PROVIDENCE — At the tiny San Miguel School, the conversation revolves around changing lives, not boosting test scores.
At the daily morning meeting, the students — 64 middle school boys from some of the city’s neediest families — reflect on John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” an unorthodox choice for a Catholic school.
They discuss the word of the week — “elated” — and one boy says, “I will be elated when I cross the stage.”
Then a couple of students “share out.”
One boy who was asked to leave because of his chronic absenteeism has since returned.
“This is the best school for me,” he told the gathering. “I came back strong.”
“We’re very happy you’re back,” said Brother Lawrence Goyette, the school’s leader and founder.
The Lasallian Christian Brother founded the private school 21 years ago on little more than the belief that young boys from impoverished families deserve the same kind of education as their peers at La Salle Academy.
The middle school opened with 16 boys and two teachers in a former Lutheran elementary school. Although the furniture was secondhand, there was nothing shabby about the education that Brother Lawrence championed.
He built San Miguel on a firm handshake, a respect for others and a willingness to take risks.
“Every child is treasured, and they know it,” Brother Lawrence said.
Bob McMahon, the school’s first board president, said he used to fret over how to measure the school’s success.
“Perhaps the real success of San Miguel is captured succinctly and beautifully in the phrase that Journal editorial writer Froma Harrop coined years ago — the miracle of San Miguel,” he said. “How do you measure miracles? You can’t, at least not right away, because the measure of San Miguel’s success is in saving lives.”
Schools often speak of creating a sense of community. At San Miguel, actions speak louder than words. Graduates keep coming back to visit. Some of them mentor younger students. There is a special San Miguel tradition in which eighth graders are asked to mentor the newbies, the fifth graders.
“I think San Miguel is the best thing that happened to me and my family,” said Omaris Maria, whose two sons graduated from San Miguel. “The best thing they taught my sons was how to always do the right thing.”
Both of her sons have attended four-year colleges, and they still keep in touch with Brother Lawrence.
“It was the little things that mattered — the firm handshake, the eye contact,” said a former student, Johan Molina, now a junior at the University of Rhode Island. “I’d just like to say thank you for giving us that extra attention, for wanting to be the change in the world.”
San Miguel is about building lasting relationships. Faculty members follow graduates through high school, helping them figure out financial aid. They keep in touch with families as their children move through college and beyond.
Brother Lawrence recalls how one group of fifth graders used to talk about what it was like growing up without fathers.
“When we grow up, we want to be present for our children,” the students would say. Today, every one of them is a father himself or a father figure to someone else.
San Miguel never gives up on a child, even years later. Brother Lawrence remembers hearing from a young man after an 18-year hiatus. He had dropped out of high school and was using steroids. Lawrence met with him again and again.
The boy wound up getting his GED and going to URI, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics.
As Brother Lawrence says, “Once a Miguel Man, always a Miguel Man.”
There are now 12 other Miguel schools in cities as far away as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
Brother Lawrence turns 65 this summer. He said he’s leaving “while people still like me.”
The time seems right, he said, because all of the pieces are falling into place: his successor, Mark Carty, a fellow Lasallian, joined the school last summer.
He was invited to be a consultant for several months at the latest San Miguel school, in California.
And the family of the late Ben Mondor, former owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, donated $1.1 million to the school. That enabled San Miguel to buy the building from St. Ann Parish and finally establish a permanent home.
On the final day of school, fifth graders give the departing eighth graders a small gift. The teachers make sure to have boxes of tissues because everyone winds up crying.
Nothing symbolizes the value of relationships more than this ritual passing of the guard, and Brother Lawrence is always deeply moved:
“The love in the room is palpable.”