Nativity Prep Boston Founded
Nativity Prep was founded by former Boston City Councilor Barry T. Hynes along with Raymond Callahan, S.J., and John Wronski, S.J.
By: Thomas Teravainen (C'22)
June 2, 2023
This research explores the impact of Ignatian values of service and social justice at Nativity Preparatory, a tuition-free Jesuit middle school in Boston, Massachusetts. Interviews and focus groups with students, alumni, staff, and affiliates of the school reveal a dynamic educational community committed to living out these values within their everyday lives.
Reflection, recognition of need, Ignatian mission, and reciprocation comprise the lifeblood of Jesuit schools. Yet, instilling students’ commitment to justice while offering a high-quality education in an urban setting can be a daunting task with a litany of socioeconomic challenges.
The obstacles that preclude Black and Latino students of low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds from achieving academic success are numerous, with studies showing that students of color are more likely to fall behind in school when compared with white upper- and middle-class students of the same age group. The development of the Nativity School model, now known as NativityMiguel , serves as an innovative and effective approach to providing tuition-free, private education to minority students of low-SES backgrounds in urban areas. The first Nativity model school originated with the Nativity Mission Center in 1971 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. This middle school emerged from a program run by the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, offering after-school and evening programs to meet the needs of the children of Puerto Rican immigrants living in 1960s Manhattan. The model spread; today there are 17 Jesuit Nativity schools and 65 NativityMiguel schools across the United States and Canada.
NativityMiguel schools, such as Nativity Preparatory of Boston, seek to nurture middle-school-age students in their formative years through longer school days, three daily meals, holistic academic support, and partnerships with high schools in the area. In his book, Improving Urban Middle Schools: Lessons from the Nativity Schools, L. Mickey Fenzel notes that students who attended Nativity middle schools “were able to find a place where people care about them and help them focus their energies on academics and building meaningful and safe relationships.” This statement held true throughout my interviews with students, faculty, and community members during my three weeks spent at Nativity Prep Boston.
The Archdiocese of Boston and former Boston City Councilor and City Clerk Barry T. Hynes launched the Nativity Preparatory School of Boston (Nativity Prep) in 1990, alongside staff from the Nativity Mission in New York City, Rev. Raymond Callahan, S.J., and Rev. John Wronski, S.J. Nativity Prep remains the longest-running Nativity model school in operation to this day, following the 2012 closure of the Manhattan Nativity Mission Center due to the gentrification of the surrounding area. Its mission today remains almost identical to that at the time of its founding: to provide a tuition-free Jesuit education for low-income boys of color from Boston. However, the spaces of the school and its community are now quite different. The 2020 Nativity Annual Report describes the school in its founding as “a ‘shoestring’ operation attempting to address issues of educational equity and access through a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school.” Originally, the school itself was located in the neighborhood of Roxbury in an “old cement afterschool center” with an all-volunteer faculty and staff, serving children between sixth and eighth grades.
In 2000, the school was moved to a larger building in Jamaica Plain to be closer to the majority of its students’ homes at the time. Today, Nativity Prep serves a larger population of students, including fourth and fifth graders, and operates with full-time teaching and faculty positions, while maintaining volunteer opportunities as well as a two-year post-graduate teaching fellowship.
Nativity Prep was founded by former Boston City Councilor Barry T. Hynes along with Raymond Callahan, S.J., and John Wronski, S.J.
Nativity Prep moved from its original location at Roxbury Crossing to a larger building in Jamaica Plain.
Nativity Prep expanded to take on classes of fourth and fifth grade students.
Nativity Prep takes on a full-time teaching staff and faculty along with the dedicated volunteers.
Additionally, the Nativity network serves as a springboard for high school, college, and job entry for Nativity students, as the Graduate Support Office facilitates lifelong connections to advance the success and educational advancement of Nativity alumni beyond students’ years in middle school.
The mission of Nativity Prep remains inextricable from the broader contours of the socioeconomic demographics of Boston. Similar to the area surrounding Nativity Mission Center in Manhattan, Jamaica Plain and the entirety of the city of Boston have witnessed rapid gentrification, with Boston ranking as the third most intensely gentrified city in the United States between 2013 and 2017, driving many families of low-SES backgrounds out of the city.
