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.



As the Father has sent me, so I send you

img_1330These are the stories I like to hear as I visit schools across the Coalition:

Michael Mott, one of the founders and current board chair of Seattle Nativity School, reflected on a dinner with the Moylan family in Durham a number of years ago.  He knew siblings Michael and Brendan from several soccer ventures and looked forward to sharing time with business associates and friends.  It was at the dinner that he met their father Dr. Joe Moylan and heard about the Durham Nativity School, which Dr. Moylan had founded.  Inspired by the stories, Michael was compelled to act and become deeply involved in this educational mission.

And then there is the story of Lizzie Petticrew, Assistant Principal at St. Andrew Nativity School in Portland.  Lizzie recalls Sr. Paula Kleine-Kracht, who had been her high school principal before founding and leading Nativity Academy at St. Boniface in Louisville, KY, recruiting her to work at the summer program at the school.  One summer led to a few summers and then a year as Summer Program Director.  A deep affinity with the mission developed which led to a position teaching Religion and coordinating volunteers in Portland.

Last Saturday, I participated in the board retreat for Seattle Nativity School.  Jack Peterson of Managing for Mission and former President at Bellarmine High School in Tacoma, WA, facilitated and read from the Gospel of John to get started:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked where the disciples were out of fear …, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  [Jesus] said to them again “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Jack asked us to reflect on the composition of this scene.  What did we see, hear, smell, taste and feel in this room?  I envisioned the various dispositions and personalities within all the confusion and uncertainty.  Some disciples likely couldn’t sit still, and were pacing and saying ‘We have to do something!’  Others were likely hushing them, begging them to ‘Calm down’ and opting for quiet reflection to think about a plan moving forward.  Others were deciding who to ally with, and still others may have been considering if they should just leave.

The depiction of the disciples in this room could mirror any board retreat with board members looking ahead to an unknown future, or one of our 8th classrooms with students contemplating a transition to high school, or the church hall where a group of parents are gathering to support one another in our new American climate, or the faculty room where teachers are passionately designing an education that best meets the needs of their students, especially the most vulnerable.

And into any of those rooms comes Jesus to reassure them that any fear in what lies ahead will be illuminated by a vision of peace.  He does not burst through the door with guns blazing saying ‘Get behind me and do what I say,” instead, the way I see and hear it, his leadership is a gentle presence.  He stands unassumingly in their midst, offers peace and breaths his spirit.  And yet, from that gentle call, the disciples emerge confidently in the spirit to spread this message of peace.

I have often said that each person’s involvement in the NativityMiguel Schools begins with an invitation.  Invitation, however, may not be strong enough.  ‘Being sent’ is more proactive with fervor.  Even though all are free in their decisions, the conviction and zeal of ‘being sent’ narrows the possibility of responding any other way.  Sr. Paula was ‘sending’ Lizzie to work at the summer camp and then the spirit brought her to Portland.  Dr.  Moylan was ‘sending’ Michael Mott to found a school, and when we went around the table at the board retreat, it was amazing how Michael through the spirit has ‘sent’ many others to become involved.

These are the stories I like to hear as I visit schools across the Coalition because this is the spirit that will ensure our schools are accessible to meet the needs of our students and families for years to come.

Reflecting on a Mosaic


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.

Great Joy Meets the World’s Great Need

abc_9802Rev. Tom Johnson, Principal at The Neighborhood Academy in Pittsburgh, defined vocation as “that place and time in our lives when our great joy meets the world’s great need.”  NativityMiguel Schools were founded by this concept of vocation.  Over the years, I have had the privilege of talking with leaders and teachers who were involved in the founding of schools like Nativity Prep and Mother Caroline Academy in Boston, Cornelia Connelly Center in New York City and San Miguel School of Providence in Providence, all in the early 1990s.  These inspired leaders thrived in the typical chaos of a start-up because they were grounded in great joy for what each day would bring.  While these creators are often called visionary entrepreneurs, many of them will humbly tell you that their focus was on attention to their students’ needs that day and reflection on what they and others could do that day to respond to that need.  They countered the rush and race of the world with a patient spirit of connecting with a student or an adult and seeing what would happen. Their vocation would require prayer as they recognized that being mindful of the sacred is necessary to clearly know and prioritize the need in all of the noise and to consider a meaningful and purposeful response in all of the confusion.

