Second Look: Covenant Preparatory Academy Offers Fresh Start For 21 Hartford Kids
By JODIE MOZDZER | The Hartford Courant
December 21, 2008
The unused portion of the YWCA building on Broad Street is dramatically different today than the space Patrick Moore entered last spring.
Once-empty rooms are filled with desks, books and white boards. Walls are splashed with artwork and reports. And the quiet energy of 21 middle-school boys flows through the space, now the home of Covenant Preparatory School.
Reflection And Structure
Soft classical music floats out of a small stereo each morning, while the boys sit in two straight lines, close their eyes and contemplate life.
The daily meditation during their morning assembly is "a time to settle yourself, and get in touch with some type of peace," said Sister Marge Fish, a retired teacher who volunteers as a mentor for the staff.
Most of the boys bow their heads and fold their hands. But a couple sit during the reflection time, chins up, smiling.
They also say short prayers. Covenant Prep is part of the Jesuit-based NativityMiguel network of schools, which is faith-based, but doesn't push any particular religion. There are about 60 other NativityMiguel middle schools across the country. Moore, 27, was a principal at one in New Bedford, Mass.
Downstairs from the assembly room, a wall covered with calendars illustrates the strict schedules and various volunteer tasks that define the school.
On one, parents' names are typed in for each weekend, when they have signed up to clean the school. With a budget of only about $360,000 — all donations — parents and teachers also play the role of custodian.
Another calendar lists coming tests. Another, the Saturday trip schedule.
Besides weekly field trips to museums, local farms or community service sites, most students are at school from about 7 a.m. until about 8 p.m. They get an hour-and-a-half break to go home for dinner, but then most return to the school for a two-hour study period. This period is optional, but many take advantage of it to have a quiet place to complete their homework or get extra help from teachers.
"We're Like A Family"
Twelve students sat in a semicircle in Meara Weaver's language arts class last week — dictionaries on their desks. Thumbing through copies of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," the students picked out words they didn't know and discussed them.
The class is the larger of the two grades, although two new students are expected in January. Moore said classes will peak at 15. For math, the work groups get even smaller: Each of the four full-time teachers works with a group of four or five students.
Math teacher Noah Ratzan said the students were still learning basic times tables at the beginning of the year. Now they're working on algebra.
"It's less crowded, so you can really think and get focused," said sixth-grader Antonio Benitez.
Staff members have an equally grueling schedule. The teachers are basketball coaches, take the students on their weekend field trips and host Friday-night fun nights for them.
"It's so small, and we're with the kids basically 12 hours a day," Weaver said. "And they see us in different settings. ... It's a community. We're like a family."
Today, the students look visitors in the eyes, shake their hands and politely introduce themselves. But it was a rough start.
Within the first month, Moore said, four students were dismissed for discipline problems or lack of parental involvement.
"The first week, I started to question," Moore said. "I didn't know if it was going to work out. These kids were screened and carefully selected, and their behavior was atrocious."
Weaver said students would literally cry in the middle of class because the expectations overwhelmed them.
"Most were not used to getting any homework at all," Weaver said.
They often got detention for failing to hand in work; they weren't used to taking textbooks home at night; and they lacked organization skills, Weaver said.
"I think they're really coming together. They seem to really have matured," said Maura Horan, one of the volunteers who schedules the students' weekend trips.
"They're strict when they have to be strict," said sixth-grader Tequile Walwyn. "But most of the time, it's fun."
Moore says the real measure of success will come down the road.
"We're in a good stride right now," Moore said. "The kids are learning. Everyone's working hard. But our success will be when the kids come back to Hartford, after they've gone to college, and give back."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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