"I often recall one of the founding acts of the Miguel School movement in the United States. Sitting in chairs intended for kindergarten students around a table of similar proportions, I remember meeting with a parent and her son at what was once St. Paul's Lutheran Day School and would soon be The San Miguel School of Providence. I reassured them that the student desks, which would be delivered soon, would be more appropriate for middle school students, and that the textbooks would be arriving with the desks. I asked them to picture a computer on the empty table in the classroom and said that a student handbook would be available within the first weeks of school. The smell of paint still fresh, I introduced them to Licia Koch and Mariesa Jozwiak, our first two Lasallian Volunteers and recent college graduates, who would be the fifth and sixth grade teachers. Perhaps in other neighborhoods the parent would have smiled politely and enrolled her son elsewhere, but in this neighborhood, where educational opportunity is scarce, the parent and her son became one of the pioneering students and first families of The San Miguel School.
Our school grew slowly over the next couple of years with the addition of a seventh grade in 1994 and an eighth grade in 1995. In two years the school grew from fourteen boys to forty-five. It took a couple more years for the school to reach its maximum enrollment of sixty-four middle school boys. During those first few years the school was a bare bones operation: a slightly longer day than other city schools, but there was no after school program in place and summer camps did not begin until 1996. Indeed, the school had only one computer during its first three years!
Although a Board of Directors was in place at the school's beginning, it was composed of about six members who met frequently but followed no regular agenda, took no minutes and looked no further than when the next meeting would be held. Discussions were usually limited to fundraising and development concerns since there was a serious lack of basic funds to operate the school. The school's budget grew from $50,000 the first year to $87,000 in year two. During the 1995-6 school year the budget skyrocketed to over $150,000 with the addition of the eighth grade, the after school program and Camp Miguel. There was still no school secretary and the position of Director of Development was still several years away. The greatest single gift to our small school during its infancy was the rent-free use of St. Paul's former school building. The Lutheran Parish also charged no fee for utilities during our first couple of years. Without the generosity of St. Paul's parishioners it is doubtful that the school would have made it past year three.
What began as a lone school in one of Providence's poorest neighborhoods grew into the national Miguel Schools Network, a wave of fifteen new schools established by the De La Salle Christian Brothers to specifically address the needs of students from economically-poor communities. A Miguel School is defined as a small, Lasallian elementary or middle school that is not tuition-driven and serves students and families from all faiths and cultures. Almost all our students are considered at-risk due to the voids and pressures associated with low-income neighborhoods, and some students may already be struggling with the effects of the environment.
From our humble beginnings in Providence, The San Miguel School possesses essential qualities that have been and continue to be critical to inspiring, constructing and sustaining a positive, nurturing school model that empower our students, families and communities to achieve beyond their greatest hopes.
Anyone who has ever set foot in our school on Carter Street can attest to the presence of the Spirit at work. Perhaps it's the teacher greeting a student at the school door with a handshake. Perhaps it's a student reading with a tutor for an hour each day. Perhaps it's the Assistant to the Executive Director coaching the school baseball team or playing a game of chess with a fifth grader. Perhaps it's the Director of Graduate Support discussing high school possibilities with an eighth grader, one-on-one. Perhaps it's the student packing a backpack with books at 4:30 PM after nine hours of school and mustering enough energy to wish the school's Dean of Students a good evening. Perhaps it's the collective smile of a family at the graduation of a child who was told he'd never make it. It's probably the sense that anything is possible if you work hard and dare to dream.
In the late ‘90's, raising the necessary funding to operate started to become easier. With a lengthy editorial in the Providence Journal touting the strengths of our school, funds began coming in from major sources including the June Rockwell Levy Foundation, Mary Dexter Chafee Foundation, Ocean State Charities, and the Governor's Justice Commission. After inclusion in the United Way's Educational Initiatives Program, our annual budget soared to over $600,000 and we were able to put our yearly surplus into money market accounts which were yielding interest. We were gaining a reputation as an educational model that worked wonders for kids. Students who were failing, whose first language was not English, who were dealing with difficult family issues, were not only becoming successful, but were going on to some of the finest secondary schools in the state.
By 2000 our quarterly newsletter was going out to over 2500 people, we began bestowing the Miguel Medal to our most loyal supporters, and our Board of Directors was electing officers with term limits for all members. The organizational structure of the school was being solidified and, as a result, we were more productive.
Still a challenge was our acceptance of too many boys from difficult circumstances. During the course of any given year we were forced to ask at least six families to move their boys back into the public school system. We quickly found out that, without the services of a special education staff and a school social worker, we were not equipped to handle extreme cases. At one point in the year 2000 we had close to one quarter of our students with at least one parent incarcerated or involved in drugs. We were taking on more than we could handle.
Over the past six years The San Miguel School has made great strides in improving its quality of education and in having realistic goals. While trying to recruit students who are motivated and come from families that are supportive, we also reach out to boys from challenging situations. Perhaps it's a boy whose first language is not English and that has slowed his progress. It could be a boy that has great promise but his sibling has dropped out of school because of the lack of a positive role model. Many of our students dealt with behavior issues in their previous schools and being in a caring and nurturing environment with a great deal of structure has helped them considerably.
With additions to our staff, we have been able to take on more challenging kids and maintain a more stable school environment. Our school addresses the needs of the "whole" child. Many of our kids are far from material resources, far from safe neighborhoods, far from strong role models, far from supportive families and far from a voice that gently but firmly calls them into responsible adulthood. Our staff tries to be that beacon of light that charts a course for our boys through difficult times. The students are living miracles of that work.
In recent years I have witnessed the incredible generosity of staff, Board members, volunteers and others in keeping the dream of 1993 alive. We transform the lives of urban kids into gentlemen who are proud of their school and who want to be successful and productive members of society. Our students work to help others in their communities. All of this does not happen by accident. It is part of a bigger plan and our boys "get it." Many of our graduates have shown a desire to remain involved with our school and its mission after they leave us. One student wrote, "One thing I do know about my future is that at some point in my life, I want to give back to San Miguel what they have given to me. I would like to give back all the love, the education and the hope the school gave to me. For me, it would be a great honor to return and work with the new students that come through each year."
In a school like San Miguel...a place that is mission-driven, where everybody knows each others' names, where accountability is expected...urban boys can become productive members of society and true gentlemen. There are many challenges that lie ahead in a future yet to be. But with hope, determination and hard work, miracles will continue to happen for many years."