Shaking It Up

In 1993 a private, independent school opened in South Providence with $50,000 in the bank, 15 boys enrolled, one man's vision and a lot of prayer. On its 20th anniversary, the San Miguel School in Providence now has 64 middle school boys, a $1.2  million budget and its original mission of using education to help break the cycle of poverty.  As Jim Hummel finds right from the start: these are not your typical middle school kids.

SCRIPT:

The first thing you notice on a visit to the San Miguel School is: the handshake.

The firm, look-you-in-the-eye-welcome-to-our-house handshake. Everybody gets in on the action: the kids, the teachers and the administrators.

``Good Morning San Miguel. Good morning Brother Lawrence.''

Next up: the morning meeting, where every day 64 middle school boys get together first thing in the cafeteria for an all-school gathering. They talk about the word of the week and share announcements.

In the middle of it all, the school's executive director, Brother Lawrence Goyette - a Lasallian Christian Brother who founded San Miguel 20 years ago, with a vision, little money, and a lot of prayer.

Brother Lawrence: ``The first year our budget was $50,000 and it was a struggle raising that $50,000, it wasn't easy.''

The school is named for Christian brother and saint in Ecuador - opening in 1993 in donated space at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in South Providence with two volunteer teachers and 15 boys. Brother Lawrence, a career educator in Providence and New York, originally planned for the school to be co-ed.

Brother Lawrence: ``As I met with educators and church people and  community leaders and politicians; the common denominator was so many people said, `You really might want to consider starting this school and just working with boys, because there are some really serious issues in Providence right now with gang and a  lot of  them are boys joining gangs and we're losing a lot of kids.'"

So began San Miguel, a private, independent faith-based but non-sectarian school for five dozen boys from low-income families. It has grown to an annual budget now of $1.2 million and three years ago moved to the former St. Ann's school on Branch Avenue. The boys - 16 in each class, grades 5 through 8 - pay tuition on a sliding scale. But tuition only accounts for about 5 percent of the budget. The rest comes from donations and grants.

Hummel: ``How would you describe your prototypical Miguel Man?''

Brother Lawrence: ``We're looking for kids who don't like  school, we're looking for kids who have done well in school; we're looking for kids who have had a lot of  challenges in behavior. In any given year we have a couple of kids in our school  who were bullied when they were in their previous school. But on the other hand  we've got maybe one or two who were the bullies.''

Karen Clements became a teacher here six years ago. A graduate of LaSalle Academy, she had planned to stay in Philadelphia after graduating from Temple University. But that all changed when a spot opened up for a 5th-grade teacher and she came for a visit.

Hummel: ``What was it about San Miguel?''

Clements: ``It was the fact that when you walk in the door, every single student comes up, looks you in the eye and shakes your hand.. And the fact when you join together as a whole school every morning of every day. And just the community feeling of it. The fact that we're like family here.

There is a hierarchy here: the 8th-graders get the privilege of hanging out together in front of the school before the opening bell rings. Two years ago a group of students approached Brother Lawrence asking if they could wear dress shirt and tie as 8th-graders,  which is now the tradition.

And 13 years ago, the school instituted a mentoring program: every Friday the 5th-graders meet during the last period with their 8th-grader mentors to talk about anything and everything. Some academic, some fun - and a lot of bonding.

Clements: ``When the 5th-graders are starting off they're not really sure what to do - what to think of it all. But as they approach the end of the 5th-grade year they're already talking about when they become  8th-graders what they want to do with their 5th-grade mentee; so it's that cycle that gets passed down, which is really exciting. And the 7th-graders right now are saying: `I want this one I want this one to be my mentee!'"

Earlier this month the 5th-graders surprised their older counterparts with an end-of-year party. Each had framed a picture of his partner as a parting gift. Many stood to talk about what their partner had meant to them.

The morning  meeting is an integral part of the school day - and because of the school's size it is an intimate gathering.

Brother Lawrence: `And you'll end up sometimes with a 12-year-old who gets up and he bears his soul. He talks about his experience at San Miguel right at that moment, warts and all, and all the kids sit there and listen, and then some of them will even have words of advice at the end. What 12-year old kids will do that? Most kids are afraid to share their feelings with their peers.''

Brother Lawrence can look back and laugh now that it wasn't always so smooth.

Brother Lawrence: ``I remember the first word of the week in the school's history  was `optimistic.'  I was trying to start with a very positive word. And I remember the first sentence a boy shared was - he just kind of looked around and he said: ``I'm not very optimistic when I look around and see there are no girls.''

And what about that handshake? It has, in many ways, become San Miguel's signature.

Brother Lawrence: ``One of the things that I've noticed over two or three years is  when kids come in, in the morning, this happens now on a regular basis: I'll shake each kid's hand, every teacher in the lobby will extend a hand - and you'll say something that's simple like: `How are you today?' And the boys will shake your hand look you in the eye and say: `I'm  doing well, how are you?' That's a huge thing with a 12-year-old  boy."

Hummel: ``And can I tell you I'm impressed it's not the wet noodle handshake.''

Brother Lawrence: ``Yeah, well that's important  too.''

Hummel: ``You've got to have a nice firm one and look right in the eye.''

Brother Lawrence: ``And the eye contact is important.''

Make no mistake...San Miguel is a place where faith plays a crucial role, but not in the way you might think of a traditional  parochial school.

Brother Lawrence: ``When we opened our doors 20 years ago I was very conscious of the fact that there a lot of religious-sponsored schools in the state that were closing and I wanted San Miguel School to be a little different that  all the others; but I also feel like the spiritual dimension is important. So I didn't know exactly where it was going to go in the early years.''

The school was located in a Lutheran school, the first article about it was in an Episcopal newspaper and a past board chair was Jewish.

Brother Lawrence: ``We're not in an official Catholic school - Catholic with a capital `C' - but I am working in the most spiritual place I've ever worked. And I like the fact there's a spiritual dimension and I think our families like it, our kids like it, our staff likes it. And we've been sort of forced to kind of create something that's a little bit different than anything else.''

For the first time, the 8th-grade graduation was held in the school's gymnasium. It is the last class to have gone to the old school in South Providence as 5th-graders,  ending one chapter of school's two-decade history. Most will be going to private high schools like LaSalle and St. Ray's next year - sad to be leaving the nurturing environment they've enjoyed, but excited about new opportunities. During the ceremony, Brother Lawrence spoke personally, and at length, about each of the 16 new graduates.

Hummel: ``What was the biggest change for you coming to a school this sizefrom where you were before:?''

Jermaine Moore: ``The love. I wasn't used to people caring about me - doing my school work they were on top of me all the time, and really wanting me to succeed and do well.''

Hummel: ``What do you think the biggest change in you is from 5th grade to 8th?''

Mike Garcia: ``Being a lot more respectful, being a lot more helpful, being a well-rounded person. That's mostly what they teach us here - to be respectful, to be responsible - do the right thing when adults aren't looking and when they are.''

Hummel: ``What do you see in that transformation over those four years?''

Clements: ``I see them come in as sort of uncertain little boys, not really sure what they're getting themselves into. First  of all it's all boys and when they hit the all  boys thing it's like `Oh  my gosh.' I see them coming in and not really knowing how to take San Miguel because it's a culture shock to walk into this building - they're not used to this type of environment in a school. And then they develop into these mature, young men and it blows me away with how well- spoken they've become in the four years and how excited they are to come to school every da. I see them now and it brings tears to my eyes - 'cause they're young men, they're ready to go onto high school.''

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

 

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