Shifting demographics present a threat to Nativity Prep’s mission, which requires deep, personal ties to the communities of the students and families that it serves. Data on the historical educational disparities of Boston illustrates the nexus of issues that were implicated in the founding of Nativity Prep. For example, Boston has experienced steep declines in its population of school-age children (5 to 17 years old) in two phases from 1970 to 1990 and from 2000 to 2010 as a result of white flight, suburbanization, and gentrification. Simultaneously, Boston has witnessed a steady increase in racial diversity over the last 40 years, with the city consisting of only 20% people of color in 1970 and leaping to 56% today. In response to these intertwined social and racial dimensions, Nativity Prep seeks to ameliorate systemic inequities through driving success and higher educational attainment among its student body of low-income students of color.
The mission statement of Nativity Prep Boston contains key phrases that are critical for understanding the underlying vision of the school. The central Jesuit value of inspiring boys from Boston to become men for others and how this is animated within Nativity Prep was of a particular interest to this research. The five Grad at Grad Pillars serve as a framework for deepening the Jesuit mission within students, including being “open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving, and committed to doing justice.” I focused this research on a reflective analysis of the fifth pillar, “a commitment to doing justice,” within the narratives of Nativity teachers, students, administration, and community at large, grounded by central questions posited in Our Way of Proceeding: Standards and Benchmarks for Jesuit Schools in the 21st Century and an internal analysis conducted by Nativity Prep in 2018. Unraveling the interconnected nature of the social and religious dynamics of Nativity reveals common patterns and themes deeply rooted in community-building coupled with student and family engagement. President Brian Maher elaborates on the school’s underlying premise of service, stating, “We go to where the need is greatest. Nativity should be on the frontlines of that” (interview, June 4, 2021). After interviewing 35 research participants, spending 21 days in Boston, and purchasing one new pair of dress shoes, my time at Nativity Prep evidenced that the school seeks to do exactly that, both literally and holistically.
Almost all participants, including students, faculty, and other community members, expressed that the “family-like atmosphere” that Nativity cultivates was the most rewarding aspect of their experience at the school, and a key component for both Nativity’s allure and success. My time spent at Nativity substantiates this claim. I interacted with teachers who would regularly attend their students’ baseball games after school, watched teachers give students a ride home if they needed one, and observed staff members ensure that Nativity Prep is an overall safe, open, and loving space for youth. A reciprocal relationship between teachers and students also became apparent in conversations with community members, one in which, “all members [of the school] are equal, are included, and have ownership in their experience in the school.” Ed Dailey, Nativity Prep’s religion teacher with more than 20 years of experience, highlights the nuances of the Jesuit ideals of service and a commitment to doing justice everyday in the classroom. Dailey expressed gratitude for the reciprocal learning experiences his students created for him, stating, “We teach each other … and a real valuable thing for me is that I have maintained relationships after Nativity with a number of students,” including Anthony Docanto (Nativity Prep ‘11) who eventually came back to Nativity to work as a social studies teacher (interview, June 7, 2021).
Alumni who return to work for their alma mater possess a unique perspective of a commitment to doing justice, informed by Nativity Prep’s education model. Alexander Adames (Nativity Prep ’09), who returned to work as the assistant director of the Graduate Support Office, highlighted the role that student engagement and community-building played in the underlying mission of his work. In addition to his official job responsibilities, which include helping students and alumni with financial and academic support, high school placement, and financial aid applications, Adames assists with test preparation, coaching, advising, and generally serves as both a resource and advisor for alumni (interview, Alexander Adames, June 8, 2021). Adames’ undergraduate studies in political science influenced him to return to Nativity to “do his small part for the world, even if it’s just working in a school with 72 boys, it’s something” (interview, June 8, 2021). Gadisa Goso (Nativity Prep ’97) has had a storied journey working in Jesuit education, beginning with a teaching fellowship at Nativity Prep and culminating with his current role as principal of the school. He returned to work at Nativity Prep in part because he desired to reciprocate the service that Nativity had dedicated to him and his family, stating, “I felt sort of a duty to come back and serve the school that had basically done so much, not only for me, but for my mom with financial aid applications, and my sisters with their college applications and things like that” (interview with Gadisa Goso, Nativity Prep alumna, June 1, 2021).
