Hit by the economy, San Miguel to close

Middle school served Latino immigrant families

KINGFIELD — San Miguel Middle School will close its doors this spring after 11 years, a victim, the school’s top administrator said, of the economy’s painfully slow recovery.

Founded in 2000, the grades 6–8 Catholic school served students from low-income Latino immigrant families living mainly in South and Southwest Minneapolis, and had a track record of boosting high school graduation rates among a population at high risk for dropping out. School President Benjamin Murray announced the decision to close Jan. 14 after first sharing the news with the school’s students and their parents.

“I think there’s an understanding, but a sadness, because they really felt like this was a place their voice was heard, a place of community, a place of support,” Murray said. “For a lot of our families there’s not a lot of stability in their lives, so this was that stable place.”

Murray said the school faced a $300,000 budget shortfall next school year, too large a gap to overcome for a school that operated on about a $1 million annual budget.

He said more than 90 percent of that budget was funded through private donations, mainly from individuals but also from foundations. Those donations dropped off sharply when the stock market crashed in 2008, at the start of the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

San Miguel, 3800 Pleasant Ave. S., operated as an independent school within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It was part of a seven-school network of Catholic Lasallian schools affiliated with the Christian Brothers of the Midwest.

Two other Catholic schools in the region announced plans to close in January, but Archdiocese Director of Communications Dennis McGrath said those closures had to do with declining enrollment. Although San Miguel enrolled only about 60 students it was meant to be small.

Empowering families

“We really were established to serve a niche community,” Murray explained. “In ’99, there really wasn’t much in this area for Latino immigrant youth, and the [high school] graduation rate for the youth we serve was 40 percent.”

San Miguel, though, was able to boost its graduates’ four-year high school graduation rate to between 75 percent and 90 percent. Its model relied on small class sizes, an extended school day, close tracking of student performance on standardized tests and the Graduate Support Program that helped former students and their families navigate high school.

About 65 former San Miguel students attended one of 18 area high schools this year and received regular visits — sometimes weekly — from Graduate Support Program Director Steven Grande. That meant Grande was on the road every day visiting two or three schools.

He counseled students facing problems with attendance or homework, and helped their parents — most of whom did not attend school in the U.S. — understand Minnesota’s high school system. Much of that work involved teaching students and parents how to access the resources within their schools, he said.

“It’s very much about empowering them and reminding them that they have the skills to manage,” he said.

Grande said his “most important” task was to track students’ credits. The families he worked with tended to be highly mobile, and students often encountered problems transferring credits between schools, he said.

Grande said the high school students he worked with were “very sad” and “disappointed” to learn the Graduate Support Program was ending with the school. But he encountered the strongest reactions from former students who already had graduated from high school.

“I think it’s because they’re old enough and far enough removed [from San Miguel] that they understand the gift they got from the school,” Grande said.

Rising aspirations

San Miguel was not the only school in regional Lasallian school network struggling in the uncertain economy, said Brother Francis Carr, leader of the Christian Brother’s Midwest province.

“Each one is responsible to get its own sources of funding,” Carr said. “The model, since they are pretty much tuition free, requires fundraising.”

San Miguel spent about $14,000 per year on each student and another $1,500 per year on each high school student in the Graduate Support Program. Families, however, paid only a $200 annual “book fee” for each student.

“More than 80 percent of our families make less than $20,000 a year, so $200 is a sacrifice for them,” Murray said. He added later: “They’re very committed, and I think that was why, when we had to make the announcement, it was very sad for them.”

For Murray, evidence of the school’s success was found not only in higher high school graduation rates, but also in the aspirations of its students. Early graduates often set their sights on post-high school jobs that required little or no higher education, but younger siblings were more likely to aim for college.

Jasmine, an eighth-grade student who recently led a visitor to San Miguel on a tour, had a sibling in mind when asked how she felt about the school’s closing.

“It makes me feel sad and upset because my sister was going to come here next year,” she said.