Nativity School Model Being Replicated

Published December 1, 2001

A few dozen educators–backed by Catholic religious orders with hundreds of years of experience in educating youth–think they’ve found a key to solving the urban education conundrum: There’s a strong demand for their educational program. but many parents and guardians can’t afford the tuition.

Their answer: Nativity schools, which have inspired the establishment of Jesuit, Episcopalian, Salvation Army, and even a non-sectarian version.

Nativity schools charge a monthly fee of $25 to $100-if any fee at all-and support themselves through foundation grants, individual donations, and the aid of churches and the Catholic religious orders that run many of the schools. Parents and guardians usually must volunteer dozens of hours a year to chaperone field trips, do office chores and yard work, and perform other tasks.

Nativity network schools, started by the Jesuits in New York 30 years ago, are sprouting up around the country, with at least seven schools being opened between September 2001 and September 2002, according to Jesuit Father Jack Podsiadlo, coordinator of the Nativity education network in Baltimore. The new schools will bring the total to 41, notes Fr. William R. Campbell S.J., executive director of Boston’s Nativity Preparatory School.

The schools have a low student to teacher ratio and are small schools, which makes it easier for them to give students individual attention. The focus is on the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic.

“We want to make darn sure they get sound basics,” said Tom Nolan, director of all-boys Loyola Academy in St. Louis.

Single-Sex Schools

Many of the independently run Nativity schools are single-sex middle schools. Joe Viteritti, a public policy research professor at New York University, called this feature an overlooked key to success. “It works for some people,” he said of single-sex education.

“It’s a way of eliminating certain distractions and focus on the needs of one sex,” Fr. Podsiadlo said of the single-sex educational model. He was principal of Nativity Mission Center from 1984 to 2001.

Since there are probably fewer than 2,500 children attending Nativity schools, one veteran educator called the schools “a pilot test,” for urban education.

“It’s a model of how education could work for the poor,” said Leonard DeFiore, who holds the Br. Patrick Ellis F.S.C. chair of education at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. “Catholic education ought to be available for everyone.”

Nativity educators are sensitive to the charge they’re just accepting the best and brightest children who would otherwise attend Catholic or public schools. But William Whitaker, president of Washington Jesuit Academy, points out that while they are looking for the “potential cream of the crop,” their students are those who otherwise “might have fallen through the cracks.”

Outperforming Their Peers

Open since 1971, the Jesuits’ Nativity Mission Center in the lower east side of Manhattan recruits its students by making contacts at public elementary schools, Catholic parishes that don’t have schools, and boys and girls clubs, said Cynthia Chovan, the development director there. Ninety-five percent of the all-boys school is Hispanic.

Compared with their Hispanic peers, Nativity Mission Center graduates do well, according to Chovan. Eighty-nine percent of the middle school’s graduates complete high school, compared with 63 percent of Hispanics around the country. Whereas only 32 percent of Hispanics enter college, 75 percent of Nativity’s graduates enter college, with 41 percent graduating within four years, compared to only 10 percent of their Hispanic peers, she said.

Episcopalian-run Epiphany School in Milton, Massachuseets, receives about one-quarter of its students from foster care programs, said John H. Finley IV, head of school. Students there are admitted through a lottery system, since there are usually 10 students applying for each open slot, he said.

Like the other Nativity schools, nearly all of Epiphany’s students qualify for the federal government’s free or reduced price lunch program. Nativity schools usually serve two or three meals each day, and in many cases students work in afternoon study halls until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.

“Our desire is to help lower-income children” in urban areas, Fr. Podsiadlo said. Each Nativity school tries to create a strong development program, so individual contributors, foundations, and other organizations can contribute money to sustain it, he said.

Part of a Trend

In that sense, Nativity schools are part of a broader trend among urban Catholic schools, as many look for new sources of support outside the traditional parish and diocese structures, which aren’t as potent as they used to be, Fr. Podsiadlo said.

In the Archdiocese of New York, for example, each Catholic school has to have a development program to support its operations.

It takes deep pockets or wealthy friends to open a free school. In addition to spending $1.1 million on the corner lot for the Washington Jesuit Academy–scheduled to open in September 2002–the Jesuits plan to spend $600,000 between now and the school’s September 2002 opening, said William Whitaker, academy president.

More than Academics

In the Jesuit tradition, the academy will try to create “men for others,” who will want to serve others, Whitaker said. “Regardless of where these young men come from, they can still give back to the community, and we will let them know they’re expected to do that.”

Rather than “just slam dunk math down their throat,” academy teachers will “think of the whole person,” including each boy’s body, mind, and soul, with instruction on social justice, Whitaker said.

Most Nativity schools are Catholic. Ten are run by the Jesuits, and one of the Nativity-inspired schools is non-sectarian.

Episcopalians in North Attleboro, Massachusetts are opening the doors to another school, and the Salvation Army is launching Jubilee House in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The Jesuits are launching three new Nativity schools: St. Andrew’s Nativity in Portland, Oregon; Washington Jesuit Academy in Washington; and Sacred Heart Nativity School in San Jose, California.

Working with the De La Salle Christian Brothers, the Daughters of Charity welcomed their first students to DeMarillec Middle School in San Francisco in September, while attorney David Rivera launched Nativity Prep Academy in San Diego, Fr. Podsiadlo said. A lay-run Catholic school, St. Francis Academy, also started in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and two more will likely start in Massachusetts.

William Murray is a freelance writer in Rockville, Maryland. His email address is [email protected].