Nearly a quarter of interviewees recognized the disparity between the low proportion of teachers and staff of color and the 100% POC, low-SES student body of Nativity. Within this segment, there was a demonstrated proclivity for teachers and faculty of color to be more likely to express their opinion on the matter.
“A lot of teachers of color at Nativity relate to us, they are giving us the things that they have learned so that when we go to the outside world we will know them too. They have taught us how to grow into the people we are now, and to be caring, and aware of our surroundings; to be able to be comfortable with who we are on the inside and who we are as a class” (focus group, Hilary Iyare, May 26, 2021).
In a semi-structured focus group convened with eighth grade students, Nativity Prep student Hilary Iyare recognized that non-POC educators remain capable of imparting some of the same knowledge and tools as educators of color through embedding themselves within the community and forming meaningful relationships with students, faculty, and families. Belkis Cruz, mother of two Nativity alumni and then administrative assistant at Nativity Prep, also acknowledged the lack of diversity of the faculty when compared with the student body and families. Despite having a student body with families of “Dominican, Central American, African, African-American, and Puerto Rican” backgrounds, Cruz highlighted that, “If we’re going to compare percentages of diversity between students and staff, or the faculty, maybe the percentage is not the same” (interview with Belkis Cruz, mother of Nativity Prep alumni, June 10, 2021).
% = Percentage
Nevertheless, Belkis espoused her support for the work undertaken by the Nativity educational community, regardless of the diversity of the staff. She said, “I always say that doesn’t mean that they will not deliver a good job or perform the job the right way,” recognizing a similar crossroads between performance and representation as Iyare and the eighth grade focus group (interview with Belkis Cruz, June 10, 2021). These statements demonstrate that, in the eyes of its community, the success of the Nativity educational model may not be entirely upended by lapses in diversity, but it remains a key consideration for the school moving forward, as expressed by both students, family members, faculty, and the 2018 Sponsorship Review Self-Study.
Students at Nativity expressed their personal connections to the idea of becoming a man for others, predicating their understanding on a progression of the values of mutual respect, love, and social justice throughout their years in the school. Responses in focus groups detailed formal components of students’ connections to social justice, including participation in marches and social justice movements, community service, and classwork, but also more informal indicators, namely a love for their neighbors and classmates and the desire to help others. Luis Mendevar, a participant in a focus group of fifth grade students, explained that he wanted to become a man for others because “Everybody at Nativity has shown me respect and I want to show that respect to other people,” providing a glimpse into younger students’ understandings of Ignatian values at Nativity (focus group, Luis Mendevar, May 26, 2021). Zion Lerick, an eighth grade focus group participant, illustrates the evolution of the Nativity Prep students’ grasp of this pillar, where he finds that being a man for others means “lending a helping hand and being a friend to everybody no matter if they’re the same skin color as you, different gender, different economic situation, or anything like that. You are always open to helping anyone and everyone” (focus group, Zion Lerick, May 27, 2021).
Nativity Prep must not only keep in mind the role that it plays in attracting students, but also in retaining its teaching fellows, as teaching fellowship opportunities abound within Boston and across the country. Almost a third of adult interview participants expressed that teacher turnover presented a major challenge for the institution’s longevity and consistency in the education provided to its students. As President Brian Maher points out, “turnover brings you a lot of new energy and a lot of new excitement,” but it also comes with its own inherent set of challenges, in that the fellows will only be teaching at the school for two years (interview, June 4, 2021). Mikaela Prego, as the Fourth Grade Lead Teacher and one of Nativity Prep’s most veteran teachers, has had the opportunity to work with teaching fellows. She acknowledges that the presence of such a young teaching staff has its benefits, stating, “It’s valuable in that you have a lot of energy and a lot of new ideas,” but also recognizes the difficulties associated with maintaining “consistency” throughout the high rate of turnover for teaching fellows (interview with Prego, June 2, 2021). Another challenge regarding the acquisition of dedicated teaching fellows includes attracting and retaining teachers and staff of color. Adames expounds on how, beyond recruiting more teachers of color, Nativity can specifically target Nativity alumni by, “Making it an available opportunity for graduates … letting them know the importance of not only coming back and giving back, but your presence here in and of itself, like what it does psychologically to the boys,” as evidenced by his own work as an alumnus faculty member (interview, June 8, 2021).
