It sounds simple in concept.
Take middle-school boys from at-risk areas, provide specialized schooling, send them off to higher education and repeat. However, in reality, the Nativity School of Harrisburg depends upon the entire community to make it successful.
A member of that community, volunteer Audry Carter, explained why there’s a need for a special school such as this, for boys in sixth through eighth grades.
“There are established schools that you can get children into starting at ninth grade,” she said, referring to local private high schools such as Bishop McDevitt, Trinity High School and Harrisburg Academy. “[The Nativity School founders] saw there was a need to intervene earlier to get these boys to have a chance. They weren’t entering with enough skills to be competitive to get in to some of these schools.”
The school currently enrolls 45 students a year, broken down into classes of 15 in grades six, seven and eight.
Executive Director Lavelle Muhammad explained that one of the school’s greatest educational challenges is preparing pupils for future educational endeavors.
“You have students who, initially, when they come to us in sixth grade, are underperforming,” he said. “They’re reading and writing on third– and fourth-grade levels, sometimes second or third. And, because of our environment, they’re able to go up to seventh- and eighth-grade level by the time they graduate, which is almost a miracle.”
Beyond education, Nativity School offers support, mentoring and social development.
Case in point: math teacher Michelle Stine, whose job involves much more than teaching long division and fractions.
“She will take some of the students to get haircuts, or we will buy them clothes because there’s a great need sometimes,” Muhammad said.
Many students come from single-parent families, with fathers or grandfathers out of the picture. Because of this, faculty and volunteers both take on mentoring positions to provide support and stability for students in and out of the classroom.
School is in session Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., a longer day than in a standard public school. Another difference is the length of the school year. The Nativity School averages 205 to 210 days in session compared to 180 days for most public schools.
“Two days a week, we have an extended study hall until 5:30 p.m.,” Stine said. “It’s for extra help with reading, which is our biggest area of weakness. But on a daily basis, there’s an hour added in every day where they are in study hall, which is just an opportunity to get help from their teachers, do their homework with each other, to collaborate and do those types of things.”
An extended day may sound like punishment for many school kids. But for the boys at the Nativity School, it’s a welcomed opportunity to receive support, accomplish work and hang out together in a safe space.
“Sometimes, they stay just to stay,” said Muhammad.
Nativity School is distinctive in many respects. For instance, it organizes a summer camp program, which takes place at the end of and right before the beginning of the school year. Counting as a day of school, the boys are taken out of the city, into the wilderness and given a chance to learn, explore and socialize.
“They’re able to get out of the city, able to stay together, and it also enforces that brotherhood too,” Muhammad said. “It’s good; it works.”
A common theme in the school is the idea of “brotherhood” and its direct relationship to academic success. The bond amongst students in an all-male classroom of 15 often proves itself strong enough to last post-graduation. Muhammad and his staff embrace this idea and strive to seamlessly intertwine relationship-building into education.
The school’s unconventional approach seems to be working. Nativity School alumni have a high school graduation rate of 90 percent, about double that of Harrisburg High School, according to statistics provided by the school.
Moving forward, the Nativity School has several long-term goals.
First, school officials want to expand their admissions to younger students, extending at least one grade level. However, the school must come up with the funds every year just to continue operating. Because of this, the opportunity to expand is based solely on the success of fundraising efforts and private donations.
“One of our dreams would be to bring fifth graders on board, because then that really captures the middle and allows us to have one more year to get them up to the grade level that they need to be in,” Carter said.
Secondly, Nativity School would like to have its own building. Currently, the school is located on the second floor of the Camp Curtin YMCA on N. 6th Street. Muhammad believes that the school must have its own facility before it truly can fulfill its mission for its students.
“We go way beyond school hours,” he said. “We’re like an extended parent.”
The Nativity School of Harrisburg is located at 2135 N. 6th St., Harrisburg. For more information, or to make a donation, visit nativityschoolofharrisburg.org.
Author: Rachel Jenkins