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photo: Mother Teresa Middle School

One can only be energized and inspired after hearing from the leadership of Nativity Schools in Canada. These schools—Gonzaga Middle School (Winnipeg) and Mother Teresa Middle School (Regina)—aim to break the cycle of poverty among economically disadvantaged youth through the implementation of an innovative model of Ignatian education in the three school years before high school followed up with ongoing mentoring and support through high school and post-secondary studies.

“We view teaching as St. Ignatius did, through using the imagination, among other things. We have done a good job of bringing together the Jesuit values: being men and women for others, the cura personalis, the magis…” Curtis Kleisinger

After listening to Terri Cote and Curtis Kleisinger (Principal and Executive Director at Mother Teresa Middle School [MTMS]), and Tom Lussier (Executive Director at Gonzaga Middle School), as well as to some of the students, one has the sense that all of them—staff and students alike—have grown as a result of these years together.

photo: Gonzaga Middle School

These apostolates show how the Universal Apostolic Preferences, especially those related to youth, spirituality, and the marginalized, can energize and encourage the people involved to go beyond themselves for the sake of others. They also show how teamwork and the dedication of each staff member (emphasized repeatedly in the interviews) can have a great impact on a community.

A school for life

At Nativity Schools, students in small classes follow the regular curriculum of their year. But in order to provide the best possible support to the youngsters, the schools offer more than just classes. Tom Lussier offers a glimpse into life at Gonzaga Middle School.

We start with breakfast at 8 a.m. and then we have an independent study program before class. We provide each student with snacks and lunch. At the end of the school day, we offer an enrichment program (sports, art, music) in which all children participate, Monday through Thursday until 4:30 p.m. Then we have a homework club that ends at 5:15 p.m. A designated bus picks up the children at their homes and takes them back again at the end of the school day. This addresses the safety concerns of families and encourages their participation. Our goal is to achieve a 95 percent attendance rate. This intensive school program allows us to get to know the students and is designed to foster their academic growth as well as their social and emotional growth. In addition, we have a summer program.

Andrew, a student who started at MTMS last fall, really enjoys these activities: “My first year has been great so far. We’re doing a ton of things. I’ve met some great people. It’s nice to work with the staff. It’s a great environment.”

The relational side of these relatively small schools enables students to form personal bonds and create networks in the school setting and also within the community. In addition, it allows the administration to have access to comprehensive information about each child so that the students can be supported as well as possible. As Kleisinger explains, “it is a genuine integration of services.”

MTMS students with Father General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, photo: MTMS

Even after the children have passed through Nativity Schools, this integration of services continues, since the support offered extends beyond the duration of their studies. Mr. Lussier points out that the support of graduates is a key element of this type of school.

“When we accept a Grade 6 student, we make a commitment for at least eleven years to continue to work with the student, to make sure that he/she stays in school to get an education that will essentially break the cycle of poverty and enable the person to return to serve the community.”

A marginalized population 

Nativity Schools are purposely established in underprivileged areas. Mr. Lussier explains that his school is located in Winnipeg in one of the two lowest-income postal-code areas in Canada.

“Seventy percent of our community is made up of Indigenous children, the other 30 percent generally consists of visible minorities. Only a small number are poor children of European descent. All of them have experienced trauma in their families.”

The composition of the MTMS student body is similar. In this context, the goal of the schools goes beyond mere academic learning. Lussier explains: “Our goal is to develop strong, meaningful relationships in order to accompany young people, with their families, so that we can help them develop as persons and realize their potential.”

This is not an easy task, Kleisinger says, but it creates lasting bonds between school staff and the families they serve. “Our families don’t trust easily and they’re skeptical. It takes time to build trust. One grandmother told us, ‘The most important thing is that you never lied to us, you never promised something you couldn’t do.’”

photo: Gonzaga Middle School

The importance of mutuality

Mutuality, both in terms of sharing traditions and helping each other, is at the heart of the success of Nativity Schools. While the staff does everything possible to help the children and the community, the opposite is also true, as Ms. Cote points out:

“I know that if I were to call the grandparents, they would come to help me or a member of our staff. And we would do the same thing for them.”

Her colleague, Mr. Kleisinger, adds that the children from poor families also give a lot.

“In Indigenous communities, wealth is not measured by what you have but by your ability to give. When children have something to share, they consider themselves rich. When someone built a school for them, for example, they in turn raised money to build a school in India.”

These bonds can sustain the community even in difficult times. Mr. Lussier recounts how one tragedy, the death of a student and her grandmother in a fire, had nevertheless revealed the grace of God.

“It was obviously very, very tragic. But what was comforting was the community’s desire to support the family, our students, and friends. It was truly a profound experience of love, community, and the active grace of God.”

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