Measurements and evaluations of student success within Nativity serve as a key component for monitoring the growth and embodiment of the multifaceted school mission. Some faculty expressed a need to reevaluate some of the core elements of operating a competitive educational environment in Boston, calling for further innovative ways of thinking about measuring success. At the moment, tracking student progress on developing an awareness of the five Grad at Grad pillars and applying it to their lives, including a commitment to justice, is anecdotal in nature. Goso indicates that the number of students who return to the school to volunteer, teach, or just visit to say hello serves as a measure of the success of Nativity Prep in cultivating a reciprocal relationship with its students (interview, June 1, 2021). Ed Dailey elaborated on the caution that Nativity Prep needs to execute in “not evaluating the boys’ success on their proximity to whiteness,” but rather, looking at anecdotal evidence of student and teacher success forged through personal relationships and mutual understanding (interview, June 7, 2021).
In my conversation with Ed Dailey, he reflected on how the mission of Nativity Prep has changed since he began teaching at the school:
“To be as candid as possible, we have gotten away from trying to make our boys white. A lot of this was learning the white code. And I objected to that from the first time I was here, I really thought that was teaching the boys to be white so that they could get into the best private schools. I understand why that's being done, but it is asking them to deny themselves. What's better is to teach them to code their own community and learn the white code, but not adopt the white code. I think that's a huge change to value our students for who they are, to really uplift what they bring from their own traditions and families” (interview, June 7, 2021).
Nativity’s challenges leave the door open for further adaptation and innovation, including the need for more in-depth oversight and accountability. Nativity Prep also lacks external anti-racism and anti-bias sensitivity training, which some interviewees thought the school could benefit from. One Nativity educator expressed this sentiment, saying that, “There was no social justice training, no training on gender, no training on race, none of that,” (interview #6, Nativity staff member, May 28, 2021) albeit that the 2018 Sponsorship Review Self-Study asserts that, “During the 2017-2018 school year, an emphasis was placed on helping teachers identify implicit bias and increase cultural awareness.” Thus, the future of Nativity Prep will require developing new ways of instilling a commitment to doing justice within its faculty and student body. For example, I tuned into morning meetings that celebrated Caribbean countries and cultures each week, and I witnessed social studies teachers adapting curricula to include lessons on diaspora communities, refugees, and valuable life skills. This type of pedagogical adaptation and curricular development allows for Nativity to connect to the lives of students through relevant coursework while providing the tools and resources to live out a commitment to doing justice.
Operating a competitive, tuition-free private school requires a significant allocation of resources, whether financial, religious, emotional, or sheer manpower. According to Maher, “this work is intensive, and it’s exhaustive. It takes a lot of resources, both financial and human” (interview, June 4, 2021). In spite of this, the school still has an alumni network, a healthy endowment, and a Board of Trustees that is committed to making the mission of Nativity attainable and sustainable. Maher praises these efforts, emphasizing how “It’s worth it. It is worth every cent and it’s worth every ounce of energy. The takeaway from this is that in an environment of love, caring, and attention, students will thrive” (interview, June 4, 2021).
“You didn't come to Nativity to find a job, you came because you really believed in what they were doing” (Interview #18, former Nativity teacher, June 9, 2021).
Regardless of these obstacles, continuing to cultivate Nativity’s communal environment maintains primacy in all objectives. For instance, during my time at Nativity, I watched students “hydro-dip” sneakers that had been donated to the school in order to provide an activity for classwide retreats.
This focus on community also continued during the pandemic. Despite not being able to provide three meals a day to the students due to the barring of volunteers, the students were still afforded a snow cone machine, pizza, and a number of other treats. Nativity Prep also provided each of its students’ families with a “goodie bag,” along with the technological resources and support necessary to conduct virtual learning. These resources play a critical role in the commitment to doing justice, as these amenities would not be possible for students to attain within neighborhood schools.
In terms of monetary resources, the financial model of Nativity relies on the generosity of donors. Bridging the gap between wealthy beneficiaries and Nativity’s low-income student population poses its own set of particular challenges. Abigail Clavin, a former Nativity teaching fellow now working as the director of the office of advancement, acknowledged these challenges in our conversation: “Most of our donors are very wealthy people from Boston, who grew up with a very different lifestyle than our students. They’re usually interested in Nativity because they want to give back in some way. But there’s a balance between how much to share about students’ lives and how to get the donors to really understand what they’re donating to and what it means” (interview with Clavin, June 8, 2021). The members of the Board of Trustees serve as the keepers of Nativity Prep’s mission in conjunction with President Brian Maher. As Nativity Prep is a tuition-free school, the trustees also play a large role in fundraising efforts.
