In a school converted from part of an Episcopalian church in inner city Worcester, Massachusetts, 12-year-old boys are learning about the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Their teacher asks them to think about what makes a good leader today. “Honesty”, “bravery”, “fairness”, “responsibility”, “patriotism” and “confidence” they reply.
At Worcester’s Nativity school, this is more than a lesson in Roman history. It is another example of what one pupil, 13-year-old Marc Betancourt, means when he says: “In this school you get a lot of help to build your character.”
Nativity schools were founded in New York 35 years ago by the Jesuit order. This one, in Massachusetts’ second largest city, opened three years ago, and is now one of 41 across the US. More are planned.
The curriculum, including three reading periods totalling 90 minutes a day, is well structured, and has a strong ethical basis. The day runs from 8am to 6.30pm, with a three-week overnight summer programme, offering what is, in many ways, a second chance for the Nativity schools’ 2,508 10- to 14-year-old pupils.
After being greeted at the front door at 8am each morning by a senior member of staff, the boys go into breakfast, then into assembly. The “academic day” ends at 3.30pm, when after-school and evening activities begin. These include homework, theatre visits, choir, drama and sports. One Saturday a month there are field trips and other activities. The school hopes to arrange for eighth grade pupils to visit a developing country to help them understand poverty and injustice.
Worcester caters for boys as evidence suggests that boys of this age are most likely to drop out of school, while girls are more likely to do so in their secondary years. Even at those Nativity schools where the intake is mixed, classes tend to be single-sex, with no more than 15 pupils to a class.
At Worcester’s Nativity school, 60% of the boys are Hispanic one-third African-American and 3% Asian. Drawn from the city’s deprived Main Street South area, just over three-quarters of the boys at Worcester’s Nativity school live with a single parent and some are in foster care. There is stress in many of their homes and violence in their neighbourhoods.
Public schools have a 30% drop out rate among (mainly) African-American and Latino pupils. By comparison, Nativity schools overall boast a 97.8% attendance rate. One-third of the pupils are Catholic. Another 25% are Baptists, with Pentecostals and other Christian groups (there are no non-Christians) making up the rest.
With no state, city or federal funding, Worcester’s Nativity school was set up with a private foundation’s donation and meets its $750,000 annual running costs from private donations and grants from foundations. Parents pay a monthly fee of between £5.50 and £16.50, which can be waived for those unable to pay. The school library began with 30 books, but now has 6,000, most of which have been donated.
The nearby Holy Cross college provides 120 students to act as personal tutors for the boys for 90 minutes three times a week.
Michael Perry-Moen, 13, says: “I used to get frustrated at my other school because lessons would be taught fast, or if you were absent you would be given work and have to get on with it and I didn’t always understand it. Here, they take time to make sure that you do understand it.”
In the year before they leave, boys will be helped to visit secondary schools they might want to join. If funding is required for their new school, the school helps them to find it.
There are boys with problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and those who come from very disturbed backgrounds. Deputy head Kathleen Gorski says: “In a small school you can help the child with ADHD to be successful because you have the time to spend with them, not just in the classroom but before school begins, during lunch and at the end of the academic day.”
A recent graduate at Worcester described it as “much more than a school it’s a way of life”. Another referred to it as his “extended family”. As endorsements go, you can’t do much better than that.
● Small classes allow teachers to engage with children and better tailor lessons to needs.
This article appeared in the 30 August issue under the headline “Much more than a school, it’s a way of life”