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A Gift For City Students


December 25, 2007

This nativity story begins at a boarded-up Hartford factory, where employees spent more than a century working in gold.

If all goes as planned, the old M. Swift & Sons building will be reborn as a school where volunteer teachers mold children into scholars.

It's the dream of an idealistic kid from the suburbs who decides to open a free school in a neighborhood that doesn't get much positive news. His believers include a wealthy real estate executive who is discovering that giving his money to start a school for poor kids can be as satisfying as closing a deal.

More than anything, though, the emerging story of Nativity Preparatory School is a sign that good ideas can lead to something.

Last summer, Patrick Moore made a casual comment to some friends here that maybe Hartford should have a Nativity School. These schools are part of an independent, Jesuit-inspired network named after a New York City church. Moore grew up in Canton, went to College of the Holy Cross and went on to help open and run a Nativity School in New Bedford.

Before long, Moore was talking to folks from Habitat for Humanity, who were looking for a use for the old Swift complex at the corner of Love Lane and Garden Street, which had been donated to them after the gold leaf manufacturer closed a couple of years ago. That led to Jeffrey Digel, a West Hartford real estate executive.

"I threw out this idea," Moore, a strapping 26-year-old former rugby player, said as we walked around the grounds of the Swift factory last week. "One thing leads to another."

Next August, Moore and Digel promise me, a small middle school for 30 boys will open on the grounds of the North End factory. Private and free, they will take middle school students and turn them into prep school material. Eventually they plan to have 60 boys and to spin off a school for girls.

"I can't go and solve the problems of the public schools. But I can do this," Digel told me. "I just thought it was time to give back. I hope others do the same."

This is a long way from the impressive schools they are building throughout Hartford or the grand plans for reform envisioned by Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski. It's just a little gesture, helping a few kids in a city of 22,000 children, fueled by the spirit of people who believe things can change.

The Nativity model depends on hard work. Teachers right out of college sign on like Peace Corps volunteers. Parents must cook and clean. Discipline is strict.

There's no formal religious doctrine, but Jesuit-inspired values and neckties are part of the parochial-school style formula for the Nativity schools, which boast an 85 percent high school graduation rate. In Hartford, about 30 percent of students graduate on time.

"Things like this don't happen in our neighborhood," Helen Nixon, who lives nearby and leads a citizens' group, told me at a party for the new school at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church. "This is a real opportunity. We've got to start building people."

It isn't just happening with Nativity. At Asylum Hill Congregational Church, parish hall chatter evolved into a public school that's been up and running for a year.

The regional preschool emerged from what pastor Gary Miller called a "maverick collaboration" between his Protestant church, the Catholic St. Joseph College and the public Capitol Region Education Council.

Miller and Moore reminded me their initiatives can't begin to solve the deeper problems of poverty and learning in Hartford. What they do have is a profound message: There is hope in the small ideas that emerge when people work together.

For now, Moore spends days and evenings drumming up spirit and contributions for the new school, a tiny part of Hartford's big future.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime," Moore explained. "It's a chance to be a part of something that's larger than yourself."

Merry Christmas.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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