It’s been three years in the making and will soon finally come to life.
In an effort to helping to break the cycle of poverty and change lives through education, one student at a time, the Gonzaga Middle School in Winnipeg, Manitoba will open its doors for the first time this September.
Jesuit Nativity model schools have had very significant success in breaking the cycle of poverty through educating students from low-income families living in neighbourhoods where poverty and its social impacts affect the educational opportunities of children. That’s exactly why the Gonzaga Middle School will soon become a reality.
Since 2013, the plans has been in the works to open a school in downtown Winnipeg. Throughout the previous three decades, several people approached the Jesuits in Winnipeg and at St. Paul’s High School to bring the Jesuit Nativity-model to Winnipeg. The idea was then ignited after several key players witnessed the successful start-up of Mother Teresa Middle School in 2011.
A group of SPHS administrators and alumni visited MTMS in Regina in the fall of 2013. Inspired and encouraged by what they saw, this group then travelled to visit Nativity schools in Milwaukee and Chicago. The senior administrators of SMA also visited MTMS in December 2013.
“These visits solidified belief in the Nativity school model and strengthened hopes for a similar school in Winnipeg,” explains Tom Lussier, who was then hired as Project Director in 2014. He conducted a year-long feasibility study on starting a Nativity school in Winnipeg. After the completion of Part I of the Feasibility Study, with the encouragement and support of the NativityMiguel Coalition of schools, MTMS of Regina, the Canadian Jesuits and SPHS, a decision was made in the spring of 2015 to go forward with establishing Gonzaga Middle School in the Point Douglas neighbourhood of Winnipeg.
Throughout the feasibility study process and in the year of preparation, the advice, support and input of members of an advisory committee has been important in the establishment of GMS. In addition to the Working Committee members, this advisory committee included: Mrs. Josie Audino, Principal of SMA; the Honourable Kevin Chief, MLA for Point Douglas; Dr. Jerome Cranston, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba; Mr. David Filmon, Chairperson SPHS Board; Mr. Bob Lewin, Principal of SPHS; Sr. Bernadette O’Reilly, NDS, past co-Director of Rossbrook House and Sr. Susan Wikeem SNJM, past President of SMA. Mr. Mitch Bourbonniere, another SPHS alumnus who has worked as a social worker in the inner city and as a university Social Work instructor for many years has also joined this committee. GMS looks forward to the ongoing guidance and support from these and future members of this committee.
GMS was incorporated in July 2015 with three founding members including Mr. Mark Chipman as Chairperson, Mr. Bob Puchniak as Vice-Chairperson and Mr. Steve Chipman as Secretary. They will also serve on the Board along with the Fr. Len Altilia SJ, President of SPHS and Provincial Assistant for Secondary and Pre-Secondary Education for the Jesuits in English Canada, Mrs. Connie Yunyk, the President of St. Mary’s Academy (SMA), and Tom Lussier, past Principal of St. Paul’s who has since been hired as the first Executive Director and Principal of GMS. These Board Members constituted the Working Committee prior to incorporation. More recently, Dr. Niigaan Sinclair, Native Studies Professor and Department Head at the University of Manitoba joined the Board of Directors. It will operate as a Jesuit endorsed NativityMiguel Academy in partnership with the Canadian Jesuits and SPHS, and also in association with SMA.
The doors open in September
Gonzaga Middle School will start this September with a single Grade 6 class which will be capped at a maximum of 20 students. The hope will be to have between 15 -20 students in that first class with plans to add a class each year as the first Grade 6 class advances to Grade 7 and then Grade 8 successively.
Gonzaga Middle School is a non-tuition based school, and student families will only be charged a nominal monthly fee to help cover some of the additional enrichment costs of the Nativity-model program as part of their commitment to their child’s education. Start-up funding for the school has been provided through the financial sponsorship of a group of committed donors that will expand as the school moves forward. Additional funding is being sought to establish an endowment for long term sustainability and an adopt-a-student fundraising program is being established. The partial independent school funding provided the government of Manitoba is only available after a three-year waiting period which begins when the school opens.
The application process will begin soon. The two key criteria for admission are that students must be from low-income families and student/family motivation or commitment.
Important to the Community
When asked why it’s important to bring GMS to this neighbourhood, Lussier’s response was clear.
“From a social justice perspective, the significant negative impact of poverty on the educational opportunities and life chances of children represents a primary challenge to our Church and the broader community, he explains. “Gonzaga Middle school will give parents who normally have few choices with an educational option that targets the needs of their children – helping to break the cycle of poverty and change lives through education, one student at a time.”
He says the Feasibility Study showed that based on research, the Point Douglas and North East Downtown areas of Winnipeg are among the poorest urban neighbourhoods in Canada with the highest proportion of children at risk for poor health and educational outcomes as they are the most affected by social and economic disadvantages. These neighbourhoods show higher levels of unemployment, social issues, crime rates, and lowest average family incomes. Neighbourhood children are also at higher risk of being recruited into street gangs and at least two to three times more likely to be in poverty and using food banks.
“It is clear that despite the many excellent school and community programs serving these neighbourhoods, there are still many otherwise capable children of socioeconomically disadvantaged families who fall through the cracks of the school and community support network with unfortunate effect on their educational success,” Lussier says, adding the demographics and socioeconomic conditions of the neighbourhoods GMS will serve suggest that children from Indigenous, New-Canadian and other visible minority families are most at risk.
Lussier says this school opening comes at the right time.
“Even before the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation report the Jesuits in English Canada had already been committed to a new way of relating to Indigenous peoples with whom they work across the country,” he says. “With the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Report GMS and the Jesuits in English Canada recognize the need to pay heed to its recommendations with respect to education and to act in a spirt of reconciliation. In keeping with the best of the tradition of Jesuit education and the spirit of reconciliation, GMS is committed to being inclusive and respecting the faith and spiritual traditions of its students while maintaining its Catholic Jesuit school ethos and tradition.
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