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This article was published 3/11/2015 (1478 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A handful of prominent Winnipeg businessmen — led by Mark and Steve Chipman — plan to open a private, independent Jesuit school in the heart of Winnipeg’s poorest neighbourhood next fall that is designed to funnel graduates to St. Paul’s High School and St. Mary’s Academy, tuition-free, and beyond.
The initiative, to be called the Gonzaga Middle School, will start with 20 Grade 6 students selected from the Point Douglas area next year and will include a total of about 60 students (Grade 6-8) by 2018.
St. Paul’s and St. Mary’s have already committed to taking students who graduate from Gonzaga and meet application requirements — if that’s where they choose to attend high school.
The program has been four years in the making, with Mark Chipman, the Winnipeg Jets co-owner, and brother Steve, president of Birchwood Automotive Group, both St. Paul’s graduates, working with former St. Paul’s principal Tom Lussier to develop a curriculum with a steering committee that includes Point Douglas MLA Kevin Chief and Rossbrook House founder Sister Bernadette O’Reilly.
"Our hope is that we’ll be seen as providing an alternate choice for parents that often don’t often have that choice provided to them," said Lussier, who will serve as executive director of the school. "We’re not charging tuition, and we’re going to provide all kinds of additional resources that most kids and families (in the area) don’t have access to."
Gonzaga is modelled after some 60 "nativity" schools started by Jesuits across the U.S., beginning in the early 1970s — all of them located in inner-city, urban neighbourhoods — most affected by poverty. Another nativity program, the Mother Teresa Middle School, was opened in Regina in 2011.
The 10,000-square foot Winnipeg facility, located on 174 Maple St. North, will include classrooms, a library, gymnasium and staff rooms. The building is being renovated.
The first three years of operation will cost about $3 million, or about $25,000 per student. The cost after all 60 students are enrolled in 2018 would be at least $1.5 million annually, although the school can apply for provincial grants after a three-year waiting period.
In the meantime, the school’s board will lobby private business, foundations and corporations for funding commitments to cover everything from roof repairs to school uniforms to daily meals of breakfast, lunch and snacks.
"It’s an expensive venture but one that has been proven in other places to be very effective in helping kids who’ve slipped through the cracks," Lussier said.
School days at Gonzaga will be up to three hours longer (8 a.m.-5:15 p.m.) than normal school hours. The additional time will include at least one hour of reading and an hour of homework at the culmination of every school day.
Lussier said on average, applicants accepted will be two grades behind in reading and vocabulary levels. "We’re going to try and help these kids raise their levels to they’re at grade level or above grade level by the time they’re in Grade 8," Lussier noted. "So it’s going to take a lot of intense energy and time."
In addition, students will be expected to attend at least two weeks of summer camp in July, which will include some reading/study and a trip that "typical families might do for summer vacation," added Lussier, who will serve as principal for the first year of operations at Gonzaga.
Lussier said the selection process will involve consultation with community agencies and leaders, along with a series of interviews with students and families, plus testing for academic levels. Commitment from the students will also be a deciding factor.
"The primary factor will be need," Lussier said. "It’s going to be kids beneath the poverty line or very near. We’re looking for kids who are academically capable but we’re not just looking for the stars."
Studies will follow the basic Manitoba school curriculum, with additional emphasis on, for example, indigenous culture, given the high percentage of aboriginal children in the neighbourhood.
However, Lussier stressed that while Gonzaga will be a Jesuit school — Fr. Len Altilia, who is also the president of St. Paul’s High School and the Jesuit provincial’s assistant for secondary and pre-secondary education in Canada will sit on the board — the program will be non-denominational.
"We’re going to be open to children of all faith backgrounds," he said. "Spirituality is going to be open to a variety of expressions beyond Catholic."
For example, the school will hold First Nations prayer practices for those students who wish to participate.
"Whatever that community is, we will try to include some of that in our program," Lussier said.
Mark Chipman said the notion for the nativity school began over four years ago, partially born out of the involvement with inner-city hockey programs through both the Yearling Foundations (Manitoba Moose) and True North Foundation (Winnipeg Jets).
The founding group of members began first investigating then travelling to visit nativity Jesuit schools in Chicago and Milwaukee, among other cities.
Chipman became convinced the model could work in Winnipeg, too, and set out to recruit fellow St. Paul’s graduates. A steering committee including several inner-city community members was formed.
"I don’t purport to be an expert," Chipman told the Free Press. "Breaking the cycle of poverty is very hard. But one thing that appears to work is education. That’s what this is about; giving families another choice, another path, to be educated."
Currently, inner-city high school graduation rates in Winnipeg hover around 50 per cent, compared to 80 per cent in suburbs.
Lussier said there are many school programs and agencies already offered to inner-city kids that have toiled for years to fight the systemic issues of poverty.
"We understand it’s a long-term problem," he said. "It’s only going to be addressed by, basically, the community and government and the people who live there coming together. (But) our view is if you can affect the life of students, one student at a time, that over a long term you can have an impact on the community.
"Mark likes to call it the pebble in the pond. The idea that if you drop a pebble and small waves radiate outward."
The one distinction of the Gonzaga Middle School will the long-term commitment to students. Under a graduate support program, a staff member will meet individually with students at least once a month to provide resources, mentorship or "just someone to talk to."
"Once a kid is accepted into Gonzaga we’re not just making a three-year commitment to them," Lussier said. "We’re saying, ‘We’re going to continue to support you through high school, into university and beyond.’ "
Steering committee member Kevin Chief, who was born and raised in Point Douglas, called the school initiative a prime example of North End values of perseverance in the face of adversity.
"What’s exciting is this idea of young people getting tapped on the shoulder to not only say that you’re going to graduate from high school, but a tap on the shoulder to say post-secondary is for you," Chief said. "I mean, we can’t tell people something’s possible. We’ve got to be able to show them. What we’re seeing here is the idea that young people will tell you they’re proud of who they are, they’re proud of where they live, and they want to be able to give back.
"This school is going to help young people be able to do that. Not only can they give back while they’re in the school, there’s going to be so much emphasis for them to come back and be role models and ambassadors and mentors.
"And when young people feel like they’re contributing, and they feel that sense of generosity, you start to feel like you belong," the MLA added. "That’s why I think this school is going to have an incredible amount of success."
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.