While we often think of a vocation as an individual’s journey, our schools are not pursuits of a single person.  Our schools are vocational communities.  The founding drive of our schools is simple – you can pull together a group of people with an abounding energy who are deeply committed to the educational need of students and families in poverty.  For example, anyone who visited Nativity Mission Center on the lower east side knew that both the joy and need were prevalent.  I remember having lunch in the small cafeteria with the students, faculty and staff.  While it was clear that certain expectations defined those relationships, there was also a positive tone and upbeat fluidity to the conversation, laughter and care.  It was not scripted behavior, this was a genuine community, a family so to speak, that exuded hope and optimism to be brought home and shared in the neighborhood.    

As our schools and students have matured, our impact has rippled out to positively affect wider circles in the school’s immediate community and elsewhere, yet our ambitions remain devoted solely to the students and families served by the school.  In education these days, reformers are often chasing the next big thing, the idea, perhaps a new funding mechanism or new mode of technology, that can be scaled to serve thousands then tens and hundreds of thousands.  While NativityMiguel Schools enroll upwards of 4,000 students across the country and support over 6,000 graduates, a number that grows by 650 graduates each year, each school is designed to be intentionally small, and our mission, our vocation you might say, is focused on the care, formation and education of each individual student and his/her family.  

As many look back and remember 2016 as a tough year categorized by struggle, conflict and division, we need to remember that for many of our students and families, last year may have felt a lot like the years prior.  As 2017 gets underway, our vocation is as important as ever, and we pray that we will know and prioritize the need of our students and families and consider a meaningful and purposeful response.  We begin this new year much like NativityMiguel schools were founded, moving forward confidently and faithfully as a community of people who meet a great need with great joy that is strong and uncompromising.  

Your Face is on the Wall

epiphany-hall-way-2In a NativityMiguel school, every moment is sacred; an opportunity for teaching, learning and reinforcing a message of growth.  Even as students move through the day – arriving at the school, transitioning to classes, breaks, heading home – the physical space is utilized as an opportunity to support that teaching and learning and solidify the message. Through the lens of what is seen on the walls, ceilings and floors, students, faculty, staff and all who visit can intentionally engage with school values.

A mural, for example, if purposefully aligned, visibly represents who we are and who we want to be as a school community.  On a recent tour of Epiphany School in Boston, MA prior to a Heads of School meeting, I was struck by a mural created by a graduate of the school that depicts game-changing historic figures.  The guiding phrase – We are because they were  – reminded me of the message I heard at Nora Cronin Presentation Academy this fall about standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.

epiphanyWhat really caught my attention was the painting of the individual at the top of the stairs.  The question marks painted around the figure heightened my curiosity so I asked John Finley, head of school, “Who is this?  I don’t think I recognize him.”  His response was beautiful and powerful.

The grad who painted the mural wanted to celebrate the ordinary person, the ordinary individual whose name is not widely known, or at least not yet.  This face inspires on two levels.  First, it recognizes that each one of us has the potential and possibility to courageously rise to the occasion, to achieve something historic.  NativityMiguel schools deliver a formative education; our students are challenged  be thoughtful and selfless in applying their learning to address problems and envision a more just world.  Perhaps someday a student from Epiphany or anyone of our schools will adorn murals on walls everywhere because he/she has forever changed the world for the better with his/her scientific breakthrough, engineering innovation, political persistence, lawful persuasion, artistic endeavor or literary masterpiece.

Secondly, and even more importantly, each one of us has the ability to do something remarkable each day that positively impacts our community.  The grad was recognizing the strength in each of us to become extraordinary when we love sincerely and care deeply for one another and the world in which we live.  In doing so, we all have the power to change the world for the better.

To me, this is the wonder of the Christmas season: the audacity of the ordinary; that a child humbly born in a manger could become Messiah for all, kings and shepherds, royalty and marginalized, as a simple believer, messenger and practitioner of God’s love.  As we pause to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we also remember and honor the courageous stories of our students, families, graduates, faculty, staff and supporters and so many other seemingly ordinary individuals who are guiding stars in their contribution each day in our communities.  At the Epiphany School, your picture is on the wall.