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.


NewSignOne of the most genuine expression of thanks is when one of our grads speaks to a current class of students.  In this spirit of heartfelt gratitude, an alum from St. Andrew Nativity School in Portland, OR returned to address the graduating class last year:

First, I want to say thank you to Mr. Chambers for giving me the opportunity to share all the wisdom that I now possess at age 24. I’ve attended tons of graduations and I never once considered the idea that someday, someone would want me to talk to students advancing to another level of education. Today is the day. As Drake says, I’m way too young to be feeling this old.

I am before you today as a true St. Andrew veteran. I graduated from St. Andrew in 2005. I came to St. Andrew unwillingly because signing up for uniforms and school chores did not sound appealing to the 11 year old me. To be honest, dress clothes and chores still don’t sound appealing to me now. With that being said, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. Nothing got me more excited than academic challenges between the classes. If there was ever a situation where the boys had to go against the girls in an academic competition, like LeBron James, I did everything I could to put the team on my back. Ten years ago, my classmates and I were part of early St. Andrew history and we had no clue. I’m getting married in two months and 1/3 of my groomsmen are guys that I met 13 years ago, at St. Andrew. Looking back at my experience, all of my time at St. Andrew was with a group of guys who truly felt like my brothers.

When I got to Jesuit my life changed. I was no longer in a school where everyone looked like me or shared my struggles. I went from a school of minorities to literally being THE minority in every class. I was raised to be a leader, but at age 14, I had no idea what I was doing. As time went on, I realized that I was at that particular high school for a reason. I realized that I had something to offer the world and I just didn’t know it yet. By the time we reach high school, we are unlike any of our peers. You did not go to a public middle school and you didn’t go to a private school of middle-class families. You’re unlike other minorities and you’re definitely not like those in the suburbs. While this may sound scary, you must embrace it. Each day that you experience something uncomfortable at your new high school, think about your St. Andrew community. This small school has truly given you the tools to conquer the world. I know it seems easy for me to say it considering where I am now in life. Let me remind you, when I came to St. Andrew, I was barely taller than Ms. Roberts, I liked chocolate lucky charms, I wanted to be in the NBA and I truly believed  I was going to be a movie director. I’m talking to you know as a former college football player and future attorney. St. Andrew gave me the foundation to have confidence in myself and realize that anything is possible if I work hard. There are lots of people in this world who know about St. Andrew, but there are only a few who can say they lived it.

You only get one life. If you say you have dreams, then follow them. You will be in classrooms and offices amongst some of the smartest people in the world. You will build relationships with professional people who have never met a young person like you. You will face situations where all you want to do is turn around and go be with the people who understand you. But you must understand, because of where you come from, and how you were raised, you represent more than just yourself. Show the world that our brown and black faces are full of passion and positivity. Use awkward situations as moments where you can educate others and demonstrate that who you are goes much deeper than the way you look. My freshman year of high school was uncomfortable and intimidating. However, if I would’ve transferred and let fear get the best of me, I wouldn’t be here today as proof that you can do it too. I focused on what mattered to me and I got to work. You say you want to be an athlete or an astronaut, start making professional athlete or astronaut decisions. I remember I was so determined to play basketball at Jesuit that I would film myself play basketball for hours and then go home and watch the footage when I was done. Fast forward to college, I stopped playing football so I could become a lawyer. Because of how badly I wanted to go to law school, I studied for the Law School Admissions Test, in the library each morning, for months, on top of my actual college classes. I tell you this because each of you is just like me. Each of you is meant to do something. Each of you is capable of hard work. St. Andrew groomed me to show the world what I had to offer.  

Although it’s 2015, because of St. Andrew, you get to become a pioneer of success for your family and your community. Not many people get the opportunities that we do. Nothing that I accomplish means anything if I don’t bring my friends and family with me. It’s the reason I brought all of you to Lewis & Clark this past March. Each of you has a unique talent that will someday make this world a better place. Along the way, make sure to tell your families and teachers thank you for helping you become great. All of these adults are here because they care about one thing, and that is you. If you’re bored right now, it’s okay, I’m almost done.

Before I leave, please remember these three things: First, work hard now and live the rest of your life like a champion. Second, have fun. Third, never forget where you came from when you finally get to where you’re going.

Thank you.