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Enriching Young Lives Through Education
The Paraclete Academy is featured in a recent editorial by Lawrence Harmon in the Boston Globe about “what it takes to close the achievement gap between low-income urban students and their suburban counterparts.” http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2011/10/28/schools-need-second-shift/2RRklk7pFbmQt590RuwOvO/story.html (http://www NULL.bostonglobe NULL.com/opinion/2011/10/28/schools-need-second-shift/2RRklk7pFbmQt590RuwOvO/story NULL.html)
Harmon believes successful turnaround efforts “often require adding two, three, or even more hours of academic and enrichment programs to the school day.” His solution is not to extend the hours teachers are in school but to hand off the next shift to young dedicated college graduates. He cites two such programs that do just that: Citizen Schools and the Paraclete Academy.
This is what Harmon has to say about the Paraclete Academy:
“Some high-quality after-school programs operate without any taxpayer funding. The Paraclete Academy in South Boston is a calling for its co-founder, Sister Ann Fox. It’s also a godsend for low-income, elementary, and middle-school students who arrive at the former St. Augustine convent on E Street shortly after school and stay as late as 8 p.m. Paraclete takes considerable care to balance the ethnic and economic mix of its roughly 50 students.
Paraclete survives by virtue of philanthropic contributions, in-kind services from its families, and a brilliant personnel strategy: recruit talented and idealistic college grads willing to sign 11-month contracts in exchange for a small stipend plus room and board on the upper floors of the former convent.
Three recent graduates from Colby, Notre Dame, and Grinnell make up this year’s teaching contingent. With training from Paraclete’s principal, Ben Klooster, and opportunities to observe teachers at nearby Perkins elementary school, the young staffers more than held their own this week while conducting review classes for sixth graders who are preparing to take the entrance test for the city’s competitive examination schools.
At Paraclete Academy, it becomes clear that the school day can be expanded dramatically without the expense of employing veteran, certified teachers. What’s needed – and what’s available from the ranks of recent college grads – are a cadre of adult friends who are competent tutors and eager to share their outside interests. At Paraclete, that can take the form of anything from a spirited game of four square in the parking lot to hands-on classes on robotics.”
In the last fourteen years, the Paraclete Academy has been home to 50 such talented and idealistic young people. They come to South Boston to enrich the lives of urban youth and they leave with their own lives greatly enriched as well.
We were delighted to welcome Mrs. Angela Menino,First Lady of Boston, to the Paraclete October 6 and surprise her with the announcement that we were dedicating our library in her honor. South Bostons Paraclete Academy honors Angela Menino (http://www NULL.boston NULL.com/yourtown/news/south_boston/2011/10/s_bostons_paraclete_academy_ho NULL.html)www.boston.comSouth (http://www NULL.boston NULL.com/) Bostons Paraclete Academy honors Angela Menino www.boston.com She thought she was coming to read to a group of our student¸which of course she did. Later, Mrs. Menino confided that she loves reading to children; it was obvious that our children loved being read to by her. Another planned “coincidence” was the presence of many of our board and event committee members who were having a meeting about our November 9 Reception and were able to take part in the festivities. Check out our facebook for pictures.
There is a nice article by Bella English in the Boston Globe http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2011/08/18/rwandan-nun-studies-marketing- about our friend Sister Augusta, a member of the Benebikira Congregation of Rwanda. Sister was interviewed while in Boston attending summer classes at Babson College. She explains why she wants to start a bakery, and why her congregation has created for-profit businesses. An equally interesting response to the article appears in a social impact blog on the website of FSG, http://www.fsg.org/KnowledgeExchange/Blogs/SocialImpact/PostID/152.aspx. This is the well known consulting firm founded by Michael Porter, and is in the fore front of promoting socially responsible business practices, what is often referred to as “creating shared values.” Both articles are worth the read.
We were glad to welcome Sister Augusta back for the summer. She stayed with us when she first came to Boston to learn English and obtain her associate degree in business on a full scholarship from Bay State College. Sister came to study in America because she wanted to learn from us and what a nice turn of events to read that American economists discovered that there was something they could learn from her and her Rwandan sisters.
As adults we tend to think that we are the only ones capable of making profound decisions. In reality, decisions are being made by children as young as ten, eleven and twelve that profoundly influence their adult lives. Let me introduce you to Louis and Darwin.
When he came to the Paraclete in the fifth grade, Louis prided himself on being street-wise. He soon befriended a group of less sophisticated boys who lived on the same block in their housing development – but never knew each other because they went to different schools. Everything was going smoothly until Louis began not showing up at the Academy. His mother was worried that she was losing him to the streets. He was hanging out with a group of older boys who thought basketball much more important than school work.
