New Kingfield private school features really small classes

Ex-Risen Christ site now serves mostly Hispanic kids, four or five per class

While Minneapolis public schools struggle with increases in class sizes due to cost and funding pressures, a new Southwest middle school is bucking the trend. Figures recently released by the city’s school system indicate grades 4 through 8 increased from 25 students per class last year to 28 this year. San Miguel Middle School of Minneapolis, a private Catholic school in Kingfield dedicated to serving economically disadvantaged kids, typically has four or five per class — and 38 in the entire school.

"We have a small, nurturing environment," said Brother Larry Schatz, president of San Miguel, 3800 Pleasant Ave. S. "You can really see a difference. There’s a calmness here. There’s a sense of happiness and peace that I think is really important for kids at this age."

The school began in a warehouse on Franklin Avenue in 2000 and opened on Sept. 2 next to Church of the Incarnation for the 2003-04 school year. It serves mostly Hispanic students from grades 6 through 8.

San Miguel is a LaSallian school; it belongs to a Catholic teaching tradition dedicated to education of the mind, spirit and body of students marginalized by culture and society. It’s one of only 15 such middle schools in the nation, said Benjamin Murray, director of Mission Advancement.

He said the school has experienced rapid growth since its founding, from a mere four students three years ago to 38 this semester, with plans to grow to 60 in the next year or two.

"That’s the maximum," Murray said.

The school, which has five full-time teachers and a handful of part-time teachers and volunteers, will cap enrollment at 60.

"Small is beautiful," the soft-spoken Schatz said.

Immersed, but not drowning The teachers and staff of San Miguel try to teach their students that the maintenance of beauty requires vigilance.

"We tell them that you’re always representing yourself, your family and your school," Schatz said.

As you walk down the speckled-tile hallway from the modest office Schatz shares with Murray and others, you pass a big yellow, red and gold sign brightly proclaiming that "When You Believe in Yourself, Anything Is Possible."

For a student population that’s 89 percent Latino/Hispanic and 5 percent black, that might seem an overly optimistic maxim. Maybe it’s even indecipherable, considering that three-quarters of the students speak English as a second language.

"Some have just come a month ago from Ecuador," Schatz said.

Nevertheless, the school teaches in English. "[Parents] want their kids to receive instruction in English," Schatz said. "But they also want their culture honored."

As an example, the student body celebrates Dia de Los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") rather than Halloween, he said.

The school recruits students mainly through local Spanish-speaking parishes, Schatz said, such as Sagrado Corazn de Jess, 2211 Clinton Ave. S. (Sagrado Corazn de Jess owns the building occupied by San Miguel; the school has a 50-year lease at $1 a year. As part of their partnership, the two organizations split expenses incurred in the operation of the building.)

San Miguel has what might be called a flexible immersion method of teaching students to learn English: they’re immersed in their new language, but not mercilessly.

"We try to be sensitive…and give them a break," said Sister Mary Willette, principal of San Miguel.

The former teacher said the school employs a buddy system for some students, pairing bilingual pupils with those struggling with English. That way, when Spanish-only students hit walls in English, their buddies do quick translations and the walls crumble.

The staff hopes to erode the walls further by involving the families of their students in the educational process.

"We don’t think we can do it alone," Willette said.

Parents are not only asked to participate in the education of their children, but to pay a sliding-scale fee to help cover the $4,000 tuition. Parents pay an average of $300, Murray said, which covers about 2.5 percent of the school’s $585,000 budget.

"Over 90 percent of [our budget] comes from private donors and foundations," Murray said.

He added that the school ran up a surplus in its first year of operation, a small debt last year and is on target to have a balanced budget this year.

Schatz said a small percentage of the school’s budget is covered by federal Title I funding. Title I (of the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994) monies help support programs such as language arts, math and technology for children of low-income familes.

Mission: possible "Before we started the school, we did some surveys and found out from parents some of their concerns. One was that students are getting out in the middle of the afternoon and no one’s home, and that’s the time when some kids get in trouble, so hence we have the extended school day," Schatz said.

Days at San Miguel begin with breakfast at 8:15 a.m. and close at 4:50 p.m. with a prayer. Sandwiched in between: lots of "the basics" — math, reading and writing — as well as lessons in science, arts, social studies, music, Spanish, religion and even classes on how to study properly.

The former west campus of Risen Christ Catholic School (which consolidated at its 1120 E. 37th St. campus this fall) shows some wear and tear. There are cracks in the outer brick walls and fissures in the cement playground where a lopsided basketball hoop stands crookedly.

However, there are also signs of growth and hope. Classes are small — four, five or six students per class is normal — allowing for individualized attention to students. Computers in the classrooms, all wired to the Internet, outnumber the attentive, polite students.

"The teachers are nice," said Maria, a 13-year-old 8th-grader. "And they’ll probably make you laugh."

(School officials asked that Maria’s last name not be used.)

Her family moved here from Chicago five years ago. She’d been going to Waite Park Elementary School, 1800 34th Ave. NE, but said she had trouble fitting in.

"I was the only girl who spoke Spanish," she said. "It was a little hard to talk because they didn’t speak Spanish."

She said her English has improved in her two years at San Miguel — it’s her favorite subject now — and she hopes to attend college some day.

"Our mission, really, is to help students who are not having success," Schatz said. "They just aren’t making it. Give them another chance in a very untypical middle school environment. We feel that’s an age that you can still really have an impact on kids."

Dedicated to the ones they love Three years ago, the small staff of San Miguel Middle School lived together and worked together in an effort to hold their fledgling school together.

"In the beginning," Director Benjamin Murray said, "all staff lived in a community residence in a duplex we rented in Phillips."

They did that, in part, to appreciate the lives of their students, who come from dire economic conditions.

"So we understood what they experienced on a daily basis," Murray said, "and it also made our school financially feasible… it allows people to share prayer and share expenses, but also to build a community."

The teachers and staff received room, board and a stipend. Today, only two of the staff — one 8th grade teacher and San Miguel’s president, Brother Larry Schatz — live in the community residence, which has moved to a new location in Phillips.

Murray said all of San Miguel’s teachers make less than they would in similar jobs in the Minneapolis public school system.

"They make a financial sacrifice to be here," he said.

Murray has also made some sacrifices to be at San Miguel. The former auditor for a Bloomington CPA firm said he’s happy to fill out the stacks of financial and legal paperwork required to keep a school running.

"It comes down to a calling and faith," he said. "I felt in my heart that it was the thing to do.

"What did I have to lose?" he asked. "I lost some financial stuff, but I also came to the realization that the money isn’t going to provide happiness. You need to provide that for yourself." — Michael Metzger