Catholic "Nativity" schools aim to propel low-income kids toward higher education.

But some parents aren't buying.

Back in 2004, St. Cecilia, a Catholic school on Eichelberger Street near Carondelet Park in south St. Louis, shifted its sixth, seventh and eighth grades to the so-called Nativity model, which features a longer school day, a shorter summer vacation and unconventional "enrichment" classes from that range from African dance to Shakespeare. Additionally, St. Cecilia promised to offer support to students far beyond graduation, including high school scholarships, tutoring programs and, ultimately, assistance with the college admissions process.

Developed by a group of Jesuits in New York City in the early 1970s, the Nativity model was designed to propel underprivileged children into prep schools. Good for the families, and also for the schools, which face a perennial paucity of academically qualified minority applicants. At last count 64 schools across the nation have adopted the Nativity model, including 6 in St. Louis. While many inner-city high schools contend with dropout rates of about 50 percent, nearly 90 percent of Nativity students graduate, according to the nonprofit agency NativityMiguel Network. Of those students, 75 percent go on to college.

Such successes help raise money for the schools, which rely on donations from individuals, religious orders and corporate sponsors to offset modest tuition fees and ample scholarships.

Peter O. Zierlein

In many ways St. Cecilia's was a perfect candidate for Nativity. Over the past four decades, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has closed 52 parochial schools owing to shrinking enrollment, and since the 1950s St. Cecilia's class rolls had dwindled from 500 or so to about 130 in 2003. For principal Jim Ford, the Nativity model promised not only to stave off closure but also to net St. Cecilia about $450,000 a year. "I visited three other Nativity schools in other cities, and they were just dynamite," Ford recalls. "They were working with kids similar to ours, who have a low economic background. I thought: 'This could be us!'"

St. Cecilia's Nativity school debuted in 2004 as one of the first to be "embedded" within a larger school. (St. Cecilia offers preschool through eighth grade.) While 90 percent of Nativity students nationwide qualify for National School Lunch Program subsidies — an indication that they live at or below poverty level — only 75 percent at St. Cecilia qualify.

After only one year, the school's scores on the benchmark Iowa Test of Basic Skills rose about 10 percentile points overall and enrollment climbed to about 160.

But the mood is anything but positive on the chilly January evening when about twenty St. Cecilia parents gather in the basement of a neighborhood bank for an informal meeting. "The vision we started with was not what we got," one complains. "'Jim Ford's Folly' is the best way to describe it."

Most of those present have at least one child in the middle school, whose total enrollment is 65. They voice concerns about safety: A man allegedly exposed himself to a girl as she left school; in another incident a man had spoken with a kindergartener during two recesses before a teacher noticed. There are other gripes as well: that reports had been sent home with kids for small infractions (an untucked shirt, for instance); students caught chewing gum are fined $2. An English teacher is said to have sent home a syllabus riddled with grammatical errors; a class discussion about HIV transmission veered into talk about sexual positions. A teacher purportedly called a little girl a "slut" and told students she was smarter than their parents because she had a college degree.

Parents say they've brought their concerns to the school and the archdiocese, to no avail.

Elicia Stoll, who'd intended to home-school her kids but enrolled them at St. Cecilia in 2005 because she was so impressed with the Nativity program, withdrew her son last fall seven weeks into his seventh-grade year after a series of run-ins with administrators.

"[The teacher] told him his bad behavior was a result of our bad parenting," says Stoll, adding that when she informed Ford of the exchange, "he just said she would never say that to a student. I realized I wasn't going to get anywhere."

Stoll's son, who'd begun talking about harming himself, was back to normal a few weeks after she enrolled him at a different school, she reports. She intends to transfer her daughter before next year, when she's slated to enter St. Cecilia's Nativity program.

"I love the parish, but I'm not sending my daughter back next year," Stoll says.

She isn't alone. Lisa Garcia has two kids enrolled in the Nativity program and another in fifth grade at St. Cecilia — but not for long. Garcia says she knows teachers and schools aren't infallible. "But," she asks, "how many times do they have to repeat a mistake before something is done about it?"

Garcia believes the Nativity model isn't a good fit for the families of St. Cecilia. "This would be a good program for children with problem families," she argues. "But we're not those kind of people. This is not for a school where parents are involved."

Ford concedes that the school has suffered from some lapses in communication, but says he has always had what he calls a "classic open-door policy."

The unhappy parents say their frustrations were exacerbated by a December meeting with administrators during which they felt they were condescended to by Ford and St. Cecilia pastor Richard Tillman. They were allowed only three minutes apiece to speak and were forbidden to refer to specific events or people, they say.

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