Our principal told Louis that he had a choice: he could either come when he was expected or not come at all. He could not just drop in at his convenience. He was sent home to think about it and let us know. When our principal called two weeks later and asked Louis what he had decided, there was a long silence. Finally, Louis very quietly said, “If you really want me, I want to come back.” At the age of 11, Louis made what was probably the most profound decision of his life. He returned and entered an excellent charter school in the seventh grade. That first year he came back for homework help but by eighth grade he was on his way. When Louis stopped by to visit, I asked him how was school. He answered, “I am on the honor roll and on the basketball team.” That pretty much says it all.
Darwin was a small fourth grade boy when he got up the courage to ring our door bell one day. When I opened the door, there was Darwin, who told me he wanted to come to the Paraclete. His brother had been a Paraclete student, and went on to Nativity, Roxbury Latin and was about to enter Tufts I explained to Darwin that we did not take fourth graders – he would have to wait until fifth. He explained to me very quietly that he would be good and work hard. I explained that the classes might be too hard. He considered this, and asked if he could just come to do his home work; he would not bother anyone. He might need a little help but not much. How could we say no? His decision to take it upon himself to ask for early admission to the Paraclete and his success once there made an impression when the time came to apply for private schools. He is now successfully following in his brother’s footsteps. Incidentally, Darwin’s decision was one of the factors that lead us to think seriously about admitting fourth grade students.
We often do not realize the importance of this in-between age. Yet, it is the age when children start thinking of themselves as individuals – separate from their families – and they start thinking what kind of person they want to be. This is not the same as the question they are frequently asked by adults: what do you want to do when you grow up? The questions they ask themselves and the decisions they make are about what kind of person they want to be – and what sort of things they want to do – now.
As we reflect on these stories and other like them, we realize the importance of recognizing that students are making important decisions, and that our job is to help them make thoughtful choices. While we have high expectations for behavior, we realize that to be effective, we should emphasize decision making – not simply following the rules.
Research indicates the fourth grade is a critical transitional time for reading and social development. Our experience at the Paraclete Academy mirrors this finding. Beginning later this fall, we will expand our existing core instruction of fifth and sixth grade classes to include this crucial grade.
During the first three years of school, children learn the mechanics of reading with vocabulary words that focus on the familiar – the terminology of family and home. Almost every child feels comfortable with the words they read. Beginning in the fourth grade, reading moves into the wider world and with this transition comes less familiar vocabulary. At this age, children themselves are moving into the world and becoming increasingly influenced by what their peers think over the thoughts and opinions of the adults in their lives. The creation of a positive learning community that provides peer support for working hard in school is an important part of our program.
Simply teaching vocabulary words is not enough. On average children need to acquire 5,000 new words each year to reach the optimum level of 80,000 words academically successful adults know. Individualized, sustained, daily reading is the most proven method for vocabulary expansion. The Paraclete Academy, through its emphasis on daily reading with books tailored to the reading level and interests of each child, is seeing solid results with this approach. Its 14,000 book library is color coded by grade level and organized by various interest levels which makes finding the right book easy for both teacher and child. Our student blog will include a place for books reviews where students and teachers alike may give their views and ratings on what they are reading.
At the same time, reading can not be done in isolation; children need real life exposure to the world around them, experiences that are often taken for granted by middle class communities and families. Exploratory learning – a prominent component of the Paraclete Academy’s curriculum – addresses the limited world experience of many of our students. Through hands-on classes in sciences, gardening, robotics, cooking, art, music and field trips, our children acquire real life knowledge of the world around them and a context to understand the vocabulary that describes it.
Finally, the importance of peer acceptance that begins at this age is taken very seriously by the Paraclete Academy. Fostering a community of learners and mutual peer support is as important as teaching itself. The importance of such a culture can not be minimized; it is often the determining factor in a child’s decision to try to do better in school.
For an excellent summary of research conclusions, check out on-line: “The Transition Years” Educational Leadership: April 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 7: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/toc.aspx
There are two questions that often come up when talking about the Paraclete Foundation: What does the word “paraclete” mean and how did you end up in Rwanda? The two are actually related.
The answer to the first question is that the word paraclete comes from the Greek word, paracletos, which means literally “to be called along side of one in need.” In Christian scriptures it was used by John as a name for the Holy Spirit.
As to the second question, our involvement in Rwanda begain in 2000, when we invited delegates from an international Harvard colloquiem, Women Waging Peace, to dine with us at the Paraclete. A respected woman leader from Rwanda saw what we were doing in education and asked for our help with education in her country. So, true to our name, we ended up in Rwanda because we were “called along side of one in need”
Sr. Juvenal has returned to Rwanda and is head of school at Maranyundo, replacing Sr. Felicite who was responsible for its start-up and saw her first class take national exams and rank number 1 in the country for girls’ schools and number 3 nationally. Sr. Felicite is now at St. Joseph’s in Nanza where she will be expanding this private primary school to include a middle school.
