By Mary Ellen Barnes
“Hello and welcome,” said Kitt Bret Harte, Imago Dei Middle School’s principal, as she buzzed me in. Imago Dei, founded eight years ago in downtown Tucson, Arizona, by the Rev. Anne Sawyer and the Rev. Susan Anderson-Smith, is designed to help children who live in poverty overcome the challenges that make learning difficult. Imago Dei, “Image of God” in Latin, is a tuition-free private school that employs a program of intensive education and social services to educate students in grades five through eight.
“Middle school students are trying on personalities. Our goal is to assist them during this difficult rite of passage,” Kitt said, as we climbed the steps to the third floor of the school. Here she introduced me to Mark Zero, the school’s development director, who led me on a tour.
Employing nine teachers, the school offers small class sizes: a maximum of 20 students and a minimum of two teachers. Students attend school ten hours a day, Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday for 11 months of the year.
“Our enrollment capacity is 80,” Zero said. “Ethnic backgrounds vary: 75 percent are Latino and/or Native American, and the rest are African, African American, or Caucasian. About half speak Spanish at home.”
Near the principal’s office, we came upon two students wielding screwdrivers to reassemble a student desk.
“How did the desk come apart?” I asked. “Are they honing their engineering skills?”
As we walked away, he answered, “Somehow the pair ‘engineered’ the deconstruction.”
“They don’t look like culprits to me.”
“They’re not, but they made a bad choice, and that’s something we handle immediately.
After talking with the principal, the students came to realize a collapsing desk could cause a serious accident.”
Zero added, “The school also rewards good behavior. Honor students can skip study hall and leave school an hour early or earn a free dress day.”
The school issues students blue polo shirts emblazoned with the school’s logo to wear with their own slacks, skirts, and shorts — of an appropriate length. “We also reward hard work,” Zero said. “Eighth graders who have maintained good grade averages are eligible for special outings, such as going on a graduation trip to San Diego, where they visit Sea World, the zoo, and the beach.”
As classes were changing, he introduced me to four girls in the hallway. Each met my eyes with a smile, told me her name, and shook my hand. The Imago Dei staff has instilled in them the etiquette that provides confidence in social situations.
Sawyer, head of school, is responsible for school operations, development, and finance. The cost to educate one student is $15,000 per year. Donors, board members, foundations, and individual and corporate tax credits fund the school. More than a dozen Tucson business and educational partners provide students with assistance or scholarships. Anderson-Smith, chaplain, teaches two religion classes and celebrates a weekly Eucharist. Children of all faiths and those with none may attend. Students address the two founders as “Miss Reverend Anne” and “Miss Reverend Susan.”
The founders believed that educational and social success in middle school years for teenagers was crucial in their development and increased the likelihood of their continuing on to high school.
Imago Dei’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty through education. Students’ families must be at or below the poverty level and qualify for the National School Lunch Program. The school provides breakfast, lunch, and a snack for students. Imago Dei is a member of the National Association of Episcopal Schools and the Episcopal Urban School Alliance, an organization that supports families in impoverished neighborhoods by enriching community life and providing graduates with mentors.
Based in a former Sears Executive Building on North 6th Avenue, across from Ronstadt Transit Center, the school is convenient for students who commute by bus. Seventh and eighth graders build technical and artistic skills at the Sonoran Glass Art Academy each week. The University of Arizona’s Department of Mexican American Studies sends Latino lecturers to guide students in challenges they face.
The commitment of parents, volunteers, and teachers is vital to the school’s success. One parent from each household is required to volunteer at least one hour weekly. A parent volunteer at the reception desk was proud that four of her eight children were Imago Dei students. Other community members help with school maintenance.
Volunteers tutor students with learning challenges. Joe Yukish, retired professor from Teachers College, Columbia University, comes in three times a week to help students improve their reading skills. The school’s walls are brightened by the colorful paintings of artist Jeanne Porter. She is a generous donor and member of the school’s Strategic Planning Committee.
Instruction is the wellspring of Imago Dei’s scholastic success. Its curriculum meets Arizona State Department of Education Standards and provides individual attention and differentiated instruction. Teachers also offer students extraordinary opportunities. In 2012, four students placed first at state, national, and international levels in a School of the Future Design Competition with their eco-friendly school model for Niamey, Niger, West Africa. The victorious Imago Dei students flew to Washington, D.C., and met the ambassador of Niger.
Graduation from eighth grade is just the beginning for Imago Dei’s students, who are now enrolled at eight Tucson high schools. Cameron Taylor, who leads the Graduate Support Program, guides students in their goal to complete high school and college. Imago Dei’s first graduate, Hugues Ishimwe, is now enrolled at Pima College and plans to transfer to the University of Arizona to pursue a career in medicine.
Not all learning occurs in the classroom. Students have planted a small garden behind the school. Murals splash color on the walls above four large planters containing broccoli, onions, carrots, snap peas, lettuce, and tomatoes during the growing season. Two of Imago Dei Middle School’s partners, Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Farmers Market at Maynards, support the project with donations, mentors, and classes in regional agriculture. Maynards also provides space for students to sell their produce; they earned $80 for their veggies last spring.
“My favorite subjects are math and music,” said Mireya, a poised fifth-grader. “I’m learning to play music on a keyboard.” Volunteer Duke Buchannon teaches students to read music and play scales. Mireya was also enthusiastic about attending Chapel Rock, the Episcopal summer camp at Prescott, part of the school’s 11-month program.
A sixth-grader, Mariana, said she appreciates the small classes in which two teachers can focus on students. A member of the Student Vestry, she helps plan and lead worship services. She won a scholarship from Watermark for Kids, a nonprofit organization under the umbrella of the Watermark Retirement Communities. In her scholarship application, Mariana wrote that Imago Dei Middle School made her feel safe, welcome, and loved. The large glass-fronted storefront on the first floor serves as the Imago Dei Chapel. The Eucharist marked the celebration of Earth Day. On two shimmering white banners flanking the altar, leaf-green letters spelled out a poem by e.e. cummings: “I thank you God for this amazing day and for the greenly leaping spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
Anderson-Smith chatted with the first students who filed into the chapel, asking about their day. One boy said celebrating Earth Day was special but someday we would not need to celebrate it.
“And why is that?” she asked. “Because one day every day will be Earth Day.” “You have that right!” she responded with a
chuckle. After the students were seated, a seventh-grader,
Serena, switched on a projector to display the service bulletin on the wall above the altar, page by page. All worship at Imago Dei is in the tradition of the Episcopal Church.
A lilting contemporary hymn followed the Acclamation. Anderson-Smith and history teacher Erin Flanigan, both strumming guitars, led the singing.
The homily was a film created by Ron Finley, “a guerrilla gardener from South Central Los Angeles” who believes poverty can be conquered through community gardens. “Food is the problem and food is the answer to the problem,” he said. “To change the community, we have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil.”
Pete Seeger’s “Garden Song” followed the Prayers of the People: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.” The miracle of Imago Dei flourishes under a beneficent sun.
A former teacher and author of four books, Mary Ellen Barnes is a native Tucsonan and mother of three children and two grandchildren.