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Catholic Education

School inspires girls to aim high

New York

The Sr. Thea Bowman Middle School in central Harlem may be the only school in the nation whose students, all girls, have to climb a mountain to gain admission. What makes the climb so taxing is that there are no practice slopes in Harlem.

None, that is, unless one counts the boulders -- poverty, drugs, alcohol, teen sex and pregnancy, street crime and unsafe housing -- strewn in the way of most local adolescents. Most of Thea Bowman’s students come from single-parent homes where supervision is often scarce because a parent is overworked, burdened by addiction or simply neglectful.

“Our students have not experienced much racism because they’ve never been out of the neighborhood,” said school president and former principal Laurel Senger. To win admission into the middle school -- the school program includes grades six through eight -- fifth-graders attend four weeks of “basic” summer school, a week’s camping trip in Williamstown, Mass., and an interview with Senger.

On the next to last day at camp, the girls make the 3,491-foot ascent to the summit of nearby Mount Greylock. “It’s a formidable task for most,” Senger said, noting that many fear they cannot complete the three-hour -- or longer -- climb.

But all do. Why they reach the top has less to do with their brawn and build and more to do with their bravery and the support they receive from other girls on the journey, Senger said.

On their last camp day, the girls sit around a large drawing of “Attitude Mountain.” They place their names at various levels on the mountain, indicating how they thought they handled the weeklong experience. Most put themselves halfway to two-thirds of the distance up the mountain. However, they find that their companions move their names to a higher elevation, based on a good deed, an act of sharing, an encouraging word or gesture that may have gone unnoticed by the girl herself, but not by the recipient of her kindness.

Evaluating the climb and the entire camp experience has helped girls unlock their desire to “aim high” and follow the paths that will lead them to higher education, a career and an enriched family life. In their yearbooks, eighth-graders have credited the camp and the climb with being the place and event where they discovered their own talents and their ability to lead, to trust and to master challenges.

Attitude is on a scale with academics at Thea Bowman, which is housed on the top floor of St. Aloysius School on West 132nd Street. Now in its eighth year, the Sr. Thea Bowman Middle School is one of a quartet of programs offered by St. Aloysius School. In 1990 Senger, a school administrator and specialist in romance languages and the arts, took over the school when it was collapsing under the weight of falling enrollment, low teacher morale and much debt. St. Aloysius lacked a library and had no preschool or kindergarten programs. Five years earlier the Jesuits of the New York province had agreed to assume responsibility for the administration of both parish and school.

For Senger, who had taken a leave from education and was working in New York at Covenant House, the opportunity to build up a school and help students succeed in the central inner city “was an educator’s dream. … I thought it would be great to reach kids who might be on their way to Covenant House” -- a refuge for street children. “Kids don’t realize how one decision or mistake can get them into the street.”

Following a year of community assessment, she initiated a program for children ages 2 and a half to 5 years, another for first- through fifth-graders and two separate middle school programs for boys and girls. Fifty-five boys are enrolled in The Gonzaga Program, directed by Jesuit Fr. Edward Durkin. It operates a few blocks away, in a section of nearby All Saints School. In five years St. Aloysius grew from 116 to 300 students.

Bowman girls don’t mind not rubbing shoulders in the crowded hallways or sharing classroom time with the boys. “We can be more focused on our studies and do our work better,” said Seymone Kelly, an eighth-grader. Kelly doesn’t mind wearing a uniform either. It means less daily deliberation over the “What shall I wear?” dilemma.

The Sr. Thea Bowman program is the only all-girls, Jesuit-sponsored middle school in the nation. The Jesuits run some 50 middle and high schools; a dozen are boys only, the rest coed. A hallmark of Jesuit education is contained in the motto, “To be more,” Senger said. Kindness and consideration for others are enshrined in the Jesuit charism of cura personalis or care for the individual. “We tend to each one’s needs here.”

The girls’ program takes its name and much of its inspiration from the late African-American Franciscan nun.