Our congratulations to the Benebikira Congregation who were recently honored by the Peace Abbey with the Courage of Conscience Award for their courage, faith and integrity during the1994 Rwandan Genocide. Click below to read the front page article in the National Catholic Reporter. Rwandan sisters honored for courage, service, dedication to peace (http://ncronline NULL.org/news/women-religious/cultivating-unity)
Sr Augusta, the Econome Generale of the Benebikira congregation will be returning to Boston in May at the invitation of Babson College to attend summer business classes. She will be accompanied by Sr. Consolata who will be here for six months to learn English.
Growing up in rural Michigan, I had two choices for school: the one room school house that taught all children in grades 1 through 8, or paying tuition to attend public school in Ann Arbor. My mother chose the latter, driving my sisters, two boys from a nearby farm, and me back and forth every day. The trip was ten minutes each way, considered a long commute at that time. I was exposed to the most advanced teaching theories, and was one of the first to learn to read without phonics.
So it is particularly interesting for me to reflect on my experience in South Boston for the last 22 years, and particularly on how its children go to school. There are almost 3,000 school age children living in South Boston, (zip code 02127) and they attend 170 different K -12 schools, not including charter schools. 170 is not a typographical error. Included in this number are Boston Public, private, parochial, and METCO schools. South Boston kids attend an astoundingly large number of institutions, only eight of which are in South Boston.
Are all of these schools ones that parents have chosen so their child might have a more imaginative and innovative education, as in my case? Or in reality is parental choice more limited than one could imagine? As a recent Globe article on how families navigate the Boston Public School system points out, many families choose their top three schools (usually ones with good reputations) but have their child denied admission simply because there were too many requests for too few seats. And waiting for the results of the charter school application lottery is met with as much anticipation as the Irish Sweepstakes. There is the oft-repeated story of the mother who could not get her child in the school that was literally across the street from her house. Though there are certain “non-negotiables” such as having one child in a school guarantees that the rest of your children can attend, it can be an incredibly stressful and complex process.
In South Boston there is an added complexity. A federal ruling limited to 20% (later raised to 50%) the number of seats available to South Boston students at the five local public schools. The rationale of course was that white students were needed to integrate the schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods. The irony is that now South Boston is the most integrated neighborhood in the city. Over 50% of its school age children are non-white, primarily from immigrant families where English is not spoken at home. As they ride the buses leaving South Boston they pass buses entering South Boston with children who look very much like themselves.
As South Boston children transition into high school there is a spectacular array of special focus schools, but the prize is to gain entrance to one of the three exam schools which are rated top in the country. At these schools, admission does not depend upon lottery or quotas. It is based on how well your child can read, do math, and think critically – as measured by the ISSE test. More South Boston children attend these schools than South Boston High.
When it comes to private schools there is choice, to a degree. South Boston children attend 71 private, parochial, and suburban schools. The independent schools offer scholarships and look for city children, but there are limited number of spots and a limited number of scholarships. South Boston’s two Catholic schools are no longer entirely neighborhood based as they recruit and accept students from other parts of the city. Presently they enroll only 335 South Boston children, whereas just ten years ago there were five schools enrolling 1,500 students. Tuition and other fees are edging close to $5,000 which makes this option impossible for many local families.
Each year when I look at the statistics provided by the Boston Public Schools, I expect that the number of students leaving South Boston to attend school will decrease. It never does. It is as if our children are living in a “bedroom community” commuting to their school every day and returning home just to sleep. Sometimes that commute is for a very good reason and to a very good school; sometimes it is not.
These statistics also ask a question about the role of our schools in our local communities. What does it do to the fabric of a community when half its children do not attend school within its borders – by choice or not by choice? Historically, schools were the locus of community in a neighborhood. Parents met other parents through their children’s school. Childhood friendships extended beyond school hours and involved learning how to manage relationships with other children, friend and foe alike, in the informal setting of a city block.
Should we ask ourselves what is the substitute for local schools as a focus for building a social network of concerned parents informally looking out for each other and the children of the neighborhood? Extended families living in close proximity are not as common as they once were. More typically families have grandparents on the Cape, a sister in California, a brother in New York and a best friend in Newton. What happens for such a family when a child becomes critically sick in the night if one parent on a business trip and the other doesn’t know the parents down the street because their children go to different schools?
Having benefited from school choice myself, I obviously think there is a place for different schools and different opportunities. But does it have to be 170? And should we not be looking at how all of this affects the quality of life in our neighborhoods for families?