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John Benson, M.Div. '05
A.B. Princeton University 1972
M.B.A. Columbia University 1974

The ministry to which I feel called began in 1969, when the Great Strike of New York City teachers caught my attention. This topic grew into an undergraduate thesis about urban education in general and the Ford Foundation's idea for school decentralization at Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Today I am acutely aware of the 40 years of frustration accumulated in American philanthropy (and government) concerning the question of what to do about urban education, exactly. And I am deriving intense joy from being associated with a model that actually works and has a track record to prove it. Knowing that this idea will inevitably be discovered soon by a major foundation is my current claim to uncommon epistemic access.

The Connecticut Urban Education Fund made me their first-ever development director in January. My employer, as explained at CUEF.org, is a nonprofit group focused on inner-city youth, especially in New Haven. After ten years of providing scholarships, the group decided to open its own school and discovered the phenomenally successful Nativity School model.

The first Nativity school in Connecticut is opening in September. St Martin de Porres Academy, in the Dixwell Avenue neighborhood, is the first Catholic school for New Haven opened since 1957. Nationwide, 46 Nativity schools, serving grades 5-8, offer a rigorous, tuition-free program from which 90 percent of eighth graders go on to an excellent prep school, and 80 percent then enter a college or university. These results begin with students living at or below the poverty level and assessed as “at risk” in their public school venue.

The Nativity model is founded on small class size (15), extended day (11 hours with three meals), weekend and summer programs, extensive tutoring and mentoring (through college entrance), parental involvement and commitment, and a comprehensive “whole child” curriculum covering academics and physical, emotional, social and spiritual education.

My first question for the board that recruited me was: “What is the spiritual content of the curriculum?” The answer was the best I have ever heard: “Children need to have an experience of God before they can be taught religion.” The Nativity method is to help children gain awareness their own innate goodness, thus making it possible to see others as innately good. In a faith-based school, we are free to talk about what it means to be endowed by our Creator.

Our development challenge is difficult for the moment. Most private schools have wealthy alumni and parents. We have neither. National foundations want to see that local foundations support us, and local foundations want to see a strong base of individual donors. Meanwhile, we need money for start-up costs such as textbooks, science equipment, music and art materials, and sports equipment, as well as operating support for teachers and school staff.

My main task is helping everyone understand how education for our poorest children can be the cutting edge of God's inbreaking kingdom.