By PJ Williams
“We’re a school that actually doesn’t want the children of our students to come here; we want them to not qualify to come here; that means that they’re moving up the ranks of the socioeconomic ladder,” said Gadisa Goso, principal of Nativity Preparatory School of Boston, a Jesuit school serving low income students from the 4th through 8th grade in the Boston area. “The hope is that they become successful professionals in whatever the field may be, medicine, law, politics, education; we need them to go from being underrepresented to represented,” said Goso, who himself is a member of Nativity Boston’s class of 1997.
Nativity Preparatory School of Boston was founded thirty years ago with a model based off the Nativity Mission School, which served poor boys on the lower east side of Manhattan. While no longer in service, Nativity Mission School inspired dozens of Jesuit and non-Jesuit nativity schools throughout North America to serve middle school students on the margins. The Nativity school model features a free or low-cost tuition, a longer school day, an extended school year and a summer camp component. Students usually need to qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch to qualify for Nativity schools.
In addition to 2020 being Nativity Boston’s 30th anniversary, it is also Goso’s first year as principal—a year which has already been a trying time for the country. The coronavirus pandemic is still a real threat that makes in-person learning difficult. “It’s been a challenge; I wasn’t able to meet all the teachers and students until the start of the school year,” said Goso of virtual learning. Additionally, this past summer has seen cries for racial justice in response to the killings of unarmed black men and women. “I want them to see their racial identity as a strength, an asset,” explains Goso, who leads a school comprised of predominantly black students, “I want them to be able to identify and address issues of inequity in high school and beyond.” Goso believes that this starts with a strong foundation. “If they can obtain a quality education starting here at Nativity and onwards, they can navigate society and help to transform it and go out there to create sustained change.”
The issue of racial injustice is by no means unique to Nativity Boston, and other Nativity Schools in the USA East Province are working to combat this larger issue.
Located in East Flatbush, N.Y., Brooklyn Jesuit Prep (BJP) is another Nativity school serving predominantly black students. BJP’s president Fr. Mario Powell, SJ, has been looking to the past to help inform the present. Earlier this year, in an interview on Catholic Television, Fr. Powell challenged Catholic schools—including his own—to better teach students about Black Catholic history. “It’s a story of pain, but it’s also a story of hope and triumph,” said Fr. Powell during the interview.
Brooklyn Jesuit Prep has worked to incorporate these stories into their social media and throughout the halls of the school. “When a kid is daydreaming and not paying attention in class and staring at a painting or staring up at a poster, that should still be didactic in some way,” explains Giancarlo Milea, BJP’s director of development.
Despite a focus on Catholic history, most students at Nativity schools are not Catholic. This may seem like a contradiction at first, but Milea explains how it is a fundamental part of the school. “We are called to serve 20 folks regardless of their faith; it’s our faith that’s guiding our mission; without our faith, our mission is a lot weaker. Being that we are a Catholic institution, we feel it’s important for kids to learn about the tradition of the education they’re receiving.”
James Scott, the director of admissions and the dean of students at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore, has another perspective on the Catholic mission of Nativity schools. “When our kids come in, they don’t know much about Jesuits or Catholic doctrine at all, but they do understand the concept of ‘hey let’s be committed to doing the right thing in the world,’” he explains. “We’re all on this planet together; let’s love and look out for each other. Our kids can relate to that even though it doesn’t sound as macho to them.”
Scott first came to teach at St. Ignatius in 2004 and was drawn to the fact that it was an all-boy’s school with all black students. “These kids are just like me, poor black boys from Baltimore City that get to go to a private school. Most are raised by a single mom, probably first-generation college kids—this is right up my alley,” thought Scott when he first learned about the school. However, this ethnic makeup was not reflected in the school’s faculty. When Scott started teaching at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, he was one of only three black adults in the building. Now, thanks to intentional efforts by the administration, 12 of the 18 teachers in the school are black men and women. This, he feels, is an important part of having organic conversations on race.
“When those kids can walk in a classroom and they can talk to a teacher who not only looks like them but is them—the same teacher who went to the school they did— the conversations are much more candid and direct,” explains Scott who also teaches 8th grade math. “There is no middle-school class that you are having that is more important than people. If there is a big social justice issue that comes up, there is nothing that I’m going to teach you in algebra that is more important than you getting the feelings you’re having off your chest.”
While not all alums of Nativity schools will continue their educations at Jesuit schools, they will graduate better prepared to take on the challenges of being a minority in America. Especially when it comes to advocating for themselves and others. “I think that schools like St. Ignatius, really all the Nativity Schools, when they work at their best, students leave with a confidence in themselves, with such a love of themselves, that they can go into other independent schools that have more of a socioeconomic gap and still be comfortable in their own skin and be confident enough to say ‘Hey, if I see something wrong, I’ll say something,’” says Scott.