School Sister of Notre Dame Jean Ellman doesn’t put much credence in standardized tests. The principal of Notre Dame Middle School on Milwaukee’s south side doesn’t believe they tell the whole story of the children or the school. Arley Melendez, left, and Jacqueline Gutierrez play guitar during a recent school Mass at Notre Dame Middle School, Milwaukee. (Submitted photo courtesy Notre Dame Middle School)But with recent test scores showing NDMS eighth graders at proficient and advanced levels across the board (see accompanying chart), it’s hard not to see that the future of its students is bright.

Such high scores would be noteworthy for any school. But considering that the majority of the 147 students at this all-girl Catholic institution are Hispanic, have families that speak little, if any, English, and are woefully behind in all subjects when they first come to the school, the test scores are impressive.

Success does not come easy, and a lot is expected of the girls and their families. For example, parents are required to contribute a minimum of 20 volunteer hours a year.

“When parents are involved, they value the experience more,” explained Sr. Jean.

Parents must also adhere to the school’s mandatory programs, such as the six-week summer school program for all new students and any other students who are struggling.

Enrichment program leads to ‘well-rounded’ students

During the school year, the teaching doesn’t stop when the bell rings at the end of the day. Instead, NDMS has a mandatory, after-school enrichment program from 3 until 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Each afternoon begins with an hour-long, silent study hall.

An often-overlooked aspect of education involves helping students become well rounded by exposing them to opportunities they may not have a chance to experience otherwise. So as part of the after-school enrichment program, the girls participate in activities from sports, sewing and babysitting certification to career development, dance and choir. Students are also expected to participate in some type of camp for two weeks each summer.

Goal is preparation

“Through the three principles of responsibility, regalo (‘gift’ in Spanish) and respect, our goal is to prepare the girls for high school, college and beyond,” said Sr. Jean.

Education wasn’t a priority for Gaby Hernandez in 2001, and her future was more than a little uncertain.

“My cousin and I were trouble makers,” admitted Hernandez. “I never gave any thought to going to high school, much less college.”

But her parents made a decision that changed the course of her life. They enrolled the sixth grader in NDMS.

“It was kind of scary at first because my grades were mediocre, and I mostly spoke Spanish,” Hernandez recalled. “But my family was very supportive because they know how important education is.”

Like Hernandez’s parents, Emilia Melendez wanted to give her three daughters the best education possible. But she thought finding the perfect school was an unattainable dream.

“My son attended Nativity Jesuit Middle School, and the program was so good for him,” she said of the Jesuit-run school for Hispanic boys. “I never thought a Catholic education was possible for my daughters, Annelisa, Arley and Aimee. I asked around and finally heard about Notre Dame Middle School.”

Melizza Gonzalez, left, and Ana Olvera work in the school's computer lab. Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1996, Notre Dame Middle School serves primarily at-risk Latina students. (Submitted photo courtesy Notre Dame Middle School)When oldest daughter Annelisa (now a junior at Dominican High School) came to NDMS, Emilia saw an immediate change in her.

“Because the class size was small, Annelisa got more attention and wanted to do well,” said Emilia.

Seventh grader Aimee agreed.

“If I don’t do my best, I get mad at myself. I recently wasn’t happy with my GPA, so I worked hard to raise it to a 3.5,” she said.

“The teachers here care about me and challenge me,” said Arley, who will graduate this spring. “I don’t think I would have been accepted to Divine Savior Holy Angles High School if I had gone to a different school.”

By offering individual attention and by building leadership skills, the girls develop self-confidence.

“Many of my friends at other schools think a lot about fashion and dating,” said Arley. “But I no longer worry if I’m wearing the right clothes or if I’m pretty enough. I focus on studying.”

“There is no competition because we all wear the same uniform,” said Aimee.

Not only is Emilia a mother of two current NDMS students and one NDMS graduate, she works in the school office.

Mission is to bring about change through education

“I see firsthand how dedicated the teachers are to the education of these girls,” she said. “If they see a student struggling, they step in right away. The teachers take it personally.”

Mary McIntosh, NDMS president, explained, “The mission of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is to change people, especially women, through education.”

The help and dedication of the staff doesn’t stop as the students prepare to graduate. In fact, it is just the beginning.

Each eighth grade student works with Angela Penaflor, director of graduate support, to find a high school that is the right fit. Working closely with teachers and guidance counselors at the high school, Penaflor keeps the girls on track and pairs them with volunteer mentors.

During senior year, the students get help with applications for college and financial aid.

“When we are dealing with kids, we can’t let them fail,” said McIntosh. “Angela (Penaflor) is their shepherd.”

Help continues after graduation

Throughout their school careers, alumnae can attend daily afternoon study halls, where they have access to the computer lab and tutors.

“The help I keep getting from Notre Dame Middle School is endless. I come here several times a week,” says Hernandez, who graduated from Pius XI High School and is now majoring in accounting with a minor in Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. She plans to be the first in her family to graduate from college.

“The fact that our students graduate from Catholic high schools and then go on to college sends a positive message to girls from low-income families that you can do and be anything,” said Sr. Jean.

According to Penaflor, 98 percent of NDMS graduates have finished high school and 82 percent have pursued degrees at post-secondary institutions since NDMS was founded in 1996 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

That continual drive for success and the desire to reach more students is why NDMS opened a co-ed primary school at St. Patrick Parish in fall of 2012, starting with K5 and first grade. Two more classes will be added each year so that the school becomes K5 through grade 4 by the 2015-2016 school year.

“The goal is to get children better prepared for middle school so that they can be successful in high school and college,” said McIntosh. “We are trying to change the world one student at a time.”