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July 9, 2014 - When you think of Jesuit education, do you naturally picture high schools and colleges? If so, you might be surprised to learn about a sizable cadre of Jesuit-inspired middle schools in cities across the country.
The model began in the 1970s on Manhattan’s Lower East side with a school whose graduates were struggling to make it in the area’s Jesuit secondary schools. Through a solution involving longer class days, incorporated sports and activities, evening study, Saturday field trips, and a mandatory summer program, the school and its students began to flourish. And what began in one place as a way to serve the underserved grew to become a prototype for middle school education.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Fr. Bill Johnson, SJ acted on a calling to establish a school on Milwaukee’s south side for Latino boys that would set a foundation to develop future Christian leaders in the community. He contacted his former football coach at Marquette High, Larry Siewert, who not only agreed to help; he left his position at MUHS to provide leadership at the budding school full time.
In 1993, the school served 14 incoming sixth graders. And like other Nativity schools, it started its academic year with a summer camp, which combined learning, prayer and typical summer camp fun. Today Nativity serves 80 students in grades 5-8. There are about 20 students per class, allowing each student to receive personal attention empowering him to reach his full potential.
“Nativity has been called one of the best kept secrets in Milwaukee,” says Melodie Wyttenbach, Nativity Jesuit’s president. “The need for good schools in our community is great, and our program is transformative. I believe we are called to this notion of magis to do more and to be more for the greater glory of God.”
Magis, a Latin term for “more,” was adopted by St. Ignatius to suggest the spirit of generous excellence in which ministry should be performed. You’ll also find other Ignatian values at the heart of Nativity Jesuit – values like inspiring graduates to become “men for others” and cura personalis (Latin for care of the whole person).
Melodie explains, “Nativity Jesuit strives to focus not only on the intellectual development of our students, but their moral, spiritual and emotional development as well. That essence of cura personalis is central to the work we do here.”
Parents are also expected to participate in the life of the school through social activities, fundraisers and school events. A strong sense of volunteerism prevails, strengthening both the school and the family. “A particular focus for us is to have students participate in various service projects and to recognize the importance of giving back,” Melodie says. “Further, we recognize the need for strong Latino leaders in our community and work hard to develop our students’ leadership skills by the time they graduate.”
The impact continues beyond the middle school years as well. “Nativity Jesuit is a very unique school, where we maintain the relationships with our students not only during their elementary/middle school years, but into high school and college,” Melodie relates. “Considering the long-standing relationship the institution has with individuals, you really see how lives are transformed through education.”
It’s the kind of transformation with which Melodie is personally familiar, having earned her undergraduate degree at Saint Louis University, and a graduate degree at Marquette.
“My education at SLU deeply influenced my development,” she says. “While there, my involvement in campus ministry and service work in the community helped me develop an understanding of good work in action and the reflective tools necessary to make meaning out of each experience. I also came to know a number of Jesuits who inspired me and connected me with various ministries, including Camp Thunderhead, Nativity Jesuit’s summer camp program. These experiences were life-changing and I continue to ground my experiences in prayer and reflection.”
Groundbreaking roleSuch life-changing experiences and reflection have formed Melodie into the only woman to lead a Jesuit middle school, high school or university in the Midwest.
“That distinction is a humbling honor,” she says. “Having been trained in the Jesuit tradition, my leadership platform allows me to challenge other laymen and laywomen to further develop their understanding of Ignatian pedagogy and their own faith formation. Further, as a wife and working mother, I believe I can be an example for others who are passionate about their work and share my love for my faith and my family, while serving the mission of Nativity with others.”
That passion is evident in everything Melodie does. “The students and their families inspire me daily,” she concludes. “They bring great joy to this ministry and, even when the road is rocky, their persistence, optimism and gratitude demonstrate the impact a Nativity Jesuit education has on each individual who enters our doors. It’s truly a place that transforms lives – the lives of the students, families, teachers, volunteers and guests – as all come thirsting to know and leave inspired by the work happening here. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to lead Nativity Jesuit. You’ve got to come and see it in action!”
Results that speak for themselves – 98% of Nativity Jesuit alumni go on to graduate from high school. Learn about how Nativity Jesuit beats and exceeds the national average in their work with Latino youth. more...
Results that are getting noticed – Nativity Jesuit was recently selected by Seton Education Partners to be the fifth Catholic school in the country to implement its blended learning model. more...