Ed LangloisEach day at 5 a.m., eighth grader Chrisleine Temple gets ready for a 90-minute bus ride from outer East Portland. Other passengers notice her crisp uniform and inquire.
Of the Catholic Sentinel
Chrisleine is proud to look them in the eye and say, "I attend St. Andrew Nativity School."
She is one of about 60 middle school youths who attend St. Andrew, located in a century-old building that once housed a parish school in inner Northeast Portland. All students come from at-risk families with minimal income. Parents pay $25 a term, but classes are small, instruction intense and hours long.
Members of St. Andrew Parish and the Jesuits began the school 10 years ago to provide a Catholic education for talented children who might otherwise meet with trouble.
"Ten years ago, many people wondered if this kind of school could survive," says Loretta Wiltgen, president of St. Andrew.
At-risk youths get help to succeed in good high schools and colleges. That could bring whole families out of poverty, studies show.
"This is how we are going to change our country," Wiltgen says.
A little more than half of students are black and a little less than half are Hispanic. Most come from a single parent household and just more than half are Catholic.
All face the challenges of poverty. One boy came to school the morning after six bullets had hit his house. Another student, hurt in an accident, told the hospital nurse to call not his parents, but the people at St. Andrew.
About 90 percent of Nativity students, when they enroll in sixth grade, are well behind grade level in academics. Through personal attention and longer hours, they almost all catch up by the time they begin high school.
The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Classes average about 10 students.
"If you have a question, most people are nervous to ask in a room full of people," says Nebeu Fekede, an eighth grader who says he had trouble learning in larger classes at his grade school. "But here, everyone knows you and you're not that afraid."
In addition to core academics, the school offers electives in yoga, cooking, photography, yearbook and other areas.
"They want you to spread out and learn something new," Nebeu explains.
Melissa Ferrusca-Granados, a sixth grader, says she was nervous when she started, but then an eighth grade girl poke to her class and school began to feel like family.
Classes are divided between boys and girls, all in uniform, including ties for the boys.
In sixth grade science on this day, boys are learning about geological plate tectonics and the various kinds of rock. In math, seventh grade girls learn to convert fractions into decimals.
In seventh grade religion for boys, students learn about the different ways Jesus is portrayed in the different gospels. In history, eighth grade girls are comparing governance in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Israel.
Students are required to take religion classes and attend Mass monthly. Crucifixes and images of St. Ignatius of Loyola hang on the walls.
Jesuit Father Jeff McDougall, the principal, employs proactive discipline. Students hear what is expected of them from the get-go. They are to be open to growth, intellectually competent, grateful, religious, loving and committed to justice. When students live out these characteristics, staff give them a citation called a "virtue award." At the same time, the teens regularly hear (and can repeat) the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas: "Virtue is its own reward."
"What we always tell them here is, 'Keep trying,'" Father McDougall says.
Ashley Whitty, the language arts teacher, says faculty and staff work to help students know their own strengths and passions. After that, a young person can begin to focus outward on service, she explains.
Graduates of St. Andrew attend schools Jesuit, Central Catholic and St. Mary's Academy. Almost all finish secondary education, twice the rate of their peers. St. Andrew students are now in college at places like UCLA, University of Oregon and Seattle University. The first class will graduate from college in 2012.
Once students head to high school, St. Andrew sticks with them. Aggie Shwayder, graduate support director, makes sure students get the tutoring and aid they need. She helps them pursue passions on teams and in clubs and helps seniors apply for college.
Shwayder makes sure that St. Andrew graduates continue advances in becoming other-centered. This fall, she convened all the St. Andrew students now in high school and the group helped build a Habitat for Humanity house.
Hardly a day passes when some graduate does not return for a visit. They continue to see Nativity as their second home, a place where they are loved and expected to rise to the occasion.
The school tries to form community among parents and students, with mother-child dinners and support groups. There are clubs for boys and girls to help them find good adult role models.
"You learn how to be respectful and responsible," says Angel Pulido, a seventh grader who is in a group called Boys 2 Men, run by a Portland Police officer. In the groups, students learn the dire consequences of even a brief embrace of drugs, alcohol or gang life.
Mike Chambers, the vice principal, wants students to feel some liberty. He does not mean lack of discipline.
"I want doors to be open to them," Chambers explains. "I hope that they have more freedom and options in their lives."
"I want to do something big with my life," adds Vanessa Palma, a seventh grader. "I want to take my beliefs and what I think and spread it out. This school has taught us to believe in ourselves."
An anniversary Mass is set for Feb. 4.