Discovering Their Potential

This month we go inside a school like no other in Rhode Island: a non-profit gender-specific middle school  for 60 girls, grades 5-8, whose families are living near the poverty-level - many with single-parent households. And as Jim Hummel finds, the private non-denominational academy has seen impressive results.

SCRIPT:

Moniz: ``Have a good... have a good day...have a good night....have  a good day...''

It is a finely-tuned operation between periods in Melissa Moniz's classroom, as her 6th- graders head out and the 5th -graders settle in.

Moniz, a math teacher, knows each girl in school by name. That's because she's taught all of the 60 students who are enrolled here.

The school is Sophia Academy in Providence:  a private, non-denominational institution geared toward a very specific group: 5th- through 8th-grade girls from low-income homes, most with single parents.

And nearly all are from Providence, including Moniz.

Hummel: ``What is it that draws you to this setting?''

Moniz: ``When I see the girls...I see me.''

Moniz,  whose father came here from the Dominican Republic,  went to Mount Pleasant High School, then on to Brown University, where she was a pre-med major.

Moniz: ``My father came to this country with no money in his pocket and he always said, `If you do anything , it's school, school, school.'

After her freshman year, Moniz found she loved teaching and came to Sophia nearly a decade ago, making her the veteran of the faculty.

Moniz: ``I always believed I needed to get up every morning and be happy with what I was going to be doing.''

Hummel: ``What does that do for the girls to have somebody from Providence, of immigrant parents, of color, who has walked their road, but wound up at Brown University and is now teaching here. Do you think about that as the kids are  sitting there looking at you?''

Moniz: ``I guess that doesn't really go through my mind. I see it more of I'm a young woman of color, I can relate to a lot of things that they experience in their day-to- day lives, whether it's food or different sayings that we say in our culture.''

DiBello: ``It is a challenging population in terms of the age.''

Gigi DiBello became Sophia's head of school five years ago, after working at the Highlander Charter School in Providence - before that heading the women's center at Brown.

DiBello: ``Here, I think the kids feel understood, they feel respected. We don't yell and they feel heard. So it's less of an adversarial situation and it's more of a, you know,  we're in this together, because you're a girl and you're going to grow to be a woman, and I'm a woman and we're in this together and we have to kind of watch each other's backs.''

Sophia Academy was founded  12 years ago by Sister Mary Reilly - a Sister of Mercy from South Providence, who spent six years in Central America and saw abject poverty.

Moniz,  whose father came here from the Dominican Republic,  went to Mount Pleasant High School, then on to Brown University, where she was a pre-med major.

Moniz: ``My father came to this country with no money in his pocket and he always said, `If you do anything , it's school, school, school.'

After her freshman year, Moniz found she loved teaching and came to Sophia nearly a decade ago, making her the veteran of the faculty.

Moniz: ``I always believed I needed to get up every morning and be happy with what I was going to be doing.''

Hummel: ``What does that do for the girls to have somebody from Providence, of immigrant parents, of color, who has walked their road, but wound up at Brown University and is now teaching here. Do you think about that as the kids are  sitting there looking at you?''

Moniz: ``I guess that doesn't really go through my mind. I see it more of I'm a young woman of color, I can relate to a lot of things that they experience in their day-to- day lives, whether it's food or different sayings that we say in our culture.''

DiBello: ``It is a challenging population in terms of the age.''

Gigi DiBello became Sophia's head of school five years ago, after working at the Highlander Charter School in Providence - before that heading the women's center at Brown.

DiBello: ``Here, I think the kids feel understood, they feel respected. We don't yell and they feel heard. So it's less of an adversarial situation and it's more of a, you know,  we're in this together, because you're a girl and you're going to grow to be a woman, and I'm a woman and we're in this together and we have to kind of watch each other's backs.''

Sophia Academy was founded  12 years ago by Sister Mary Reilly - a Sister of Mercy from South Providence, who spent six years in Central America and saw abject poverty.

The expectations are high here: the girls have excelled on standardized tests and most go on to prominent high schools. While a uniform is standard, one day last week the girls got to dress down as a reward for finishing a week's worth of NECAP testing.

They also got a pizza party, and on this day 5th-graders were newly-paired with their 8th-grade ``big sisters'' - doing a fun exercise to get to know each other better before digging in to the food.

Sophia is a place where the entire student body can meet for a monthly assembly in the library - an intimacy that many of the girls who came from large public elementary schools appreciate.

Shailia  Pena: ``Like in elementary school and other middle schools they're public, there's more kids, you don't get a lot of attention. And when there's a smaller class you have one connection with each other and you have your teachers and your teachers really focus on you.''

Jade Cyrus: ``Teachers get to talk to you more and you have more one-on-one time with them and it's not like in my old school, you used to have 30 kids in my class and we would just have to zip through all subjects, because the same teachers taught all subjects.''

