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In Conn., prep school dream nearing reality

Colin Poitras | 12/18/2008, 4:07 a.m.

HARTFORD, Conn. — From the basement of the Hartford YWCA on the corner of Broad Street and Farmington Avenue, Patrick R. Moore has a vision.

Where others may see empty storage space, a darkened gym and a jumble of discarded office furniture, Moore sees classrooms and the smiling faces of 60 young boys neatly clad in ironed white shirts, dark pants and ties.

Thanks to a few generous donations, a little help from friends and a lot of hard work, Moore’s vision will come true in four months when his new Covenant Preparatory School opens on Aug. 28.

It is a labor of love for the 26-year-old Moore, a Canton native and Holy Cross graduate who, despite his age, just finished three years as the head of a similar prep school in New Bedford, Mass.

“It’s a very simple model. It’s not complicated,” Moore said of running the school, which is patterned after 64 similar Jesuit-based prep schools operating across the country as part of the NativityMiguel Network of Schools.

“It’s given me so much. I feel blessed to be a part of it,” Moore said.

The school intends to offer a tuition-free middle-school education to 60 boys from low-income Hartford families. Small classes, full school days and close personal attention are key. When the school opens there will be 30 students, Moore said — a 15-student class of fifth-graders and one of sixth-graders.

Moore said he expects to add a seventh grade in 2009 and an eighth grade in 2010, for a total of 60 students overall. Ultimately, the tiny prep school hopes to become a feeder to other local prep schools, such as the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford and Loomis Chaffee in Windsor. Loomis’ dean of faculty sits on the Covenant board of directors, as does the head of Kingswood-Oxford.

“I am a firm believer that independent schools not only serve their own student bodies, but also have a public purpose,” said Dennis Bisgaard, head of the Kingswood school. “Our students become more well-rounded … if they engage with their peers from other parts of the world, and certainly with their peers and neighbors from Hartford.”

Although students will say a morning prayer, the school will not push its church affiliation. It is nondenominational, faith-based and open to all, Moore said.

Each school day starts at 7 a.m. with a morning assembly, some classical music, the “Our Father” prayer and meditation, Moore said.

Students attend classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Recreation and sports take place at 3 p.m., followed by dismissal at 5 p.m., when students head home to dinner. Those pupils who might be struggling (considered to be two C’s, a D or an F in any class) are invited back to school for additional study from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Parents are responsible for getting their children to and from school and are expected to be involved in their children’s education, including spending time as a school volunteer.

Moore said parents will be encouraged to bring in home-cooked meals for teachers four or five times a year and come in on Saturdays to help clean the learning areas.

“We become like a family,” Moore said. “There is a parents’ council. Everyone gets to know each other.”

The teaching staff — four at first — will be made up of young volunteers who are part of the AmeriCorps program, and who will live in rented apartments around the city. Teachers receive a $200 monthly stipend, along with free room and board and health insurance, Moore said.

Moore, who majored in history at Holy Cross, said he did not expect to get involved in teaching. After graduating from college, he volunteered at the NativityMiguel school in New Bedford. By the end of the first day, he was hooked.

“It’s hard to describe,” said Moore, who taught for a year before becoming principal of the New Bedford program. “You hear about inner-city schools, troubled kids. But here, kids greet you with a ‘Good morning, sir,’ in a shirt and a tie.”

All the students stand at the start of class until the teacher comes in and greets them and gives them permission to sit.

“It’s palpable. You can feel it. Something’s going on,” Moore said. “These aren’t troubled kids. These are kids who want to go to private school, but they just can’t afford it.”

The first NativityMiguel school opened at the Jesuit Mission Center on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1971. Covenant Prep will be the second NativityMiguel school to open in Connecticut. A coed sister school, St. Martin de Porres Academy, opened in New Haven in 2005.

One of Moore’s mentors is Barry Hynes, a former Boston City Council president who is a retired investor living in Massachusetts. Hynes opened the New Bedford Nativity school after volunteering for the mission center in New York. He has since opened two other schools.

Hynes said he’s familiar with Hartford’s school problems — two-thirds of the children entering high school do not make it to graduation, and the poverty rate hovers around 30 percent. He said the Nativity school formula should work here.

“The kids get an amazing education, and even though it has only 60 kids, just its being there can cause a ripple effect in the neighborhood,” Hynes said. “You could put four of them in Hartford.”

According to the school’s promotional literature, 92 percent of NativityMiguel students graduate from high school and 96 percent go on to a two- or four-year college. Word of Covenant Prep has started to spread. About 25 students showed up to take a recent admissions exam, Moore said.

Moore is relying on donations to cover the $5,000 annual tuition cost for each student and the $10,000-a-year expense for teachers. Equipment, such as desks, computers, textbooks, library books and music keyboards, are being donated. Moore said the donations are quality and not shabby hand-me-downs, something the school is proud of.

“Everything we get is top-of-the-line,” Moore said. “If it’s not, the kids sense that, and it makes an impression.”

For now, the school has a one-year lease on the nearly vacant YWCA building, with an option to buy. Moore said he is considering moving the school to another part of the city. Part of the mission of the NativityMiguel school network is to locate its schools in depressed areas, where they may do the most good. But for now, Moore said, he is happy where he is.

“It’s amazing what you can do with small classes, no distractions and a lot of attention,” Moore said.

(The Hartford, Conn., Courant)