How one Catholic school takes a hammer to the cycle of poverty

How one Catholic school takes a hammer to the cycle of poverty

.- During Catholic Schools Week, the president of a small school in Washington, D.C. explained its humble origins, extraordinary mission, and its hopes for the future.

“We intentionally seek out kids who can’t afford to go here and who are at risk,” Don Mullikin, president of San Miguel School, told CNA. “When it comes to Pope Francis, his message is simple and clear, and it’s what we do: helping others who are more needy than you.”

Located in Northwest Washington, D.C., San Miguel is a middle school catering exclusively to low-income immigrant families.

The school is sponsored, but not owned, by the De La Salle Brothers. Its mission is in the La Sallian tradition of the “preferential option for the poor.”

That ministry dates back to the 1600s when St. Jean Baptiste de La Salle served the poor in France through Christian education, hoping to break their “cycle of poverty.”

And in the same way, San Miguel exists to break the “cycle of poverty.” The formula is not easy, because the students enter the middle school a year or two behind the sixth grade level. In three years, they must be ready to excel at a private Catholic high school.

In short, the school crams five years of education into three calendar years. Students attend school year-round for nine hours a day.

The enrollment is small – only 65 students – and is only male and middle school-age.

This is an extremely formative and important age, Mullikin explained, providing the best opportunity to prepare kids for high school, something many of their parents never got to accomplish.

With the small enrollment the principal knows every student, so “you cannot slip through the cracks.”

The students are all from immigrant families, half of them Salvadoran and the rest from other parts of Latin America. And every family starts out at or below the poverty line. Admission is made on a financial basis “in reverse.”

Thus, tuition is almost completely free, which separates San Miguel from other parochial schools. “We are reliant upon the good will and contributions of the community to survive,” Mullikin stated.  “Most parochial schools don’t want to take our kids who can’t pay.”

Many families just pay the minimum of $50 a month. Those who can afford to pay more may do so. But the school doesn’t just cover education; it also provides counseling, breakfast, lunch, and extracurricular activities. It is almost completely dependent upon donors and foundations for its income.

Yet these low-income students leave with a ticket to a Catholic high school. The acceptance rate at Catholic high schools in the area is 100 percent, and 97 percent of alumni either have a high school diploma or are pursuing one. In comparison, that rate is 50 percent for all Latino males in the D.C. area.

The immigrant parents of students are extremely hard-working but do not know the “foreign” American school system, Mullikin explained. Thus they may not know of options like San Miguel.

“What’s really important is allowing these families to fulfill their dream of making it better for the next generation,” he said.

The parents are “working their fingers to the bone day and night,” he added. They don’t have time to research the U.S. school system. “We have to really reach out to them and teach them about the school.”

Cramming five years of education into three calendar years is an apt metaphor for the school. It seems a daunting task but not only does it work, it succeeds marvelously.

The end product, he said, is “well-educated boys who are young men who are prepared to succeed in high school.”

The school does not stop helping a student once he graduates, either. A counselor has a full-time job of checking in on each alumnus in high school, ensuring that any needs of theirs are met and that they are succeeding in school. This establishes a “safety net” that goes beyond the San Miguel years.

One example Mullikin gave was of a graduate who wasn’t eating lunch at his high school because he didn’t have the money. Once San Miguel discovered this they alerted his high school. The administration quickly took care of the problem and gave him a cafeteria card.

“If that safety net wasn’t there, he wouldn’t be eating,” Mullikin said.

Correction March 9, 2015: This article originally identified Don Mullikin as chairman of the board at San Miguel School. He is the president of the school.