San Diego Union-Tribune, July 2009

San Diego Union-Tribune, July 2009

On a Mission for Low-income Youths: School’s support doesn’t end after students move on

San Diego Union-Tribune (July, 2009)
By Chris Moran

Louis Centanni, an eighth-grade teacher at Nativity Prep Academy, greeted student Gilbert Garcia at the start of the school day last week. (Howard Lipin/Union-Tribune)

San Diego—It was a startling wake-up call for a high school sophomore whose attention had drifted from history class. He looked out a window and saw the face of the principal – his middle school principal.

Jonathan Arteaga recognized that stare – “like into your soul” – and thought he was in trouble. Principal Brendan Sullivan had directed it at him plenty of times at Nativity Prep Academy, a tiny Catholic middle school in San Diego’s Stockton neighborhood.

But the visit turned out to be the fulfillment of what Jonathan had previously believed was a dubious promise. Nativity Prep, which runs a 10-hour-a-day school for about 60 sixth-through eighth-graders, pledged to help him and his peers get through high school after they graduated from the academy. Sullivan was making a routine checkup to ensure Jonathan wasn’t slipping in his studies.

Nativity Prep’s mission is to deliver the sons and daughters of cooks and housekeepers to the gates of a university. Its students are all from low-income families, some with parents who don’t speak English.

The academy takes that mission so seriously that it spends about one in every five of its dollars on kids who no longer attend the school. Its graduate support program serves more than 80 former students now in high school through weekly tutoring and SAT prep classes.

“It doesn’t end with middle school. In order to break the cycle of poverty, which is our ultimate goal, we have to continue on to high school,” said Jill Cardenas, a sixth-grade teacher at Nativity Prep.

Nativity Prep, which operates from what the school’s founder says was once a motorcycle gang’s headquarters, also helps pay tuition for its former students at Bishop’s, Francis Parker, Mater Dei and other private high schools.

Except for about $30,000 in reimbursements from the national school lunch program, none of Nativity Prep’s $934,000 annual budget is government money. The Catholic school doesn’t get money from the church either, and it has never charged students tuition.

Instead it lurches into every new year confident that donations and fundraisers will allow the school to keep pace with its vision.

“We can’t not provide a scholarship to a kid who’s going to Mater Dei. He’s got to go,” said Nativity Prep founder David Rivera.

With no experience as an educator, Rivera, 42, set out to become one after a middle-of-the-night revelation to start an organization for underprivileged children.

He quit his real estate job, went to law school at Notre Dame and spent two years borrowing space in the mail room at a Catholic school in Linda Vista researching how to run a nonprofit.

Rivera opened Nativity Prep in 2001 with a cadre of fresh college graduates who taught for $35 a week. He put them up in a group home. He lived in a trailer, without plumbing, in the backyard.

Word spread throughout Stockton, Logan Heights and National City. Soon, Nativity Prep grew.

So did its professionalism. The school recently earned its accreditation, with evaluators praising its mission, principal, parent involvement and teachers’ eagerness to get training.

Four of Nativity Prep’s 10 teachers are credentialed and nine receive full-time salaries, though they earn less than public school educators. Rivera earns about $70,000 annually.

Meeting payroll depends on finding people with a passion for Catholic education and a willingness to write five-figure checks.

“We want to teach the kids in a positive way with a really strong moral foundation and strong three Rs,” said Philip Lebherz, a San Francisco-area insurance executive who is one of the academy’s biggest financial backers. “We have to create more of these schools than Father Serra created missions.”

The economy’s effect on philanthropy had by February brought Nativity Prep to within two weeks of running out of money. The $4 million in pledges Rivera secured to build a new campus shrank by three-quarters when the portfolios of would-be benefactors contracted.

But Delfina Centanni, the school’s director of advancement, was ready for a downturn. She has professionals from the auto, investment, real estate and construction industries on her board who warned her the economy would soon head south. She organized fundraising events, sent solicitations, and is planning to broaden support for the school through social-media Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter, OptINnow and YouTube.

When people learn about Nativity Prep, Centanni said, they open their hearts – and their checkbooks. “This is too meaningful a project to fail,” she said.

Students and parents interview to get in. Only low-income families can apply. Sullivan said he takes only committed families. Parents sign a contract pledging to volunteer. He asks how they would handle it if their children complain about the workload. Would they push them to continue, he asks, or let them decide whether to withdraw?

If the parents say it would be up to the students, Sullivan says, it indicates that Nativity Prep is not the place for them.

Eighth-grader Richy Cardona is a typical student. His days at Nativity Prep include rigorous academics, soccer practice and Mass at a neighborhood church. His class visited a college campus recently.

He especially admires the way the school treats his older sister, who is about to enter her sophomore year at Mater Dei High. Nativity Prep gives her the tuition assistance and bus passes that make it possible for her to attend the Catholic school in Chula Vista.

“That shows me that they care about us,” said Richy, 13.

Nativity Prep is sending its first graduates to college. Of the 15 students whose families gambled on Rivera’s vision in fall 2001, 11 of them graduated from high school last month and have college-acceptance letters to San Diego State, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Academy of Art University, Humboldt State and other universities.

Two of the 15 are pursuing GEDs and the other two plan to return to high school and receive their diplomas next spring.

Jonathan Arteaga plans to study graphic design at Mesa College this September. He said the tutoring he got from Nativity Prep helped him through high school. So did the talks with the Nativity Prep teacher who picked him up at High Tech High Media Arts School in Point Loma twice a week and shuttled him back to his old school for tutoring.

Among those who attended his graduation were two teachers from Nativity Prep.

“It’s surprising that they actually went to all the trouble. They didn’t ask for gas. They didn’t ask us for anything. They just want to help us out,” Jonathan said. “They actually care.”