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Ben Rosen/Staff
Luke Matys, right, leads a discussion in a classroom at Nativity Preparatory School as student Diego Garcia looks on. The private school for boys from low-income families could lose out on a major source of funding if AmeriCorps is slashed from the federal budget.

A small school caught in the crossfire of AmeriCorps debate

Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass., could lose vital funding for most of its teachers if the AmeriCorps program is slashed from the federal budget. But such a threat also exposes the challenge of providing a tuition-free, private school education for students from low-income families. 

Jacob Berman doesn’t know where he would be if he hadn’t attended Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, private middle school in New Bedford, Mass., designed to serve boys from low-income families. But the senior at Boston College says he's pretty sure he wouldn’t be as confident, as accomplished, or as selfless as he is today.

“The main point that Nativity really stressed in every way was to be a Nativity man for others, to basically look out and see what else you can do not just for yourself, but for other people,” he says in a phone interview.

Mr. Berman is one of more than 150 graduates of the school, open since 2000, who have gone on to defy statistics that have plagued boys from the inner city and from minority backgrounds. The graduation rate for students at Nativity – all of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch or government fuel assistance – is more than 97 percent for high school and 75 percent for college, well above national averages for this demographic.

Both the Nativity faculty and experts on education reform and Catholic schools interviewed for this story credit the school’s success to both the wrap-around services it provides – longer school days, smaller class sizes, and a counselor that follows graduates through high school and college – as well as a culture that instills confidence and a sense of purpose into its students.

But a foundation of the school’s model could be yanked loose under a budget proposed by the Trump administration. If Congress were to approve the administration’s proposal to slash the federally funded AmeriCorps service program, the private school with just 55 students could lose a major source of funding for seven of its eight teachers. The school would survive, insists headmaster John Martin. But it would have to divert more of its attention to fundraising to maintain its services. 

“It would be a significant economic challenge,” says Mr. Martin, who estimates the school would have to come up with $50,000 each year to shore up this loss. “It’s not one that we would shy away from, but it would certainly impact what we do.”

Nativity wouldn’t be alone. It is one of 14 of the 47 schools in the NativityMiguel Coalition – a network of faith inspired member-schools across the United States and in Canada educating students from low-income families – that relies on Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps to subsidize its teachers. On the whole, AmeriCorps serves more than 11,000 schools to tutor students who have fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs, according to the Chalkbeat education news site. Other AmeriCorps programs threatened by the federal budget proposal include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps, and a school-based foster-grandparent program through Senior Corps.

The proposal has intensified a longstanding debate over whether it is the federal government’s responsibility to subsidize public service programs. Now caught in the crossfire, however, are schools like Nativity. These schools offer models that some experts say have proven able to narrow the achievement gap between students from the upper-middle class and inner city – but not without outside support to offset their high costs. 

“Models like this are what it will take if we are genuinely committed as a society to getting all of our children prepared for success,” says Paul Reville, the founding director of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Education Redesign Lab, and a former board member for the Nativity School of Worcester. “The idea that a factory-model, one-size-fits-all school in the suburbs works as well for a city kid [is not viable].... [M]ost [low-income city students] have radically different life experiences and [lack] access to social capital, access to medical, nutritional and mental health support, access to stable housing, access to learning opportunities outside of school.”

The problem with the Nativity model, says Dr. Reville, who was also the former Massachusetts education secretary under Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, is that it's hard to replicate on any kind of large scale.

“It’s a heavily subsidized program, and subsidized not only by private sector donations,” he says, noting the low wages and long hours the school's teachers sign up for.

Faculty and graduates of Nativity say the student-to-teacher ratio there – about 7 to 1 – is a key to its success, and AmeriCorps helps make it possible for a private school to pay for its teachers without charging its students tuition. Of Nativity’s eight teachers, seven receive a $5,800 grant at the end of the year from Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps. This grant is in addition to a $425 to $625 monthly stipend from the school, as well as housing, food, and healthcare, according to Principal Jay Goldrick. Most of the teachers are fresh out of college, with little to no teaching experience.

Notre Dame Mission Volunteers was founded by Catholic nuns in 1992, but is now a part of AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps provides Notre Dame with a $4 million annual grant, nearly half of the money it doles out to 495 volunteers in 22 cities across the country, from Boston and Los Angeles to Pine Apple, Ala. and Apopka, Fla. The rest of the money Notre Dame raises on its own, says executive director Adrienne Andrews.

But on the table is a proposal by the Trump administration to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service, including its signature AmeriCorps program. That would free up $439 million, part of $18 billion in cuts to offset the administration’s request for $30 billion more in defense spending. 

"It is not a core function of the federal government to promote volunteerism, and therefore, these programs should be eliminated," the Trump administration wrote. "To the extent these activities have value, they should be supported by the private and nonprofit sectors."

The president’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, also set off a storm of complaints last month when he said during a news conference that there’s “no demonstrable” evidence that after-school programs that feed kids help them do better at school.

But longer schooldays at Nativity are one of the reasons the school has seen its graduates go on to achieve such success, says Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, executive director of Boston College’s Roche Center for Catholic Education. 

“The model is one that says, ‘Let’s create an environment where the student belongs, the student has a voice, the student comes early in the day and has the support they need from people who are working with them,' ” says the former superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. “It’s not just the traditional school day. It’s beyond that. It allows the school to really address the whole person.”

One of Nativity's stated goals is to provide a hands-on education in and out of the classroom, from the moment the school opens its doors every morning. Students shuffle into the lobby and library of the former YWCA building at 7 a.m. to play chess and socialize. By 7:30, they are vacuuming the halls, a way to both keep costs down for a school that funds its approximately $1 million operating budget solely through donations and also to instill a sense of accountability among students. After a morning meeting, the students are in and out of class until about 3 p.m. Then they move on to sports and clubs. Doors to the school remain open until 7 p.m., with tutoring available for anyone who seeks it for the last two hours of the day.

The academic and extracurricular expectations at the school are high. Students are encouraged to lead literary discussions about books such as Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night,” learn to sail, and participate in a mentorship program with community leaders. But it’s the intangible lessons the school offers students that administrators and teachers say turns the boys into what they call Nativity men.

All of this has added up to graduation rates well above both local and national averages. At New Bedford’s public high school, for instance, about 61 percent of boys graduated in four years.

Nativity's numbers are also slightly higher than the Miguel coalition it belongs to.

Public charter schools such as KIPP have also found similar success in extending the school day and offering additional outside-the-classroom opportunities to its students. KIPP, which has 80,000 students and 200 schools across the country, has seen 94 percent of its graduates finish high school and 44 percent finish college

The Trump administration’s budget proposal could force Nativity and programs like it to come up with a model less reliant on outside support, says Mr. Goldrick, the principal. But Goldrick, also a former Nativity teacher, remains optimistic. The threat to cut AmeriCorps has been on the table before, he says. The current proposal has also forced the school to explore other ways to become more sustainable. One idea, says Goldrick, would be for Nativity to team up with teacher certification programs or graduate schools. 

The school also has at least one alumnus it can rely on for help next year: Jacob Berman. The former student plans to return as a teacher. He says he hopes that he will have the same impact on students that his teachers had on him.

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