Out of 27 requests online for middle school teachers at various schools throughout the Archdiocese of Seattle, four of these job postings are for the Seattle Nativity School (SNS). These postings are seeking: a teacher of religion, a teacher of science, a teacher of social studies and a teacher of language arts. Each position is seeking a teacher who is willing to work collaboratively with a team to develop curriculum for the middle school, which first opened its doors the fall of 2013. The goal of SNS, along with other Nativity schools like it across the nation is simple yet honorable, to end the cycle of poverty with the power of education (SNS). Nativity Schools began opening their doors over 40 years ago because of the efforts of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in response to the educational, social and personal needs of diverse urban communities whose children were, and are, at risk of failing.
Students whom are at risk of failure, in this instance, are students whom come from low-income households. This economic restraint paired with being from a culture or heritage that does not assimilate with the dominant culture, and in some cases this comes with begin English Language Learners from homes where they are the only English language speakers, creates factors that create a gap in their academic achievement. The parents of these students themselves often find school difficult to navigate making it almost impossible to effectively support their children or understand education as an institution (Hale, 2004, as cited by Fenzel & Monteith, 2008, p.398). In many cases these students have lower test scores and are often below grade level in reading, writing, and math due to the challenges that urban public schools face in educating students from these “at risk” circumstances as well as finding experienced teachers to support and teach them at a young age. From these challenges and others not mentioned, a new kind of middle school found its origin.
Nativity schools are alternative, tuition-free, catholic faith-based middle schools designed to support at risk, urban, minority students. The first Nativity school opened in 1971 to provide the Latino population in Lower Manhattan, New York City with the tools and attention they needed to succeed academically and to prepare them for the demands of high school and beyond (SNS; Fenzel & Domingues, 2009, p.33). Each Nativity school provides low student-teacher ratios, extended school days, and summer camps to build not only academic skills, but social and personal skills as well such as teamwork and conflict resolution. Due to operational costs, these middle schools are unable to admit students with any significant behavioral, emotional or learning challenges, but they do cater specifically to low-income families with students who have low test scores and need extra support in their studies (Fenzel & Monteith, p.398). Many of these schools are run by religious orders like the Jesuits, but other faith traditions such as Episcopal communities as well as secular organizations such as KIPP have found inspiration in the Nativity model and continue to open schools, much like the SNS, throughout the country (SNS; Fenzel & Monteith; Fenzel & Domingues).
Along with small class sizes, extended school day, and what would seem to be an extended school year because of summer programs, the Nativity schools are built on and committed to a list of tenants. SNS refers to these tenants as the Nine Mission Effectiveness Standards which are extremely reminiscent of many of the core catholic educational standards in parochial, ordered, and diocesan schools such as holistic education, family involvement and effective leadership structure. The familial partnership is something that has proven to make a difference in the success of the students as demonstrated in studies (Fenzel & Monteith, p.398; Fenzel & Domingues, p.46). This partnership also speaks directly to Seattle Pacific University’s (SPU) Principles of Hope, specifically H4, which requires honoring family and community involvement in the learning process. Children like those whom would be found in Nativity schools benefit from having parents more involved in their academic lives which is challenging and time consuming, but worth it (Fenzel & Domingues, p. 46). Within these tenants, Nativity schools are also committed explicitly to serving the economically poor and marginalized, ongoing assessment and inquiry as well as networking within the community (SNS).
One thing that sets Nativity schools apart from any other middle school, both public and private, is their commitment to their students even beyond their middle school graduation. These schools continue to monitor and counsel their alumni throughout their high school careers, and assist them, along with their guardians, with the college search, entrance exams, and application process (Fenzel & Monteith, p. 382). Statistically speaking, when looking at graduates from Nativity schools, 79% of them go on to graduate from high school in four years with over 67% of those graduates enrolling in colleges or universities, and 49% of alumni graduate from college or trade schools; these statistics are about 20% higher than the national average for low-income students in public schools (SNS). There are various factors that feed into a student’s success, but having adults who are committed not to the academic success and future of their students, but are willing to monitor them even beyond graduation from their school as well speaks multitudes of the type of educators whom staff Nativity schools.
