NEW HAVEN – Wait, wait. You live in a convent?
That’s right. When the day is done, 14 young teachers and staff members from St. Martin de Porres Academy (SMPA) all go “home” to the former convent at St. Brendan Parish, where they live.
It’s part of an effort to attract idealistic, young college graduates to an inner-city school, in return for a modest paycheck, experience, a teaching certificate and even a free master’s degree.
“For me it was about meeting your passion … about having a mission with a character and drive that I really believed in and made me think that I was doing some real good,” said Josh Foster, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, who had planned to go to law school until his heart led him to the academy, where he works in development.
The academy and its teachers are part of a Jesuit-based model of urban education called the NativityMiguel Network.
Opened in 2005 as an independent Catholic school for grades five to eight, it offers tuition-free education to low-income, underserved families in the inner city. Its 10-hour extended school day, which runs for 11 months, is part of the school’s mission to prepare students for quality college-prep high schools and, ultimately, to graduation from college.
“Working here at SMPA is a service role,” explained Allison Rivera, president of the academy. “It’s how we staff our school. Our teachers are teaching fellows.”
The young professionals are college graduates who give one to two years of teaching service through an internship funded by AmeriCorps, a government community program. Or they are college grads who work as administrative support staff under a St. Martin de Porres internship that is funded through the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers program run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
In return, the academy offers them a $12,100 stipend, medical insurance, a $5,500 education grant applied toward any federal loan, meals and subsidized housing at the convent for which they pay $190-a-month rent to the academy, which also covers utilities and such extras as cleaning and cable service.
After the two years, the teaching fellows can stay on for three years of extended service, and are offered the chance to earn a “free” master’s degree at Fairfield University or Sacred Heart University while continuing to teach at the academy (for a potential savings of $70,000 to $100,000 in student loans).
At the end of the five years, “they are certified teachers,” said Ms. Rivera, “leaving us with a master’s degree, their teaching certification and five years of inner-city teaching experience.”
“Our hope is that almost as a concurrent mission, we’re creating teachers who are sensitive to the needs of inner-city students, and hopefully will stay in the inner city and work for systemic change,” she said. “That’s our dream of what we’re fostering.
“We are a teacher preparation program,” said Ms. Rivera. “We team teach … every teacher with a counterpart,” all designed to allow the young teachers to “grow with us professionally.”
In addition to classroom work, the young teachers also help run the co-curricular activities, such as serving meals, assisting at recess, studying with students or coaching a sports team with games at night and on weekends. “It’s a pretty comprehensive commitment,” she said.
Those who go on for the three- year extended service focus primarily on classroom teaching and their own studies toward a master’s degree, taking up to two evening classes per term after the school day ends at 2:30.
“I’m constantly impressed with how hard everyone is working,” said Carly Anderson, also a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, who coordinates the graduate students. “Everyone is so talented and smart and competent that they could be working and making more money at any other place. It goes beyond simple career choices.”
The engine behind the academy’s model is passion. These dedicated young teachers see their work as more than a job, as a ministry.
“You can’t manufacture passion,” said Ms. Rivera. “What these young people come with in droves is passion and energy. They are so passionate about history. They’re so passionate about math, or whatever subject matter they majored in. They want to share that with the kids.”
Illustrating the point, University of Connecticut grad Tom Ward, who teaches eighth-grade history, noted, “You’re getting a kind of fulfillment and knowledge that you’re changing lives literally every day.
“Our kids are getting into great high schools and going to college. But it’s more than that,” he reflected. ”You see someone get a math problem all of a sudden, or they have a great day in English; small transformations each day, in small but very pronounced ways. I don’t know what other jobs give you that. You’re making a difference literally every single hour.”
Said Ms. Rivera, “So if you come with that passion, we can give you the tools of how to teach.”
The model is cemented by ongoing professional development offered throughout the year. Each teacher has a mentor who is a retired educator.
Incoming teachers participate in Breakthrough New Haven, part of a national alliance of tuition-free programs for motivated seventh- and eighth-grade students that provides year-round academic enrichment, mentoring, training, advocacy and college preparation to middle school students who have limited educational opportunities.
“Prior to becoming teachers with us, they teach in the Breakthrough program for six weeks,” said Ms. Rivera. “It’s a great place for them to get a feel for lesson plans, pacing in the classroom and trying out classroom management techniques.”
Around mid-August, they begin a two-week teacher orientation to the school year, Ms. Rivera said.
Those interested in teacher prep at SMPA come with a variety of personal objectives. “Some people are feeling out if they want to be a teacher,” she said. “Some see this as just a year or two of service. Some see this as a gift – a way to get a free degree while continuing to teach; while still others may decide to try this and then go elsewhere.”
Ms. Rivera observed that the nationwide Nativity model has emerged as a lay movement in the Church. And at a time when “Catholic schools are closing left and right in the inner city,” she noted, “it may be a way to save Catholic schools” by providing tuition-free education to urban youth.