Jesuit Academy forms men for others
August 31, 2022
As cars pulled up and students jumped out, some posed for photos in front of a welcome sign, and all received an enthusiastic, first-day-of-school welcome from school administrators.
Once inside they noisily chattered in the lunchroom before moving to the gym for a brief assembly, where they formed well-ordered lines, prayed together and listened attentively to comments and instructions by their principal.
That’s a glimpse of the positive and disciplined atmosphere that makes up the school day at Jesuit Academy in the heart of north Omaha.
One of 18 Jesuit Nativity Schools serving low-income students across the United States, Jesuit Academy offers faith-based education to predominantly minority, fourth- through eighth-grade males to help them break the cycle of poverty and thrive now and in the future.
Although 73% of the school’s students live in households at or below the poverty line and 64% are from one-parent families, 98% eventually graduate from high school.
“We center on Jesuit values and charisms, making the whole person, and small class sizes to emphasize rigorous instruction,” said Principal Joe Murray. “Our goal is to make sure when they leave us after eighth grade that they are ready to perform high at any high school they choose.”
Graduates take their record of academic success to several area high schools, including Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha.
‘PREPARED TO SUCCEED’
“Jesuit Academy students who are admitted to Creighton Prep are prepared to succeed,” said Joe Ryberg, interim principal/academic principal. “In addition to their academic preparation, it’s hard to replicate the early, middle-school experience of formation in Jesuit and Ignatian identity.”
“All of our students discover our spirituality that focuses on being men for others,” he said. “For graduates of Jesuit Academy, that formation started early and continues to develop deeper roots during their time here at Prep.”
Jesuit Academy students learn to be men for others not only by experiencing a faith-based academic approach and the Catholic and Jesuit teachings they learn in theology courses, they develop an awareness of and commitment to serving needs in their community.
“They learn through companionship, camaraderie, working together and service,” Murray said. “We hope that we put enough experiences in front of them, especially with small class sizes, and the opportunity to venture out and do more things in the community.”
Murray said the school provides a broad range of experiences so that by the time students leave, their learning encompasses more than just their academic subjects.
When students live in poverty their “box” is often very small, Murray said.
“They haven’t had enough exposure to the greater Omaha community, and beyond. They may not have been provided a wide range of opportunities to help them figure out new things they are good at,” he said.
“We aim to get them these experiences and help them build on them through high school, so they have a good idea of what they want to do when they earn their diploma.”
“We want them to have an awareness of things in their community, of career opportunities that they didn’t know before,” Murray said. “They also have academically sound brothers that they have been in the same class with for five years, and they’re close knit, so if they need someone to lean on, they have it.”
Jesuit Academy continues to work with students after they leave eighth grade.
“We have a graduate support program, and the staff works with alumni from high school all the way through university or trade school to see them into their first job or internships,” Murray said.
There is also an incentive program for high school students to come back to the school and interact with the students.
Murray said their biggest strategy is to expose them to enough that they have a pretty good idea of who they are or who they want to be.
“And as that changes through adolescence …, we can help them navigate and get them into a place where they have a really good fit to take on the rest of their life after high school,” he said.
Murray acknowledges the challenges and obstacles in educating low-income students. To ensure that cost is not an obstacle, the school fixes tuition at $500 per student, with other financial support coming from private donations and foundation grants.
“We target students that are at or below the poverty level,” he said. “With poverty comes a certain level of trauma and the social and emotional issues that they have.”
Murray said the school faces these issues head on and encourages staff to form a culture that helps students to feel safe going to them.
“They need to understand what they go through at home could impact the classroom,” he said. “It’s diagnosing it and figuring out how to cope with it, and how the behaviors would impact (performance) in the school.”
FAITH IS KEY
Murray said faith is a component of everything they do.
“We are a Catholic school. Much of our population isn’t Catholic, but we pray in the morning, before lunch, and do an Examen (a Jesuit approach to spiritual reflection) with the students where they can reflect on their days,” he said. “We tie everything back to our spirituality.”
And Jesuit Academy helps students use that spiritual foundation to help their community though on-site service opportunities.
“The quality of the Jesuit Academy students is felt the moment they walk in the door,” said Mark Dahir, chief executive officer of Heart Ministry Center, a north Omaha social services organization.
“This quality combines playfulness and solidarity mixed with an acute awareness of the suffering experienced within a community where poverty is passed on at times unknowingly and at no fault of those experiencing it, due to circumstances,” he said.
“They both light up the room and at the same time blend in with the community we serve. Simply put they are exceptional and know it in that they have an opportunity to transcend their surrounding circumstance through the education, faith, and fellowship Jesuit provides.”
Murray said the school’s efforts to break the cycle of poverty relate back to their efforts to help the students in many ways.
“We help them become more self-aware, enhance their work ethic, provide them with networking opportunities, and expose them to different jobs and careers they may not have been aware of,” he said.
“That knowledge allows them to be confident in who they are and makes them more likely to see things through,” he said. “Another tool is for them to have exposure to things that help them figure out their likes and dislikes. Through our collaboration with our graduate support team, and on-site experiences we can help them sharpen these tools of self-awareness and knowledge of opportunities.”
Editor Mike May contributed to this report.