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In Jamica Plain, a school of hope


By James Carroll, 9/3/2002
In the Boston Globe

Please read the book review of Fr. William Byronís latest publication that is found on our web site.
It gives meaning to the goals of Jesuit education


Today is the first full day of school at Nativity Prep, a small middle school for boys in Jamaica Plain.

The school is sponsored by the Jesuits. Its director is a Jesuit priest, and its faculty of more than a dozen volunteers is built around four master teachers and an experienced principal The volunteer teachers, including recent college graduates, are imbued with the Jesuit spirit.

They live together in community, in a former convent in Dorchester, but their lives are centered on the school, where the day runs from 7 in the morning to 9 at night.

''It is a boarding school without beds,'' Father Bill Campbell, the director, said to me on Friday, as the new students arrived for orientation. Their awed faces were mainly black and brown the student body is 95% minority and their eyes were hungry to take in this new world. Father Campbell smiled at them. He wore the black shirt and collar of his kind, while the boys wore carefully knotted neckties.

Nativity Preparatory School began in 1990 with 29 boys in 5th and 6th grades. This year, there are 68 students in 5th through 8th.The school is tuition-free, and exists to serve boys from low income families.

The day is rigorously structured, and ends with an evening study session. ''We become an extended family,'' Father Campbell said with evident pride as he watched the new boys settling down for assembly. The room in which the early morning gathering took place was brightly lit by windows on three sides. The students took their places in chairs arranged before a podium, and in a circle around them stood their teachers, whose faces were only slightly less awed.

The start of school at Nativity is special this year for two reasons. The school recently relocated from a cramped building in Lower Roxbury to a handsomely renovated factory building a mile away, one stop out on the Orange Line. ''We made the new place as home-like as we could,'' the priest told me. The entrance foyer is furnished like a living room, but the classrooms are set for learning, the impressive library is airy, and a floor of the former factory was removed to accommodate a gym. The reborn building sparkles, which is significant because it will be kept clean by the students, their families and the school staff, with Father Campbell acting, as he told me, as ''head janitor.''

Since its founding, Nativity students have gone on to a range of demanding high schools, and last spring two 1994 graduates received degrees from Fordham University and Boston College. Their names are Aiden Byrne and Ramon Gomez.

This year is special also because they have returned to Nativity as volunteer teachers, starting today.

''At Nativity,'' Ramon Gomez told me, ''I knew that I was representing something bigger than me. I wasn't the smartest kid, or the toughest, but I knew that I was special. They made me know that I was special.

You donít forget that.'' Aiden Byrne explained modestly, ''I wouldn't claim, like, to be giving back for all that I was given here.'' But he is. Nativity Prep in Boston is modeled on a similar Jesuit school in New York.

Founded 20 years ago, the original Nativity spawned a movement, and now there are forty Nativity-style schools around the country (including, in Dorchester, Mother Caroline Academy, a school for girls run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and Epiphany, a coeducational school sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts). These schools assume the presence of God, but are not denominational. The assembly I witnessed concluded with a prayer, offered by a Jesuit priest. Some of the students are Muslims. The priests prayer honored God the Creator, without invoking Jesus. That spirituality can be unapologetic in both senses of the word reflects the best of the Jesuit tradition.

At Nativity each class is named for an esteemed Jesuit. This year's 6th grade, for example, is ''Fernanado,'' for Richie Fernando, a Jesuit teacher in the Philippines who saved his students by throwing himself on a live, rebel-tossed grenade. The 5th grade is called ''Hopkins,'' for the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Father Campbell, introducing the boys to their patron, held up a volume of poetry. He conveyed his expectation that they would come to love Hopkins, then read, ''The world is charged with the grandeur of God.'' The newest Nativity boys listened carefully to this Catholic priest as he then defined their purpose, and that of the teachers surrounding them. ''We are going to help you be as smart as you can be. We are going to help you be men of character. And we are going to help you feel the charge of God's grandeur - and to learn whatever that will mean to you.''