is weighing on our students, realize how difficult it is for them to let it go, and present and support a new reality that honors and integrates, rather than forgets and separates, who they are and where they have come from.