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SOMETIME around 6:30 on a Monday night last September, Byron Bailey left the rectangle of packed dirt that passes for a play area in the Riverside housing project here. He was due back at his middle school, Nativity Prep, by 7 for the mandatory two-hour study hall, and he didn't want a check mark for arriving late.
By then, early in his second year at Nativity, Byron had grown accustomed to the teasing ridicule of the neighborhood children about wearing a burgundy uniform and attending an all-boys school. "The gay school," they called it. Byron had learned to shed the barbs. He knew Nativity as the place where he'd gone from reading Dr. Seuss to "Fahrenheit 451," the place where he was learning Latin, the place where nobody accused him of cheating when he solved a tough math problem, the way one of his teachers had at his old public school.
He returned to Riverside toward 9:30 that night, the darkness deep, the crack dealers out on the prowl. His mother told him that while he'd been at school a little girl, just 7, had been shot, hit by some gang member's stray bullet. Byron, who is 13, knew her. He'd been playing horseshoes with her out back just before leaving for Nativity.
Here was reality as parable and parable as reality. Nativity Prep had quite literally saved Byron's life by giving him a reason not to be standing in the line of fire that night. In a more metaphorical sense, too, the school was saving his life, giving him the education and orderly existence that promised to lift him out of Riverside forever.
That is exactly the mission of the 57 schools across the country in the Nativity Network. Largely affiliated with Roman Catholic religious communities, the Nativity schools intend to serve the poorest of the poor - families that cannot afford even the relatively modest tuitions of urban Catholic schools. Instead of several thousand dollars a year, the usual figure, Nativity schools generally charge from $200 to $600.
Financially, then, the schools depend on variations on the theme of sacrifice. There is the sacrifice of private donors, some wealthy, many not; the sacrifice of nuns, priests and brothers who teach and administer for virtually no pay; the sacrifice of volunteers who serve in roles from tutor to school nurse; and the sacrifice of those pupils like Byron Bailey who show up for study hall instead of running the streets.
Educationally, the schools are committed to holding class sizes at 15, running an extended class day, and requiring a lengthy summer session. The Nativity program aims specifically at middle-school students, in part to prepare them for admission to elite high schools and in part to intercede during what many educators consider the most treacherous part of a young person's academic life.
"While everybody else is debating how to fix the system," said the Rev. Richard DeLillio, the executive director of Nativity Prep in Wilmington, "we'll deal with the kids one by one by one."
That commitment, at least in Wilmington, arose from a historical model. Early in 2003, Salesianum High School here celebrated its centennial. The most renowned school in Wilmington, Salesianum had produced scores of lawyers and doctors and executives, and its tuition was $7,500 a year. When it started, however, it had offered a free Catholic education to the Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants packed into row houses on hillsides and along docks.
Edward Ogden, a brother in the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales religious order and an assistant principal at Salesianum, saw the Nativity model as a way of reviving the idealistic heritage. In a furious nine months from January to September 2003, he prevailed upon a local developer to donate a health club for the school building and enlisted Salesianum alumni, corporate benefactors, shopkeepers and Eagle Scouts to overhaul the saunas, lockers and aerobics studio into fully furnished classrooms, offices and cafeteria.
The first 15 pupils, divided between fifth and six grades, enrolled shortly after Labor Day. This fall, the number grew to 28 with the expansion into seventh grade and a budget of $478,000. Ultimately, Brother Ogden sees Nativity reaching a maximum of 55 to 60 in grades five through eight. And despite the undeniably affecting story of the school's founding, he said, "My theme song is that it doesn't happen overnight."
Hiree Peoples, one of the initial pupils, came with fairly typical baggage. He was being raised by a grown cousin, who had inherited him from a grandmother, who had stepped in when both of the boy's parents fell into drug problems. Since the grandmother lived in Philadelphia, Hiree had been going to a charter school there and coasting on obedient behavior without actually learning very much.
THAT kind of bargain didn't work at Nativity, not with class sizes below 10, not with required study hall, not with all those Latin declensions, not with a required reading list of a dozen novels a year. By December 2003, Hiree was struggling so badly and resisting so vigorously that his cousin and guardian, Belinda Cridell, decided to augment Nativity's discipline by denying him any Christmas presents.
Something changed with Hiree, Ms. Cridell said, when he went to a required monthlong session last summer, held outside Wilmington at a Catholic college. His first marking period this year showed four B's, an A-minus, and a C-plus, albeit alongside a D-minus in math.
"Some mornings I'm still in the shower," Ms. Cridell said, "and Hiree's already in the car, ready to go to school."
The temptation in discovering a school like Nativity Prep and a system like the Nativity Network is to look for easy ways to copy them. Certainly, these schools offer a replicable model of rigorous curriculum, unstinting standards, small class size and individualized attention. But there is something else, something more ineffable, something that can't be learned at a workshop or in graduate school.
"It sounds syrupy, but this school is about unconditional love," said Ciro Poppiti, a graduate of Salesianum High and Princeton University who teaches civics at Nativity Prep as a volunteer. "You can see in the kids' eyes, this sense of, 'Why do these people care about me? These white people? Do they want me to become a priest? Is this a secret seminary?' And then, gradually, they realize this is a gift. The only strings attached are to study hard and respect others. You do that and you keep getting the gift."