The National Catholic Review
George M. Anderson
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I tell the little fifth grade girls to look me in the eye, said Yliana Hernandez, a member of the Presentation Sisters who is principal of the new Nora Cronin Presentation Academy in Newburgh, N.Y. The reason? To increase self-confidence and leadership qualities among mostly Mexican girls growing up in a primarily macho culture.

I visited the school one morning after a train ride from New York City along a sun-drenched Hudson River. Views of its broad expanse were within sight all along the way through Newburgh, too, as Sister Hernandez drove me to the current location of the school in rented space in a local Presbyterian church. But we also visited the academys future permanent home, a handsome three-story Victorian brick building now under renovation. The school is named after another Presentation sister, Nora Cronin, an educator familiar with the new NativityMiguel middle schools, which focus on providing quality education for youngsters from low-income backgrounds.

A group of Presentation sisters met in 1999 to dream about a possible future undertaking. The idea of a school for poor girls soon came up, Sister Hernandez said. As the plan took shape, there was a sense of urgency: Whatever you decide to do, do it now, supporters emphasized. Based on a feasibility studys positive findings, the Cassin Educational Foundation provided a grant of $150,000 spread out over a three-year period. With Sister Hernandezs many years experience of working with Hispanic families in Newburgh, she became the schools first principaland, she said laughing, secretary and maintenance person too! Starting with an initial fifth grade class in 2006, the school added another class in 2007 and will continue until all four grades are in place, five through eight.

Tuition is $30 a month, but inability to pay is never a barrier to admission. The actual cost is far higher$12,000 per student yearlyand therefore funding is the single greatest challenge. She emphasized, though, that the school is already rich in its abundance of retired teachers who offer their skilled services cost-free. As soon as local papers started running stories about us, people began calling to offer help, she observed. Three of the volunteers are retired specialists in reading, an area of great need because many students with limited English vocabulary begin at reading levels two years below their grade level. Reading, she believes, has to be the foundation of all other forms of instructionan opinion shared by other educators.

Sister Hernandezs thoughts go well beyond the middle school level. Even after the students eventual graduation from the eighth grade, she plans to create a graduate support program for girls moving on to high school. Graduates may need not only homework help, but also general encouragement in the midst of what can be a difficult transition from small classes of 15the average size at the academyto much larger ones in very different settings. But her thoughts go further. Where do you want to go to college? she is already asking surprised students. Such goals are high indeed for a city like Newburgh, where fewer than 40 percent of minority students even graduate from high school and fewer than 3 percent from college.

The students parents work mostly at low-paying jobs in factories, restaurants and small businesses. All donate time at the school. Some come in to clean the school at the end of the day (we cant afford a cleaning crew). Other parents volunteer to pick up and serve the food provided by the federally funded breakfast, lunch and snack program. Mostly from backgrounds of limited education, the parents are strongly supportive of the schools high educational goals for their daughters. Commenting on her hope to help the students realize their leadership potential, Sister Hernandez gave the example of one especially shy fifth-grade girl who was awarded the role of the lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. For that role, she said, she had to learn how to roar, which was hard, but she accepted the challenge and roared! Now she is a much more self-confident person.

When students eventually move on from the eighth grade and enter high school and then, one hopes, college, I want them to remember how they got there, Sister Hernandez said. They will need to realize that they have a responsibility to help othersjust as they themselves were helped here at the academy. In other words, there will be a tacit obligation to give back.

For more information on the Nora Cronin Presentation Academy, contact PresentationAcad@aol.com.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

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