In sixth grade, Anthony Lester struggled with reading, but his English teacher at Nativity School helped him improve. Now that he’s in eighth grade, what’s his favorite subject?
“I like that the school pushes you harder to work better,” he said. “It’s like a family group. If you need help, you can talk to your teachers. If you have problems going on at home, you can talk to Mr. Muhammad or Coach DJ about it.”
He means Executive Director Lavelle Muhammad and Dean of Students Demond Bates at Nativity School of Harrisburg, the all-boys, faith-based, nondenominational middle school embarking on a new chapter. On a misty Thursday morning, school and government officials cut the ribbon on a new space – the first that the school can call its own.
The facility at 2101 N. 5th Street, purchased from Zion Assembly Church, allows expansion of enrollment in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, plus the addition of fifth grade starting in 2021-22.
Nativity School educates and mentors inner-city and at-risk middle-school boys from low-income families. Academic help and life guidance continue while alumni attend high school and college. Attendance is free, and tuition is paid to local private high schools.
“We’ve got to make sure they graduate,” said Muhammad. “Most of them don’t come back to talk about academics. They come back to talk about life. At that age, there’s really not a lot of fathers. We have to kind of stand in place as the fathers.”
The new facility is a dream made real since the school’s founding in 2001, said Sheri Phillips, board member and, in Muhammad’s words, “the backbone of Nativity.” Students first attended school in space shared with the St. Francis of Assisi Church soup kitchen – sometimes stepping over homeless people sleeping on the floor.
Moving to the Camp Curtin YMCA provided access to classrooms, gym and cafeteria, but space limitations restricted expansion, Phillips said. Around 2018, Zion members expressed their support for the school by agreeing to sell their classroom space. After settlement in March 2020 and renovations begun in April by Weidner Construction Services, the school opened on time.
“This is just the beginning for us,” Phillips said.
The project was a community effort, said state Rep. Patty Kim, who admitted to “falling in love” with Nativity when her chief of staff’s son attended. Students “deserve the best” in a school space, and so do faculty, “who worked so hard day in and day out, loving the kids, caring for the kids, praying for the kids,” she said. “This can be a model for the rest of the school district. It can.”
Harrisburg needs Nativity School’s emphasis on conflict resolution “through intellect and education rather than through violence” and on community service, said Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
“The mission of Nativity School is one that benefits all of us,” Papenfuse said. “It’s one we can be incredibly proud of, and it’s one that is now secure by finally finding a long-term home.”
Before the ceremony, eighth-grader Omar Ibrahim cited community service – picking up trash around the YMCA on N. 6th Street, helping Homeland Center residents play bingo or decorate gingerbread houses – as one of his favorite things about Nativity School.
“I like how we’re not distracted,” he said. “I like how we get a better education. I like how we get to do a lot of stuff in the community to help people.”
Nativity School offers a lifeline to young men and provides a model for lawmakers trying to “change the bureaucratic problems” of state-level education, said state Sen. John DiSanto. “We need to reimagine education, we need to reengage, we need to reach the youth, and we need to continue to demonstrate the positiveness within the city and in the communities of poverty that are really challenged.”
Inside the school (currently on a hybrid weekly schedule of classroom and remote learning) are five classrooms, cafeteria, and a former sanctuary converted to gym and auditorium. For the first time, alumni returning for guidance or a place to do homework have a lounge, complete with foosball.
Current students have already embraced the school as their own.
“It makes me feel more of a great person,” said eighth-grader Jaden Garnes. “I know I’ll learn more stuff and get a better education.”
The school offers students “a place that we can call home,” said Bates, the dean of students and basketball coach. Nativity School staff balance education with life guidance, letting students know “that you can make a mistake and recover,” he added. Expanding to fifth grade presents the chance to touch students even earlier, when they can build stronger defenses against peer pressure.
In a moment of serendipity, a passing motorist stopped to ask about the hubbub and the blazer-clad students. Awed by what he learned, he told Muhammad that Nativity School was exactly what he wanted for his kids and would enroll them next year.
Muhammad admits to not realizing how much work was needed to convert the space to classrooms, but now, like that passerby, he’s in awe.
“This is incredible,” he said. “I’m looking at my office like, ‘This is amazing. I can’t believe this.’”
Nativity School of Harrisburg is located at 2101 N. 5th St., Harrisburg. For more information and to support the school, visit their website.
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