Here the teacher-student ratio is a maximum 15:1

Imani Gonzalez: ``Sometimes at my old school I used to get mad because if I didn't get it, I'd be afraid to tell the teachers because everybody will be mad that they had to review it again.

But with Ms. Moniz if I ask her to review it, nobody gets  mad because some people don't get it too. So it's easy for her to review it.''

Victoria Prince: ``I used to hate math so much but I learned how to divide, so that made it easier for me.''

Hummel: ``Was that Mrs. Moniz?''

Victoria: ``Yes.''

Hummel: ``I hear she's pretty good at math.''

Victoria: ``Yes. She makes sure the student knows, actually knows what we're learning about.''

Hummel: ``Is it true that if you can divide you can do anything?''

Victoria: ``Yes.''

Hummel: ``Alright, that's the key to life.''

Moniz: ``Even to this day there are some things I learn from the girls, 'cause they learn about it in social studies and it's like, `Oh wow, tell me more about that.' And I love being able to learn from them and I love for them to know that they can teach me as well.''

Hummel: ``What's your biggest challenge.''

Moniz: ``Here, at Sophia? Making sure that I'm giving students who need enrichment, students who are ready to fly, to give them what they need. And  making sure that I give the students that need support, to give them that.''

As a private school, Sophia relies on donations and grants to cover its $900,000 annual budget.

And while each family is expected to contribute something toward tuition, it's on a sliding scale and covers only a fraction of the total budget.

That gave Gigi DiBello some pause when she came here in 2007.

DiBello: ``If the mission is good and the founder is solid and there's the inspiration piece there it makes sense, then that stuff will take care of itself, if you put together a solid team. But the money part was daunting. This is an independent school and most independent schools are built on a model where tuition is what feeds the school and so it's a pretty sound business model even during a difficult economic crisis.  You don't have the tuition you lay off some teachers but it's still what makes the school run. And if you've been around for 300 years you have an endowment, you have alum and so on and so forth. Sophia Academy is really in its infancy.''

Hummel: ``And at the Bay Views, the Hendrickens, the Exeters, the St. Andrew's established and usually there's a pipeline of money.''

DiBello: ``Correct.''

Hummel: ``And that's the antithesis here.''

DiBello: ``And that's exactly right. Our model kind of turns that upside down so our tuition makes up 3 percent of our total budget.''

And, DiBello says, Sophia faces a set of challenges different from many other independent schools.

DiBello: ``The goal for us here is to do a wonderful job during the school day so they feel intellectually engaged and really excited about what they're learning so that they want to bring that enthusiasm and excitement home and engage their families. Of course, it's a challenge because poverty brings challenges. So whether it's that they're moving a lot, or whether it's that there's a lot of anxiety in the home because they're trying to pay the bills, or whether there are families that are breaking up while the kids are here, or there's domestic violence or abuse, somebody's homeless, somebody's going to jail, all of these things are things that come up for us on a regular basis. The families tell us time and again they're really interested in somebody who cares as much about their kid as they do: And who's going to really take the time to kind of be there and walk through when it gets hard.''

The school is taking a big step as it plans to move from its current location - renting this building from St. Edward's Church on Branch Avenue - to a new location in South Providence - where most of its students live.

Sophia is buying the old ALP building on Elmwood Avenue - expecting to move in within the next two years. The Board of Directors has raised nearly half of the $1.5 million goal.

DiBello:  ``We'll be in that building within two years and we'll own that building and it sends a really strong message to our donors, to our families, to our teachers that we're here, we're here to stay, we're here to have a foothold in the community.''

Hummel: ``What is the best part of your job?''

Moniz: ``Being with the students. I absolutely love being with them and learning about them. I always say to the girls: this is a two-way street. So I'm going to give you something, you're going to give me something back in return. We're going to go back-and-forth. So I have to say being in my classroom is the absolute best  part and being able to see the girls.

And you know you mentioned earlier that I teach everyone. So I get to see - the 8th graders I have now I have had since 5th grade. I get to see their growth, I get to see how they develop as young women and also as students. And it's just a beautiful thing to be able to witness.''

In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.

 

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Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
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Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
Highlighting Community Heroes
As a sponsor, Your company can be recognized here and on Rhode Island PBS Contact us for more information
Rhode island spotlight may be seen weekly on ri pbs. CLICK HERE FOR THE TV SCHEDULE
Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
Rhode Island Spotlight
Highlighting Community Heroes
As a sponsor, Your company can be recognized here and on Rhode Island PBS Contact us for more information
Rhode island spotlight may be seen weekly on ri pbs. CLICK HERE FOR THE TV SCHEDULE
Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
Highlighting Community Heroes
Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following:
As a sponsor, Your company can be recognized here and on Rhode Island PBS Contact us for more information
Rhode island spotlight may be seen weekly on ri pbs. CLICK HERE FOR THE TV SCHEDULE
Rhode Island Spotlight is supported by corporate heroes like the following: