Ascension proves poor, minority kids can excel

| April 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
First graders join in a language arts exercise at Ascension Catholic School in north Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

First graders Taylor Pettis, left, and Janiyah Mallory Hare join in a language arts exercise at Ascension Catholic School in north Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Pupils at Ascension School — “scholars,” their principal calls them — know better than to turn in homework with raggedy edges from being torn out of a spiral notebook.

No teacher will accept papers like that, not at Ascension.

That’s part of “The Ascension Way,” the doctrine that makes the Catholic school on the north side of Minneapolis with an enrollment that’s 98 percent students of color a model of academic achievement.

“Sloppiness is not acceptable,” Dorwatha Woods, Ascension’s principal, explained, and there’s a reason for that.

“We know, especially for children of color, they’re going to be judged first by their color,” she said, “so their skills and their habits have to be exceptional.”

A block off Broadway at 18th and Dupont, Ascension School is the education outlier in one of the poorest areas in the city, just blocks from where, during the current school year, racial tension erupted over the shooting death of Jamar Clark by police.

While Minneapolis public high schools graduate approximately 60 percent of their students, a study of Ascension’s 8th grade graduating class of 2011 showed that 100 percent of the class graduated from high school in 2015, and 90 percent have gone on to college.

For the 2014-15 school year, nearby public elementary schools ranked 790th and 817th, respectively, out of 820 schools in the state.

Many of Ascension’s students are black, Hispanic and Hmong and from economically challenged families; 77 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Despite their socio-economic disadvantages, the school successfully educates those children.

All those children.

“No child is turned away from Ascension because of their inability to pay,” said Father Dale Korogi, Ascension pastor.

Of the 281 scholars currently enrolled, only 34 pay the full tuition of $1,400, and 247 (88 percent) receive financial aid from the school. Those scholarships average approximately $200 per pupil, with nearly one-in-five receiving anywhere from $500 to full tuition.

Per pupil cost is $7,200, and Ascension fills the gap between that number and the $1,400 tuition fee through fundraising.

Despite its efforts to make education affordable, Father Korogi says some families might think Ascension is out of reach.

“Because we’re a private, Catholic school, families may not consider us an option for their child’s education,” he said. “They may presume that ‘private’ means ‘elite’ and ‘unaffordable,’ and that ‘Catholic’ means ‘exclusive.’ ”

Tax credit for tuition could help families

Proposals before the Minnesota Legislature are aimed at helping families across the state — not just in the urban core — more easily afford the education they want for their children.

A bill which would expand the current state education tax credit to include the cost of tuition would have a lasting impact both for individual students and for the community at large, said Michael Rogers, president of Risen Christ School in south Minneapolis.

“For a school like Risen Christ, where 99 percent of our students are children of color and rely on tuition assistance,” Rogers said, “a tuition tax credit would make a world of difference.”

Risen Christ bases tuition on a sliding scale, and most families pay $800 per student per year, Rogers said. Under the current proposal, almost all of our 335 students would receive a direct tax credit for tuition paid.

“Expanding access to Risen Christ and other nonpublic schools allows more children to benefit from a high-quality education,” Rogers said.

It would also help close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, he said, a continuing concern in Minnesota.

No excuses, no prejudices

Woods, who is retiring in June after 29 years as Ascension’s principal, said what Ascension is doing right comes from values she and teachers developed together during those 29 years, and those include Catholic values.

“All children can learn at high levels and can be taught to be good citizens,” Woods said, “but you have to have no excuses and no prejudices.

“They need a solid education; they need religious instruction as exciting as Jesus Christ was and is, and they need good teachers to deliver it, good teachers who say, ‘I know you have it in you.’ ”

Father Korogi sees multiple reasons for the parish school’s success, but one stands out.

“I think the heart of the matter,” he said, “is that we firmly believe that each and every child is a beloved child of God, each with unique gifts, every one of them with the ability to learn and the potential to grow in faith.

“Some may think that children who live in poverty are less able than others to learn and achieve their goals,” Father Korogi said. “We have very high expectations of our scholars, and surround them with many resources they need to succeed. And they do.”

Woods said it wasn’t difficult to find teachers who wanted to teach in the impoverished environment of north Minneapolis; however, prospective teachers sometimes came with the attitude of “missionaries,” as she put it, coming to “save” poor children.