Born in rural Mississippi in 1937, Bowman chose to become a Catholic at 10. When she was 16, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wis., the order that had taught her. She died of cancer in 1990 -- the year the Harlem middle school named to honor her was being planned.

Wherever Bowman went -- whether in front of school children or facing the body of U.S. bishops in her wheelchair at their June 1989 meeting -- she demonstrated her pride in being Catholic and in being black, finding in her roots and her elders the gifts of song, healing and wisdom.

Bowman’s Franciscan mentors of the 1940s and 1950s had challenged her and her classmates every day to learn and to help someone else. Though they didn’t know it at the time, they were learning to cooperate and to build their community, Bowman later wrote. The pedagogy that primed her teaching career is also central to the philosophy of Senger, who was previously an administrator in the Vermont public school system.

Prepared to succeed

The 55 girls in the Sr. Thea Bowman program are also being challenged, not just academically, but in ways that build character and develop leadership skills, Senger told NCR. “They are being prepared to succeed in competitive, independent New York City high schools, where often they will be a distinct minority,” as African-American students, she said. All of the eighth-graders have already earned a place in one of the city’s Catholic high schools, and several have won multiple acceptances.

In the years since Bowman’s first graduating class of eighth-graders, all have finished high school. Only one girl left, and she completed her G.E.D., Senger said, adding, “and our girls come from an area where 50 percent don’t graduate high school.”

Many from the first graduating classes have gone on to colleges and universities.

Bowman’s curriculum is “heavy with LSW -- literature, speech and writing,” said eighth-grader Tandy Toliver. The girls receive instruction in reading, the arts, drama, math, science, religion, computers and music. They also participate in basketball and track and can join the choir or the art and philosophy club.

Oratory is one of the top priorities of both the boys and the girls’ middle school programs. Teachers believe it helps students to develop their leadership skills and promotes self-confidence. Toliver was quick to demonstrate her talent for oratory, offering a passionate recitation of Langston Hughes’ poem, “Negro Mother.”

Marc Pimus, a specialist on African-American and Caribbean history, on poetry, drama and art, works four hours a day with the middle schoolers, perfecting their oratory skills. He also accompanies them to museums and has shown them his own art collection at home.

In a thank you letter to Pimus, one of the students wrote: “When can we sit again and talk about art?” Senger said she was thrilled to learn that students know that when educated people gather, they discuss art and culture.

Cooperative venture

Listening to the dramatic delivery of teenage girls, watching their poise and their interaction with one another, it is evident that the school’s motto “the courage to succeed” has become the spirit and substance of the Bowman program.

Perhaps none of this would have happened had not Senger read an article 10 years ago about a successful black businessman, Tom Jones, then a top executive with the financial management firm TIAA-CREF. Jones had expressed his desire to help young boys in the inner city who had a hard time achieving.

Senger lost no time getting in touch with Jones. The firm is now in its eighth year of partnering with the Bowman program. The cooperative venture has brought state-of-the-art computers and Internet access to the school and the firm has also provided computer instruction and an introduction to the business world to the students. Every three years the school receives new computers, allowing the old ones to be used by students in their homes.

Several young men and women from the corporate world donate their time to help all the children at St. Aloysius with computer learning. Some serve as mentors to the middle schoolers. Senger described a 20-unit banking series the firm provides for eighth-graders. The classes role-play transactions between bank tellers and customers, teach about uses and abuses of credit cards and present moral issues regarding tips, bribes and sources of money. “An ethical component runs through the series,” Senger said.

TIAA-CREF also hosts two informational breakfasts each year. Students attend the events, perform musical works, recite items from their oratory projects and greet those in attendance. “This allows us to meet new people,” said Senger, who has to raise $1.5 million each year “just to keep the doors open.”

In addition to funds needed to run the school, St. Aloysius also provides scholarships to all its eighth-graders so that they can attend good high schools. Students, in turn, give 25 hours of their time to helping in the school during each of their high school years. Many students contribute more than 25 hours, serving as tutors to the younger pupils, helping supervise homework and after-school activities and assisting where needed.

