Jesuit Father Jack Podsiadlo had never heard of the Society of Jesus until the religious order opened Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit High School in 1954.
But the Jesuit teachers he met during his four years at McQuaid were so influential that he entered the order in 1958 after graduating in the school’s first class.
Fifty years later, the longtime educator said he hopes to transform the lives of young Rochesterians as his was transformed.
Father Podsiadlo is part of a group that is working to open a new middle school for at-risk Rochester children in grades 5 to 8. The independent Catholic school would be part of the national NativityMiguel Network of Schools and sponsored locally by the Jesuits of the New York Province and the Sisters of St. Joseph. Though boys and girls would attend classes separately, they would come together for school events and activities.
Diocesan spokesman Doug Mandelaro said Bishop Matthew H. Clark has agreed to the school in concept and is awaiting a more formal proposal from the organizing committee.
Like a similar NativityMiguel school that opened in Buffalo in 2004 and more than 60 related schools that have opened nationally, the local school would have as its goal transforming lives and offering inner-city children a way out of poverty, organizers said.
Father Podsiadlo said he first became familiar with the NativityMiguel model by working from 1973-79 as a teacher at the first Nativity school, which is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He returned to the Manhattan school to serve as principal and executive director from 1984-2001, and between 2001 and 2006 helped form and headed the national Nativity Network of Schools. Before taking a sabbatical, he also served in top roles when the Nativity Network merged with the Miguel Schools Network in 2006.
“We were committed to a goal of helping all of the students not just get through middle school but graduate from high school and move on into college or other post-secondary education,” the priest said of the NativityMiguel model.
Father Podsiadlo said one hallmark of NativityMiguel schools is their extended daily and yearly schedules. In addition to providing more class time, he noted that extended school day and year ensures that students get three meals a day and stay busy, rather than being at home unsupervised.
Though details are still being worked out, the Rochester school would run from 7:30 a.m. to 6 or 7:30 p.m. Students also would attend classes on Saturdays and for about six to eight weeks during the summer, said Bill Carpenter, one of the organizers of the school and a parishioner of Pittsford’s St. Louis Church. The normal academic day would run until about 3 p.m. and have a heavy focus on math, reading and writing skills, said Carpenter, a former chairman and CEO of Bausch & Lomb who now directs several other business interests. The rest of the afternoon would be used for sports, fine arts, clubs, tutoring and a study hall, he said.
“This academic model is not for every student,” Carpenter acknowledged. “It takes a tremendous amount of desire and fortitude to be in school for this long a day, during Saturdays and during the summer.”
Yet the model has been successful for those students who are up to the challenge, according to national statistics from NativityMiguel. Across the NativityMiguel Network, 82 percent of students graduate from high school, as compared to 50-percent graduation rates in the public districts in which the schools are located. Eighty-six percent of the network’s graduates nationwide go on to earn college degrees.
But the students local organizers hope to recruit will have a long journey before they reach such goals, Carpenter said.
“These children will enter two to three years behind their grade level, and the goal is by eighth grade to have them at grade level,” he said.
Though it might seem like a hard sell to ask a middle-school student to commit to such a rigorous schedule, Msgr. John Jordan, executive director of the national NativityMiguel Network of Schools, said the numbers show it’s not. NativityMiguel averages a 97-percent daily attendance rate from the 4,000 students enrolled in its 64 inner-city schools in 27 states, he said.
Father Podsiadlo said one reason for the high attendance rates is that NativityMiguel students get to have fun in school. He cited the example of one network school that offered a popular extracurricular class in Italian cooking. After students learned to make garlic bread, linguini with clam sauce and other dishes, their homework was to cook a meal for their mothers, he said.
Msgr. Jordan said the atmosphere at NativityMiguel schools also helps to engage kids from impoverished, single-parent or broken homes.
“They find a sense of security and success,” he said.
Middle school is a critical time for students as they may be tempted to drop out or get into trouble with drugs, gangs or other problems, Carpenter observed.
“They begin to test their oats and feel their strength,” Msgr. Jordan agreed. “It’s a good time to keep them and give them a value before they get off into the streets.”
Organizers are working quickly to get the school up and running. Carpenter said the hope is to secure a site for the school this summer and to hire a principal and possibly a few staff members. To start the school, organizers would offer an after-school program for fourth- and fifth-graders for the 2008-09 academic year. The targeted opening for the school’s fifth and sixth grades would be September 2009, and subsequent grades would be added in future years.
Annual tuition for the school will be approximately $400, or about $30 a month, but no child would be turned away due to financial need, Carpenter said, noting that organizers are attempting to attract scholarship funding from individuals, foundations and corporations.
Carpenter, a member of McQuaid Jesuit’s board of directors, said plans for the school have been discussed for about four years and — although the two schools would be separate entities — establishment of the local NativityMiguel school was included in McQuaid’s most recent strategic plan. The idea also was promoted by McQuaid’s president, William Hobbs, who previously had worked at NativityMiguel schools, Father Podsiadlo said.
Carpenter said he had learned of the NativityMiguel concept when his son taught for two years at Nativity Preparatory School of Boston.
“I saw how it changed the lives of these kids,” Carpenter said. “It looked like something that would be beneficial to Rochester as another alternative for kids in the city who are poor and don’t have opportunities.”