“I had a hard time finding teachers who had the ability to teach in this environment,” Woods said. “Our families don’t need ‘saving,’ they need respect and certain supports. They need teachers who have an understanding of people of color and embrace not just the child but the parents.”

Ascension trains teachers to move away from the Minnesota Nice attitude that assumes everyone is the same, Woods said. “Because we’re all different, we have to teach from the multi-dimensions the children have. Classrooms need to be lively, the lessons need to resonate with the culture, otherwise you’re not going to reach them.”

Test scores, behavior and support services all are constantly monitored to see what needs to be improved, Woods said.

“Everything is a teachable moment,” she added.

Students who fail to turn in work on time learn what Woods called “survival lessons.”

She advised some 7th grade “scholars” who had missed a deadline how they might have better handled the situation by apologizing to their teacher and asking for more time to complete the assignment.

“I told them none of us is perfect, but if you’ve made a mistake, you have to fix it. You will be held accountable.”

Overt Catholic core

Woods said Ascension doesn’t shy away from its Catholic tradition, even though 67 percent of its students are non-Catholic. The fact that all Ascension students attend Mass and learn Catholic teaching and traditions isn’t a barrier to parents of other faith traditions, the principal said.

“There’s no escaping the Christianity and Catholicity of Ascension School,” Woods said. “It’s in your face every time you turn around. We expect children to learn, and, at the same time, to be exposed to the blessings of the Catholic Church and the Christian faith.

“We want them to be asking, ‘What is my purpose in life? What does God expect of me?’ ”

Recently, during her regular morning message, Woods reminded her scholars that their talents are “jewels” God has given them to help others.

“My firm belief is when we are in the womb, God gives us things we need,” she said, “that we’re born to take those treasures and develop them and turn around and impact humankind.”

Woods said she takes great satisfaction in watching Ascension graduates achieve success in life, people like Jamil Payton who has followed her into the education field.

“I’m really proud of him,” Woods said. “He’s an administrator in a public school district [an assistant principal at North View International Baccalaureate Middle School in Brooklyn Park].

She doesn’t hesitate in spelling the name of Seleeke Flingai, a more recent Ascension graduate who she remembered passing the toughest classes with flying colors, going on to Totino-Grace for high school and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for college.

Flingai, originally from Liberia, just this month received his Ph.D. from the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a biomedical researcher who is focusing on vaccine access for people in developing countries, Woods said.

Along with taking satisfaction in how Ascension impacts young people, she’s seen how the school has impacted the northside community.

“It’s exciting to see parents turn their lives around because the child has become more Christ-centered,” Wood said. “We’ve had parents come off the streets from prostitution, come off drugs. We’ve had families stabilized, parents gone back to college.”

The impact his parish school has isn’t lost on Ascension’s pastor.

“Catholic schools in north Minneapolis have a 100-years-plus history of educating those for whom a quality education was otherwise unavailable,” said Father Korogi, himself a graduate of one of those northside parish schools. “I am so proud that Ascension Catholic School still stands and continues to do just that.”

Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who has focused on education in his ministry as auxiliary bishop, said offering a tuition tax credit to parents of limited incomes and increasing incentives to education donors would help the Catholic Church and other institutions that provide nonpublic education to continue their outreach to some of the most needy members of society.

“The proposals before the Legislature right now are a profound opportunity to help poor families choose an education that helps their children get a step ahead,” he said. “If those families could get a tax break it would really make a difference.”


Education-supporting proposals at the Legislature

Bills before the Minnesota State Legislature would help parents who want to send their children to private, religious or other non-public schools.

Bills before the Minnesota State Legislature would help parents who want to send their children to private, religious or other non-public schools.

House File 798 / Senate File 1224: Expand the current state law providing Education Tax Credits and Deductions for educational expenses and include private school tuition as an allowable credit. Would help nearly 95,000 Minnesota families with the average family qualifying for just over $1,000 in direct tax relief.

HF 1369 / SF 1396: Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act. Would allow individuals and businesses to receive a tax credit for donating to charitable entities that award K-12 scholarships to children from income-qualifying families.

HF 1529 / SF 1313: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Would allow parents of children with disabilities to select a school of their choice based on the needs of the student. An estimated 127,000 students in Minnesota who receive special education services could qualify for the ESA program.


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