When Irving Ibarra went to Nativity Jesuit Middle School in 1999, he didn’t expect the life changing experience he received.
“There was me before Nativity and there was me after Nativity,” said Ibarra, a member of SS. Peter and Paul Parish, Milwaukee.
Ibarra immigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1995 and enrolled at James Whitcomb Riley Elementary School in Milwaukee. His English as a secondary language teacher suggested to his family that they look at Nativity Jesuit as an option for middle school.
“At the end we said ‘yes’ because it was a Catholic school and (his parents) were a lot more comfortable with a Catholic school,” Ibarra said. “It was a sharp contrast to my two or three years here in public school.”
Ibarra’s introduction to Nativity Jesuit was its annual five-week summer camp in Mercer.
Nativity Jesuit Middle School will celebrate 20 years on Thursday, June 6 at the
The evening begins with a reception at 5 p.m., followed by dinner and a talk by Jesuit Fr. Gregory Boyle, author of
For ticket information, call
“We stayed a lot indoors,” Ibarra said about his childhood before attending Nativity Jesuit. “I didn’t really do much in the parks mostly because we lived in pretty bad neighborhoods.”
But with Nativity Jesuit, Ibarra spent his summer sharpening his reading, writing and math skills for three hours a day; along with playing sports, a three-day canoe trip, and arts and crafts.
Ibarra is not only an alumnus of Nativity Jesuit, but of Marquette University High School and Marquette University where he received a full scholarship.
He is now a math teacher at his middle school and assistant to the director of graduate support.
Generate early interest
Nativity Jesuit, a fifth through eighth grade all-Latino boys’ school, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The school’s concept originated with Jesuit Fr. Bill Johnson and Larry Siewert, director of graduates.
During his 28 years at Marquette High School, Siewert focused on bringing in more Latino and African-American students.
“I incorrectly assumed it was a finance, marketing issue,” Siewert said about bringing in students of color. While Marquette’s student population diversified, Siewert realized at that age it was often too late. If students weren’t interested in school at that point it was hard to change them.
Fr. Johnson and Siewert met more than 35 years ago when Siewert coached football at MUHS. He met a freshman named Bill Johnson, who would become Fr. Johnson.
Years after high school, Fr. Johnson looked to his former coach when he put in place his dream of founding a school for Latino boys.
Siewert, the school’s first princpal and a member of All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, said the school is modeled after the Nativity Mission Center in New York City, where a summer camping trip for students is part of the curriculum.
Siewert described the camp as an “integral” part of school experience because it’s easier to “build a family” when you’re living with the students.
While at camp, students’ abilities in math, reading and writing are evaluated so they are placed at the level they should be when school starts.
“We weren’t there just to have fun; we were there to work on our homework and to give back to the camp,” Ibarra said.
Camp provides life experiences
Ibarra said when he went on to MUHS he could relate to his classmates.
“When I went to Marquette High (School) and I talked to my friends and they talked about their cottages and their vacations and their boats … I would have the opportunity to talk about my vacations, my boats, my cottage. It made me feel like I belonged, in high school and middle school.”
In 1993, the first class, located at St. Patrick Parish, Milwaukee, was comprised of 14 students.
“Because we were new, because we were all boys, because we had this camp component, families were leery,” Siewert said. “In those first few years recruiting was difficult until we were established and word of mouth got going.”
Nativity Jesuit’s enrollment at its current location, 1515 S. 29th Street, Milwaukee, is at capacity with 80 students.
Extended school day offers opportunities
“Part of the Nativity program is extended school day and extended school year,” Ibarra said.
Students are in school from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., followed by extracurricular activities and “study hall” until 6 p.m. where students can work on their homework with teachers and volunteers.
“The extended day piece really provides (students) a structure at this critical age at their adolescence,” said Melodie Wyttenbach, president of Nativity Jesuit. “Our high school graduation rates exceed the national standards for Latino males.”
According to a 2010 Pew Hispanic Center report, only 53 percent of native born Hispanics between ages 20 to 29 surveyed in 2008, received “some college or more.” Only 25 percent of foreign-born Hispanics received the same, compared to the national average of 61 percent.
“Ninety-eight percent (of Nativity Jesuit alums) are graduating from these Catholic high schools that they all enroll in,” Wyttenbach said. “Then a number of them enter into post-secondary education.”
Push is toward Catholic high school
Siewert, who will retire at the end of the year, said encouraging students to attend Catholic high schools is important.
“We want them in the same kind of culture that they experience here,” Siewert said, adding most families apply for financial aid from the high schools and they also help relieve the financial burden.
“The families will pay somewhere around $1,100 to $1,500 a year in high school and we pick up the rest,” Siewert said of the approach which cost $250,000 this year. “We felt that was really important because if they would plug back into the public system, many of them would regress back to the statistics of the neighborhood.”
“We can turn a stone into a student,” Siewert said of the school which boasts it has changed the lives of 270 Latinos in Milwaukee since its inception.
Tuition at Nativity Jesuit is $1,100. Once the student begins high school, families pay $1,200 for his freshman year, and each year after, the amount increases $100 until the cost is $1,500 for his senior year.
The majority of the school’s funding comes from individual donations, grants, corporate giving and special events.
On Thursday, June 6, there will be a reception and dinner, the largest fundraising event of the year, and a golf outing will be held Monday, Aug. 26 at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club. Planned giving/bequests also contribute to the budget.
Faith development is key
The faith aspect of the school is important for the development of the students.
“We challenge them to be intellectually curious; we challenge them to be men of faith,” said Wyttenbach, a member of Gesu Parish, Milwaukee.
Coming from a Jesuit background himself, Siewert said he understands the importance of faith in the students’ lives.
“Jesuit stuff is all about education and leadership and the church has always been about educating immigrant populations,” Siewert said. “Not only do the kids in the Catholic schools get the religious component … but they also get that ministerial vibe that faculty and workers bring.”
MUHS senior Cesar Hernandez, a member of Prince of Peace Parish, Milwaukee, looks back fondly on his education at Nativity Jesuit.
“Here was where they laid the foundations academically, for me to be able to succeed in college,” Hernandez said. “Had I not had this rigor here, which prepared me for high school, then I probably would never had the foundation laid for me.”
Going to a Catholic middle school and then a Catholic high school taught Hernandez how to speak about religion.
“There’s not those reservations about keeping things religiously neutral,” Hernandez said. “We were able to have very open discussions in these Catholic schools … there are kids of other faiths at Marquette High (School) and you’re always respectful, but at least you can have a respectful debate and really learn from each other.”
Hernandez plans to study political science in college.
“One of the biggest facets of my identity is the ability to speak well in public,” Hernandez said. “Being able to participate here in (Nativity Jesuit) forensics, giving me that initial exposure to public speaking … really opened up that door for me.”
When asked what college he’ll attend next year, Hernandez, wearing a Marquette University hoodie, proudly slapped his chest twice, “Marquette U!”