A prominent Catholic church in north Denver will launch an experiment in education this fall that’s a first for Colorado: a bilingual elementary school that weaves together culture, religion and academic rigor.
The school, called Escuela de Guadalupe, aims to reverse low Hispanic achievement, one of the state’s most confounding problems.
It is one of 20 Nativity schools nationwide. Founded by Jesuits, the schools feature small class sizes, high expectations, longer days and year, and summer programs.
Activists at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church created the school with private money partly out of frustration with overburdened public schools. They also longed to reconnect classrooms with their faith – a bond that’s been missing for 30 years in the neighborhood just north of downtown.
”It will respect morals and values and the Latino culture,” said Patrica Santos, a mother of potential students.
Along with Catholic and cultural overtones, the school will offer individual attention; a longer school day and school year; higher expectations of both students and parents; and instruction in Spanish and English. It will be independent of the Archdiocese of Denver – the equivalent of a charter school.
Organizers hope the school will spawn others in similar low-income neighborhoods, places where achievement frequently lags in public schools. They hope to teach public schools some lessons, too.
”Discipline and expectations can happen in public schools,” said Sister Susan Swain, principal of the elementary school at St. Mary’s Academy and an adviser to organizers of the new school.
”It depends on what the priorities are. It has to do with leadership,” Swain said.
The project began two years ago when parishioners began to openly express their desire for a Catholic school.
Priests from the Jesuit order launched the first Nativity school in New York City in 1971. All Nativities other than the Denver version are middle schools.
The concept was tailor-made for low- income and minority neighborhoods in big cities where students frequently need education support outside their homes. Nineteen of the 20 schools began in the 1990s in cities that included Boston, Baltimore, Omaha and Milwaukee. Our Lady organizers visited Nativity schools in New York and Boston to learn how they operate.
”We try to get to those who wouldn’t have an option and give them an option of a better education,” said Father Jack Podsiadlo, Nativity’s founder in New York. ”They see a lot of people who are pushing and shoving and forcing them to succeed.”
And they do succeed. At Podsiadlo’s Nativity Mission Center in New York, 80 percent of the students graduate and 80 percent of those go to college. Other Nativity schools boast as good or better results, Podsiadlo said.
In Denver Public Schools, Hispanics make up half of the 66,000 students. But only half of them graduate. Statewide, only 63 percent of Hispanics graduate compared to 85 percent of whites.
The Guadalupe school concept began with neighborhood parents, many of whom speak only Spanish. The language barrier makes public schools intimidating. These parents say they feel unwelcome at the crowded schools, and they find their culture is taken too lightly.
”There are so many students and not enough teachers,” Santos said. ”My boys don’t learn as fast as they could.”
Achievement is spotty at the neighborhood public school, Bryant-Webster Elementary, where 94 percent of the students are Hispanic. Standardized tests last spring found third and fifth-graders a year behind the expected level in reading. Fourth-graders lagged by six months and second-graders were three months behind.
When school started last fall, fourth and fifth-raders had dropped to a year behind, tests showed, while third-graders were three months back and second-graders were on target.
Historically low achievement turned parents to the church, a central element in the lives of many Hispanic families in the neighborhood around Our Lady of Guadalupe at West 36th Avenue and Kalamath Street.
The new school ”will let them learn more values from the Catholic church,” said Maria de la Luz Santoyo, another mother whose children want to attend.
Our Lady is the dominant church for Hispanics in Denver, with 2,500 registered families and thousands more unregistered. Former Mayor Federico Pena was a parishioner.
The parish is known for community activism. Former Pastor Marshall Gourley drew attention over the years for speaking out against gang violence, and defending the rights of immigrants and Spanish speakers.
In 1993, Gourley fasted for 26 days in protest of the city’s ”Summer of Violence.” In 1989, the church sponsored one of the first gun buy-backs.
Families cling to Our Lady, but they feel slighted by the Archdiocese of Denver, which closed its last school in their neighborhood in the 1960s. Costs outran the area’s ability to pay.
Families understand the economic realities. But they still wanted a school.
”There was a feeling of frustration and we thought we were last,” parent Sara Rodriquez said.
Relief began four years ago when leaders of the Jesuit order sent one of its own, Father Tom Prag, on a mission: He would live quietly among Our Lady famiilies to learn what they needed.
