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The Southern Cross, November 2004

With Long Hours and Catholic Values, Inner-City School Changes Lives: Nativity finds success following Jesuit model

The Southern Cross (November 4, 2004)

Teacher Frank Penney reviews the work of Nativity Prep eighth graders Andy Navarette and Jennifer Damian

Logan Heights—Faced with a 12-hour school day and a 6-week mandatory summer school, it’s no wonder Luis Castaneda was hesitant to enroll at Nativity Prep Academy in Logan Heights.

“I kinda didn’t want to at first because of the hours,” the 14-year-old said. “But there’s more to do at this school, and I’ll have better chances of going to college.”

If standardized tests are accurate reflections, Luis and his classmates certainly are increasing their chances of attending college.

Most scored below their grade equivalency in math, reading and language when they entered Nativity in the fall of 2001, and now 80 percent test at or above the national average for students in their demographic group.

“This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Diego,” said Erica Daniel, Nativity’s director of development. “We try to break the cycle of poverty and crime by keeping them here to study and participate in sports. It really keeps them off the streets.”

The privately run Catholic school’s extended day keeps students focused on academics and extracurricular activities, rather than television or gang violence.

Luis got used to the extended school day, which includes a study hall period for him to start and sometimes finish his homework before he goes home.

“It’s OK, because we get to do art and PE,” he said. “We don’t have to sit around in our desks. The teachers get us moving.”

University of San Diego alum David Rivera founded the school in 2001 with volunteer teachers and 20 fifth-graders. He used as a model a Jesuit school opened in New York City in 1971.

The volunteer teachers, coming from the Midwest, the South, the Northeast and San Diego, receive a small stipend and free tuition at USD as they work toward their master’s degree in education. The school now runs from sixth through eighth grades and, while it has no formal ties to the Diocese of San Diego, students learn the Catholic faith and walk to Mass at Christ the King Parish every other Friday.

An eight-member board of directors chaired by Dr. Richard Kelly, President emeritus of USD High School, plans and makes decisions to help ensure the school’s long-term success.

Private donations fund the school, which does not charge its students tuition. More than one-third of all Logan Heights residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the 2000 census, and almost all Nativity Prep students qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Eighty-two percent of the students are Hispanic, and 17 percent are African-American.

The majority of students are either being raised by one parent or by a relative who is not the child’s biological parent, said principal Brendan Sullivan, adding that most of the adolescent boys do not have positive male role models in their lives.

The 58-student Nativity Prep employs three “master teachers” in addition to its five volunteer teachers, offering students a 7:1 student to teacher ratio. This individual attention, along with the extended school day, helps explain why Nativity students excel Sullivan said. Their attendance rate is 98 percent, three-fourths of the students earned A’s and B’s in all subjects for the year, and according to standardized test, students in all grades averaged 2.2 years of progress over the past year.

“The environment here allows the faculty to motivate the students to focus on their studies in a way they wouldn’t have in a public school,” said Mary Beth Snodgrass, development coordinator. “A lot of them recognize that it will provide them with the opportunity to go to college.”

She recalled once hearing a student say, “I want to go to a school where they won’t think I’m a freak for wanting to study.”

The academic program at Nativity Prep includes instruction in math, science, religion, language arts, social studies and physical education. Each classroom has five computers. Extracurricular activities include inter-scholastic sports and a mentoring program where a student meets with a young adult professional once a week.

USD’s Dean of Education, Paula Cordeiro, said Nativity’s combination of a skilled staff and a laser-sharp focus makes her wish that all urban parents had the option of choosing such a school.

“They’re doing it all right,” she said. “You don’t see that in many urban schools.”

“Everyone who works there, along with the students and parents knows what the focus is,” Cordeiro continued. “It’s all about catholic values being core to learning. When you look at which urban schools have high academic achievement, its schools that have a focus.”

Cordeiro serves Nativity Prep as one of more than a dozen advisors, providing consultation and advice on an as needed basis.

One recent school day, sixth-graders were writing stories illustrating the concept of temptation after reading about Adam and Eve; seventh graders were learning about Islam; and eighth graders were discussion the 2004 presidential election in social studies.

Sixth-grader David Goodall, after writing his story about temptation said the biggest differences between Nativity Prep and his former school are the length of the school day and the inclusion of religion in the curriculum. Like Luis, David was hesitant to attend the school.

“I didn’t really want to come here, but when I came here and saw how they did things, I wanted to stay,” he said. David wants to be a scientist, and he said he’s enjoying studying of geology.

His teacher, Xochitl Miramontes, is in here second year at Nativity. Unlike her colleagues, Miramontes grew up in Logan Heights. She received her bachelor’s in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and has worked with young people at Christ the King Parish.

“I thinking teaching here is a good way to give back to the community,” she said. “I really enjoy working with the students here and seeing their development.”

A desire to give back to the community is what draws most to work at Nativity Prep.

Sullivan, who is starting his third year as principal, began his teaching career at a Jesuit school in Baltimore that follows the same model.

“I have a passion for teaching underserved students,” he said. “I like the challenge of it, and it’s essential work. It’s vital.”

Some of his biggest challenges at Nativity include the turnover of volunteer faculty, who generally serve for two years; the long-term financial instability of the school; supporting adolescent boys who have no positive male role models in their lives; educating parents on the importance of education.

“We’ve done a lot of things in these three years, but we have miles and miles to go,” he said. “Sometimes I feel getting there is like sprinting with a parachute on.”

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