Allegheny West: St. James School Strives to Help Under-Resourced Students

Taki Leonard (left) and Kevin Todd talk to a visitor at the pop-up sale.

Taki Leonard, a 16-year-old alumnus of the St. James School, an Episcopal middle school on Clearfield Street, manned the table at a pop-up sale in the second floor of Vault + Vine on Midvale Avenue. Leonard helped sell cheese boards and ornamental key hangers made by himself and other St. James alumni.

Leonard Haley, a retired teacher responsible for teaching Leonard woodworking skills, talked to customers and a former student.

“It’s amazing,” Leonard said. “Usually school used to be, you graduate you’re gone. But St. James keeps in contact with you, with your school and your family and stuff like that. I like that.”

The money raised from this particular pop-up sale would all be invested back into the wood shop, which has been growing slowly since it started. The program teaches former students important life skills outside of the classroom and is only one of several programs run by St. James and its graduate support program.

Staying in touch with students after they matriculate into high school is a key part of the mission at the St. James School. Located in the West Allegheny neighborhood, the school is one of three NativityMiguel schools in Philadelphia, a faith-based, tuition-free model that is “committed to educating traditionally under resourced students in a nurturing environment,” according to the school’s website.

The St. Marks Church of Philadelphia opened the school in 2011 in the 19th-century, gothic-style Church of St. James the Less. The church closed, along with its parish school, in 2006 after theological differences with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

When the St. Marks Church took over the property, it met with the community to figure out what kind of school was most needed in the neighborhood, and it settled on the NativityMiguel model, according to Kevin Todd, director of the graduate support program at St. James.

The NativityMiguel model was founded in New York about 30 years ago and has expanded to a network of 49 schools throughout the country. The model delivers a faith-based education to the economically poor, supports graduates beyond graduation, engages families, and strives for the development of the whole child.

St. James families pay a small family fee and volunteer at the school. The school also employs an independent governance structure, which for St. James means the school must fundraise its entire $2 million budget every year.

According to the NativityMiguel website, the model boasts an average retention rate of 95 percent (not including students who have moved away). The website also states that 92 percent of students who graduated from these middle schools in 2013 graduated from high school in four years. In addition, 66 percent of NativityMiguel students who graduated high school in 2017 enrolled in 4-year colleges and 18 percent enrolled in 2-year programs.

“The reason we have such a high budget and why we invest so much in our kids is that we know they need more than just what they’re getting inside the classroom,” Todd said.  “So, that’s why we have a really strong mental health program, that’s why we have a graduate support program, because we know that after eighth grade it doesn’t stop. They need continued support throughout high school and post-secondary education.”

St. James now has 52 graduates, each of whom are enrolled in high school. The first class of 15 fifth-graders is now completing their senior year. Eight will graduate this year, and the other seven are expected to graduate later.

Due to the mission of this school model, St. James determines its students’ eligibility on several criteria. According to Todd, students must qualify for free or reduced lunch, must be the appropriate age to attend fourth through eighth grade, and they must live in the community.

The school limits its student body to neighborhood residents because it is committed to keeping it a neighborhood school, Todd said. St. James’ catchment area falls between Ridge Avenue and 22nd Street, and between Allegheny Avenue and York Street. However, Todd explained that if a student moves away from the neighborhood after beginning their education at St. James, they are allowed to remain at the school.

“We think the neighborhood model works especially well,” Todd said. “We have an extended day and an extended school year, so it would very difficult if kids were coming from all over the city, traveling far distances.”

The school’s commitment to being a neighborhood school extends beyond the school day. St. James has seven rooms available as faculty living quarters to ensure staff are present on campus 24/7. This also allows staff to become a part of the community and build a strong relationship with neighbors.

The school also features vocational programs that alumni can participate in, like the woodworking program. Haley came up with the idea for the program because he has experience with woodworking and wanted to do something to help the students.

Jerome Brothers (left) and Nafi Mink work at the alumni wood shop on Saturdays and receive a stipend for their work.

“What can they get into if they’re not going into college?” he asked.“The important thing here is not what they learn about woodworking. They learn about communication… improve their language skills and pay attention to details.”

Some of the students in the woodworking program expressed their gratitude for St. James’ graduate support program.

“He’s [Haley] taking his time out of his day teaching us how to wood shop and stuff,” Leonard said. “And explore more things that average kids won’t do.”

Haley expressed the importance of hard work for the students.

“It gives them a goal,” he said. “The goal is to improve their status in life by stepping forward instead of just sitting around… I think it’s good for them to design what they’re going to do, to create rather than just hang out and do nothing.”

The products of the wood shop are sometimes sold, like at a pop-up sale they participated in at Vault + Vine. Haley said some of the items have sold for $200.

The pop-up sale at Vault + Vine sold items from the wood shop and other local vendors.

“I feel good, and at the same time I feel like it’s kind of like an accomplishment, and to see a piece that I made sold for that much is kind of amazing,” said Nafi Mink, 15, who is now studying construction trades at Mercy Career and Technical High School.

The school, with the help of outside organizations like Elwyn and Joseph J. Peters Institute, offers other support services, such as counseling, to students who need it.

“Some are for severe social-emotional challenges, some are for academic issues,” Todd said. “Even our graduates take advantage of that.”

The graduate support team requires students who graduate from St. James to visit the school once a week to check in, get help with homework, or even just visit friends and teachers.

“If I’m having school problems, or school is just stressful, I come here and talk to Mr. Todd and he gives me advice,” said Tanasia Jackson-Hayes, a former student.

Todd explained that the team also has access to all of its graduates’ grades and attendance, so they can look out for red flags or find ways to help those students who need it.

“Some of the graduates, I might sit down with and say, ‘Look, in order for you to take advantage of these programs we’re doing, I’m gonna ask that you go see the counselor once a week for something else going on in your life,’” Todd said.

In addition to the staff, the school has volunteers who visit the school weekly to work with students. Roughly 30 Drexel medical students help eighth-graders with science around twice a month. Other volunteers are church partners, retired teachers and family and community members.

“I became interested in helping the inner city kids who often don’t have as many opportunities as other people have, so I wanted to mentor them” said Peter Dugery, one of Haley’s former students who volunteers at the wood shop.

For graduates, St. James’ holistic care model seems to have paid off.

“I feel like they really care about you and they want to help you succeed,” Jackson-Hayes said.

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