Prag sensed the need for a school. He sought help from Regis University, a leading Jesuit school. Two Sisters of Loretto who live in the neighborhood joined him. They helped the community organize. They used their network among educators to develop school plans.
Educators and students from Regis High School and St. Mary’s Academy, operated by the Jesuits and the Sisters of Loretto, respectively, also contributed time and expertise.
An anonymous donor contributed most of the first $800,000 organizers raised. They hired a project director a year ago who is helping to raise an additional $ 500,000, most of which has been committed by donors. Organizers are sure of enough money to open in the fall.
The school’s board is negotiating to lease a building near the church that’s owned by the archdiocese. The archdiocese is not contributing money to the school.
Previous grassroots efforts are encouraging. In 1995, volunteers remodeled buildings for a successful neighborhood health clinic across the street from the church.
”We hope the school takes a parallel path (to the clinic),” said Jim Garcia, co-chairman of the school’s board of trustees.
The new school and clinic fit into a larger vision for the area. Organizers want to close West 36th Avenue for a few blocks to create a landscaped plaza that would connect all the church’s activities.
Escuela de Guadalupe, like its public charter counterparts, will be free from mandates such as hiring and salary requirements, and tuition rates. A board of trustees makes decisions, rather than a pastor.
Families and organizers want to share the power. They believe the best decisions are made closest to the classroom.
”It leaves room to be innovative,” Prag said. ”This is the age of the lay person anyway.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput signed off on the new school’s bylaws. ”We see it as a very positive step,” said Greg Kail, archdiocese spokesman. ”Private Catholic schools are a proven model.
”It’s a very creative way to meet what we believe is a growing need.”
Ambitions are big for a school that will remain small.
It will start with about 60 children in kindergarten through second grade. Organizers hope to add one grade a year until reaching eighth grade, and ultimately about 180 students.
Class size will be about 20. Help from volunteers should reduce the adult-student ratio.
Keeping it small is key to the Nativity approach. That way, children get more one-on-one help. This is particularly critical in low-income neighborhoods where many parents lack the education to help their children at home.
”A lot has to do with intimacy of class size,” Swain, the principal at St. Mary’s, said. ”We won’t compromise on that.”
But the initial costs are high, $6,500 to $8,000 per pupil compared to about $ 5,000 in public schools. The longer year and day and small class size kick up the cost.
Tuition will be around $3,100 a year but most students will attend on scholarships. Parents will likely pay about $50 a month. Foundations and other contributors will finance the school. Students and others from the two Regis schools and St. Mary’s will donate time as part of their public service projects.
But it won’t come close to meeting demand. The church baptizes 1,500 children a year. A lottery likely will decide who gets in.
The school staff will be bilingual. With equal emphasis on Spanish and English, parents say they feel more comfortable getting involved.
As an independent, the school can lace more Hispanic culture through its curriculum.
Organizers plan a month-longer school year, something that would have needed archdiocese approval. Before and after-school activities will extend the day until 5 p.m. or so.
Parents must agree to help, volunteer in class, perhaps work on the building. They will be expected to take classes on parenting, citizenship and English. They also will agree not to take their children out of school for weeks at a time, common for families who return to Mexico during holidays. The school will try to find children places to stay if their families must go, said Garcia, the school’s co-chairman.
Outside professionals took the school from idea to reality. The rest is up to families.
”The community has to own it,” said Diana Flahive, the school’s project director. ”They have to say, ‘It will live or die by us.’ ”
DENVER CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
* Denver has two types of Catholic schools: Archdiocese schools that answer to a central authority and are ultimately controlled by a parish pastor; and private schools that have cordial relations with the archdiocese, follow basic Catholic curricula but control their own operations and academic policies. The new Escuela de Guadalupe is a private Catholic school.
* Archdiocese schools include 37 elementary and middle schools and two high schools, Holy Family and Bishop Machebeuf.
* Private Catholic schools include one elementary and middle school, St. Mary’s Academy; and three high schools: Mullen, Regis and St. Mary’s.
* Archdiocese enrollment: 11,636
* Total enrollment including private schools: 14,271
* Tuition range for archdiocese elementary and middle schools: $2,000 to $3,000
* Tuition range for archdiocese high schools: $4,000
* Tuition for private elementary and high schools: $5,000 to $7,000
Source: The Archdiocese of Denver and private schools.