Caring and attention

It was at a fundraiser in Fairfield, Conn., that Senger met Burke, the school’s principal. Burke had served as a legislative aide to Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy and had also had a career in investment banking. In 1995, at age 41, Burke retired, having sold a firm that he had helped to merge. Having long wanted to teach in the inner city, Burke, a Georgetown University graduate, finished his master’s degree at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and began teaching fifth grade in Los Angeles’ Watts district.

St. Aloysius is the first Catholic school for both Burke and Senger. “The public school didn’t give the caring and attention that we do,” Burke said. “This school is with the kids 24 hours. We’re involved in every aspect of their life.” For many students, “we are their family,” said the principal, who has helped recovering drug-addicted parents, taught check-balancing to single moms and rescued two young girls from a local police station after their mother left them off on the street on Veterans Day, a holiday when the school was closed. The school has also begun a series of evening parenting workshops.

Burke and Senger are often most concerned about the hours they are not with the students and spoke of home situations in which children are “living on the edge.” Only 15 to 20 percent of the students live in a two-parent family setting, and not all of these are good households, Burke noted. The pupils most at risk are often foster children “who are being passed around again and again,” he said.

If Senger could have her dream fulfilled, she would open a group home in one of the boarded up buildings across the street from St. Aloysius. At any given time, eight or 10 youngsters in the school are living in situations in which love is lacking and discipline is scarce or harsh. Several must contend daily with violence, drugs, alcohol, poverty and/or parental neglect, she said.

Besides the financial assistance provided by corporations and foundations, as well as funding from the Society of Jesus, the New York archdiocese and hundreds of individual donors, the school also utilizes what Senger calls “local riches.” One of these is the Harlem Family Institute. Trainees at the psychoanalytical institute take on seven or eight troubled children per counselor and stay with them over a three-year period. St. Aloysius is also working with Fordham University to provide psychological testing for pupils.

While Senger’s group home is still wishful thinking, plans for the school’s expansion are not. Thanks to a challenge grant, St. Aloysius has raised close to $2 million. It hopes to get permission from the archdiocese to add a fourth floor of classrooms, to dig a basement under the church that would serve as a cafeteria and to build offices to replace the current executive cubicles. Were these plans to be approved, the current cafeteria could be converted into a gymnasium.

Senger and Burke, who admit to being joined at the hip and to enjoying a laugh a day -- even on the darkest days -- consider themselves dreamers, whose feet are solidly planted in central Harlem. “Occasionally we have to kick a student out,” Senger said, but to date there has never been a fight in school nor any use of drugs or weapons.

Only four percent of the students are Catholic, but the school follows the Catholic school religion curriculum. Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Boreta Singleton, who teaches religion in the Bowman program, uses the New American Bible and the Zeffirelli film, “Jesus of Nazareth,” with her students. She begins each class with prayer.

The girls visited a midtown Manhattan synagogue in January. They have read parts of the scriptures from the Muslim and other traditions as well, said Sacred Heart Sr. Maureen Little, vice president of the school. Stories from Lives of the Saints are used in class frequently and do much to “capture the girls’ interest,” Little said.

At a recent February assembly inside St. Aloysius Church, Senger related the story of St. Agatha, whose feast it was and who died for her faith in the third century. She used the portrait of Agatha to suggest ways in which students could lead lives that make a difference. “You have no idea how much power you have,” Senger told the pupils.

“You have the power to change the world through loving kindness.” By utilizing the power of loving kindness, she assured them that they could influence their families and those around them.

She asked the students to recite a prayer with her: “May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Senger instructed them to turn to the person next to them and to tell them: “May you be filled with loving kindness, with peace and with happiness.”

The wishes were not unfamiliar to the Bowman girls who had climbed a mountain in Massachusetts to get here and had experienced loving kindness at its peak.

Patricia Lefevere is NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003