Nativity middle schools begin with the end in mind. From the outset, when students and their families are immersed in what might be their first experience of Jesuit education, their eyes are fixed on the next steps, and what it takes to achieve goals.
This sense of momentum is palpable at each of the 17 Nativity schools in the U.S. and Canada that operate within the Jesuit Schools Network, providing a faith-based education to students from economically poor families. In the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces, Graduate Support Programs that are integrated into six Nativity schools are providing a transformative experience that begins with enrollment and extends over the arc of a student’s life—long after he or she has moved onto high school and beyond.
Kevin Marshall, an ’08 alumnus of St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore, mentors Kai who just graduated.
Lack of academic preparedness, difficulty navigating complex college systems, and financial constraints can all derail a student’s dream of earning a degree. Jesuit Nativity schools like St. Ignatius Loyola Academy are setting new standards in pre-secondary education, with school days that can sometimes last 12 hours, an 11-month school calendar, and a faculty of dedicated teachers.
While enrolled, students also benefit from a dedicated corps of tutors and teaching fellows that help develop test-taking and study skills, and provide personal mentoring that goes beyond the classroom. Sports teach teamwork, persistence, grit and grace, introducing students to interscholastic competition during this formative time. After-school programs also expose students to extracurricular activities that may spark lifelong passions or inspire careers.
The school community worships together with daily morning prayer and celebrates religious feasts and holidays together, striving to practice Gospel values together in the everyday life of the school. All of this combines to form a nurturing environment for young people—one that prepares them for success in high school, college and beyond, and changes trajectories—geared toward closing the achievement gap.
Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA) alumni returning to greet teachers during the 2016 commencement ceremony. WJA’s Graduate Support Program provides guidance to students for many years after their middle school graduation.
Launched in 1995, the Graduate Support Office at Boston’s Nativity Preparatory School has served as a critical resource for graduates who are frequently the first in their families to attend college. Today, its Start-to-Finish Graduate Support Initiative encompasses a comprehensive suite of services that include high school guidance, college tours, test-prep assistance, college application and financial aid counseling, college transition workshops, scholarship advisement, and even internship and job networking.
“From the time they arrive as fourth graders, we teach our students to graduate—from middle school, from high school, from college, and beyond,” said Fr. John Wronski, SJ, president of Nativity Prep. “Through our extended family model, Nativity Prep teaches these first-generation college students the skills and spirit they need to persist and succeed in college and in their careers.”
The walls of Nativity Prep are decorated with lists of student goals and award certificates earned throughout the year. Inside the Graduate Support Office, a bulletin board displays alumni portraits taken by Fr. Wronski, an avid photographer.
This June, a video from a morning assembly shared on the Facebook channel of Nativity School of Worcester, near the College of the Holy Cross, showed one way that goals are embedded in Nativity culture. In the video, first-year students leave their everyday morning seats and fill in the empty chairs of the students ahead of them, who had just advanced a grade. Faculty, staff and fellow class-mates flood the room with applause, and the message is clear: you’re moving up in the world and making progress. Today, you made a great first step—many more will follow.
Students at Washington Jesuit Academy in Washington, D.C., are introduced to the high school selection process by the end of grade six. By seventh and eighth grade, they are fully immersed in school placement. “If we are successful in accurately placing our students, we limit the number of transitions they make,” said Howard Blue, who has served as graduate support director since 2004. In the weeks prior to graduation, parents sign a school release form that gives Jesuit Academy staff permission to maintain communication with graduates in their new schools.
This is especially important during ninth grade, Blue said. “Ninth graders face going from an environment where they were the racial majority to, sometimes, being the minority. They are coming from the neighborhoods they came from and attending some of the most affluent schools in the region. The caring teachers here won’t be readily available to them in high school, and their time is no longer as structured as it was in the past.”
Once they enter high school, many Nativity students return to their middle schools to serve as volunteers, tutors and mentors; others return simply to find a peaceful, familiar place. Steady contact and an ongoing calendar of events, such as college bus tours, invite graduates to remain connected to Washington Jesuit through academic and personal transitions, even beyond high school. A recent college access symposium hosted by the school brought in representatives from 36 colleges and was even opened to the surrounding neighborhood.
For generations, Catholic schools have committed themselves to offering educational opportunities and pathways to success to underserved students, but today’s Nativity faculty, staff and administrators are part of a school model that actually accompanies students through important life transitions and helps them achieve their goals.
At Jesuit Nativity schools on the East Coast, more than 93% of students are currently eligible for free or reduced lunch. Still, 97% of the Jesuit Nativity graduates who started high school four years ago graduated in 2016, with nearly all enrolling in either two- or four-year colleges or universities. These rates outshine those of middle-class and affluent families in the United States and truly will help bridge the achievement gap and transform lives.
“We consider our effort to support our students all the way to a college commencement day very much in the tradition of Catholic and Jesuit education,” said Fr. Wronski. “Our graduate support programs aren’t simply setting more low-income students on the path to college; they’re bettering the odds of them getting through college with a high-value degree. By striving for high college completion rates, our schools are truly transforming the quality of young people’s lives and the quality of their opportunities.”
Inspired by Nativity Preparatory School's Start to Finish materials.
Click here to read reflections about how Nativity Schools are working to help students and continue to accompany them even after graduation.