In a conversation with Cathy O’Neil, a trustee of the school since 2004 and mother of two former Nativity Prep teaching fellows who has served in various volunteer positions at Nativity, she pointed to some of the difficulties that had been posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in connecting with students: “It’s been very difficult to fulfill the mission. How do you educate these boys? How do you tell them that you’re there for them? I just applaud the faculty and staff for thinking of ways to connect and pursuing it” (interview with O’Neil, June 8, 2021). Cathy herself struggled to connect to “the depth of the mission and the daily needs and issues that go on with the school” (interview, June 8, 2021). Nevertheless, she remains committed to the mission of “establishing an even playing field” for the boys of Nativity in their pursuits in high school and beyond, and she hopes to one day return to having more involvement in the daily happenings of the educational community (interview with O’Neil, June 8, 2021). The Board of Trustees itself can be described as a diverse group of people, with four alumni currently serving as members, although there is no set quota or limit for the inclusion of Nativity alumni within the group (interview with Maher, June 4, 2021). President Maher expresses his hopes for having more Nativity alumni on the board, but for now remains focused on supporting the school’s mission through “finding the best people to do the job,” including O’Neil, who demonstrates immense generosity and care for the boys of Nativity Prep (interview, June 4, 2021).
Looking forward, the operational future of Nativity could deviate from its central focus on boys living within Boston and expand into surrounding areas to reach new populations of students. Expansion could include bringing in students residing in the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area, beyond the technical boundaries of the city itself, and/or merging with similar schools and populations.
“When you look at where all the students who are fit for what we're looking for, the vast majority are in the Dorchester and Mattapan area. And then when you look at our competitive schools there are about 30 plus schools, 28 of them are in Dorchester with a very dense and very competitive pie that we're all sort of fighting over, and it's only gotten smaller.” (interview with Gadisa Goso, June 1, 2021).
Adult interviewees of the Nativity community also identified expansion or relocation as a key consideration for Nativity. However, expanding the size of the student population could conflict with Nativity Prep’s dedication to small class sizes after increasing the size of the student population. Considering the school’s move from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, Nativity Prep remains focused on “going to where the need is greatest.” Whether this commitment to the mission statement today necessitates physical relocation, restructuring, or reanalysis of objectives, one thing remains clear: the faculty’s unique attunement to the interests and needs of their students (interview with Brian Maher, June 4, 2021).
Nativity Prep operates a successful model that offers an education for its students who would not otherwise have access to an affluent schooling experience, laden with Jesuit values of service and justice. Community-building serves as the primary channel for enacting a commitment to doing justice among its faculty and students, within and beyond the walls of the school. Research at Nativity Prep over the course of three weeks of fieldwork yielded observations that illustrate the unwavering commitment of the school’s educators and faculty to the success, well-being, and future of its resilient student body. A remark from Nora Frias, then director of Nativity’s Office of Graduate Support, illustrates the “open to growth” mindset that is embedded throughout Nativity Prep: “I think we rest on our mission and hope that it will just happen innately, some of it does. And I think there’s space for it to be done more intentionally…Because I think it’s everywhere. Like it should exist in the work of the Office of Graduate Support. It should exist in the curriculum, it should exist in our student discipline system. It should exist in our retention and recruitment of faculty, it should exist in our board, it should really exist everywhere” (interview with Nora Frias, May 27, 2021). Nativity Prep’s mission statement lays the groundwork for achieving equity, and for the most part it does just that. In the future, its success will hinge upon continuing to question why they do the things that they do or the things that they do not, and whether or not those things are rooted in justice at their core.
 In the early 2000s the NativityMiguel Network was formed to create a formal network between over 50 Nativity and San Miguel schools across the country. Following the sudden dissolution of the NativityMiguel Network, a new organization with a new structure was launched under the name of the NativityMiguel Coalition in 2012 with 35 member schools. Today the coalition has 49 member schools in total, including Nativity Prep Boston.
The views expressed in this student research are those of the author(s) and not of the Berkley Center or Georgetown University.