Vanessa Solis will be the new president of Nativity Jesuit School. (Submitted photo)

Vanessa Solis grew up in Chicago’s Little Village (La Villita) neighborhood, about 15 minutes southwest of the Chicago Loop, and attended elementary school at St. Agnes. When she began teaching K4 at Nativity Jesuit Academy in 2014, she was struck by the similarities between the 100-percent Latino School and the one where she grew up.

“Our community faced similar challenges like Nativity, as we were a community of immigrants, but the school offers a great education and opportunity for a great future,” she said. “I am happy to walk side by side with our students and am excited to show them what is possible.”

From serving as the school’s first K4 teacher, Solis transitioned to the role as director of elementary school education and then served as the school’s principal in 2018. She was recently promoted to her newest position as the first Latina president of Nativity Jesuit Academy.

Located at 1515 S. 29th St., Nativity Jesuit Middle School opened in 1993 and was established by the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in response to a growing demand for quality Catholic education. Initially, the school served middle school boys to set a foundation for developing future Christian leaders in the community.

In 2014, the school expanded to add K4, adding teachers and grades each year, becoming a full elementary school. As one of the highest-performing Nativity schools in the United States, and the only one in Wisconsin, Nativity Jesuit Academy is poised to respond to the growing need of Milwaukee’s Latino community by serving more than 250 students and their families and replacing the cycle of poverty in the Milwaukee community with a cycle of hope and opportunity.

When Solis joined Nativity, she wanted to build on the K4 program, so she began first with a co-ed class.

“We had a K4 class and middle school boys enrolled the first year,” she said. “We added a grade and a teacher each year, so the next year we added a K5 class.”

Solis knew she wanted to get into leadership at some point and was soon named the elementary school director, and not long after, the principal.

“Now we fully have a K-8 school, but only K4 through fifth is co-ed — the grades 6-8 are still all boys, but eventually the whole school will be co-ed,” said Solis. “It has been so much fun and rewarding and we have gotten to know the families and appreciate the trust they have in our school. This has been a solace for families and the people really value education, especially the Jesuit part of the education. The quality of our school is a testament to their mission.”

Solis will formally transition to the president’s role effective July 1. Past Nativity President Sue Smith will remain in a consulting role to support Solis during her transition to this new role.

Despite significant economic and social challenges, Solis became the first in her family to graduate from college. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and holds two master’s degrees – one from Cardinal Stritch University in urban education and one from the University of Notre Dame in educational leadership. Solis and her husband, Brian, reside in Milwaukee.

Nativity Jesuit Academy Board Vice Chair and Senior Manager of Projects for JLL Andrea Scrobel chaired the presidential search committee. She observed that while there was incredibly strong interest in the presidential position within the community and several strong external candidates were interviewed, it was clear that the best candidate was already at Nativity.

“There is no playbook on leading in a pandemic, but Vanessa has handled the challenges with grace and determination,” said Scrobel. “I am confident that under Vanessa’s leadership, Nativity will not only weather this pandemic but be strengthened because of it.”

While Solis has enjoyed serving as principal of Nativity Jesuit Academy, she has felt the call to do more and, as president, she will have the opportunity to do so.

“I love Jesuit education and it completes my personal upbringing and how I look at the world, reflect on what I want to improve on and leave my little seed to plant in kids’ minds as to what is possible,” she said. “When I was applying, I spent time talking to mentors and those who know me and I kept coming back to whether I wanted to explore this. I want to do more, serve more and this gives me the capacity to do more and share my love for the school with the outside community. I am excited to talk about the school’s mission to the community and share my experiences. I know the Nativity story well as I have a personal connection to the mission with a very similar upbringing.”

Solis said her immediate goal for Nativity Academy is to maintain stability with their growth and she looks forward to bringing new faces into the mission and keeping their donors engaged in the mission.

“I would also like to see our school doing really well academically, caring for our students’ social and emotional needs, and starting a relationship with an organization to help with this,” she said. “I see myself learning more about the needs of our community, meeting the needs of our strategic plan, and looking to the future to serve those needs as best as I can. That might come in so many ways; one way might be the need to grow our school and serve even more families, but what’s most important right now and into the future is to listen to the needs of the community.”