Fenzel has been one of the leading researchers when it comes to the success of Nativity schools. Each study has concluded that there are factors that set these schools apart from other middle schools serving the same at risk urban population. In Fenzel’s studies, Nativity schools were compared to each other as well as to traditional K-8 parochial schools. One study (Fenzel & Monteith) found that Nativity students were achieving at or above grade level in math and reading on standardized tests as well as equal to or greater than grade expectation per year in both math and reading, both results being above and beyond that of the other parochial schools in the study (p. 390-391). It can be concluded that the very tenants the schools are built on contribute to their success such as the extended school day and school year (SNS; Fenzel & Monteith; Fenzel & Domingues). This extended school day and year contributes greatly to student reported respect, help, support, and care from their teachers as they are able to bond with them thanks in large part to small class sizes, advisory groups, and personal investment in their students (Fenzel & Monteith, p. 393).
Even with their success, Nativity schools do face challenges. Their operational costs and free or reduced tuition make it impossible for them to take in every student from a low-income, marginalized family and students who need additional support. They also have fewer certified or experienced teachers as they rely on volunteers whom supervise student activities, direct instruction, and homework supervision (Fenzel & Monteith, p.395). Although with these inexperienced teachers come highly motivated and enthused “AmeriCorps-type volunteers” (Fenzel & Domingues, p.48). Despite the varying longevity of these teachers, they are making a positive and lasting impact when it comes to the academic success rate of at risk youth in urban settings nationwide and in our own backyard.
The Seattle Nativity School provides a catholic faith-based, Jesuit education to families living in the Central District and South Seattle. Based on the information provided by the school’s website, SNS has a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) curriculum and has adopted the 2010 Common Core State Standards, 2008 Washington State Standards, as well as the Archdiocesan Catholic Identity Standards. It is also infused with the Jesuit charism of social justice and hopes to “end the cycle of poverty through an education that nourishes souls and ignites leaders for love and service” (SNS). This Nativity school is a member of a community of 60 Nativity schools nationwide, all of which seek to prepare their students for high school and college through their holistic curriculum, committed teachers, extended school year and day, and long term support and counseling (SNS).
Although Nativity Schools themselves many not seem to be a professional issue to some, catholic education as a whole and striving for a just society where all students are provided an equal, quality education are two important topics for me. Having attended catholic schools up until my enrollment at SPU and having been a catholic school religious educator for 5 years, the philosophy behind catholic education and activity seeking justice have been near and dear to my heart. In most cases, catholic education has a long standing reputation of providing a holistic, rigorous, college preparatory education, and within that reputation an elitist mentality has arisen. Myself and many other catholic educators whom have had the same opportunity to attend catholic parochial schools, high schools and in some cases universities, stand firm in the belief that catholic education is for all students; not just the most affluent and intelligent. Nativity schools represent this standpoint in their mission because they provide the same education to at risk students explicitly. I have become more interested in Nativity schools through this process of research, and knowing that I have always been called to catholic education and Catholic Social Teaching, a school like the SNS would be exactly the kind of school I can see myself employed by and retire from because of its response to the needs of the marginalized and faith-based mission.
For teachers and teaching candidates who have either come from a catholic educational background or have an interest working in a school for urban youth the Seattle Nativity School, or other Nativity schools, like it would be an ideal environment to work in. They have a clear mission to support the most at risk students in the urban community and are committed to supporting them beyond their 8th grade graduation and well into their academic futures. The work of Nativity teachers will be in no way easy, but it will be meaningful, collaborative, and significant. The United States has a need for teachers like those found in Nativity schools and education models like the Nativity model to support students most in need. Hopefully schools will continue to pick up on the efforts of Nativity schools throughout the nation and find ways to support all students in the same respect in every type of school.
Fenezl, L. M., & Domingues, J. (2009). Educating urban African American children placed at risk: A comparison of two types of catholic middle schools. Journal of Catholic Education, 13(1). Retreieved from http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/ce/vol13/iss1/3
Fenzel, L. M., & Monteith, R.H. (2008). Successful alternative middle schools for urban minority children: A study of nativity schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 13(4), 381-401. DOI: 10.1080/10824660802427686
Seattle Nativity School (SNS). (n.d.) What is a nativity school? Retrieved from http://www.seattlenativity.org/about-us/what-nativity-school/