St. Ignatius Creates Junior High School Program

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St. Ignatius College Preparatory, a Catholic Jesuit high school located on 37th Avenue, has been educating Bay Area children for 160 years. Tuition for the 2017-2018 school year is $22,780 per student, unaffordable for most families.

To better prepare scholars for the challenging St. Ignatius curriculum, a tuition-free junior high school was created this academic year to serve pupils from low-income families. Named the “Father Sauer Academy,” the program started with sixth grade, with seventh and eighth grades to be added in successive years. Prior to Academy creation, SI accepted students from economically disenfranchised backgrounds, and held a summer program to prepare them for high school. While graduation rates of these learners have been historically strong, many relied on remedial learning services to enable them to catch up academically with other students.

“We’ve had outreach efforts to disadvantaged communities in the City for a number of years, and ran a summer program for those kids,” said Joe Vollert, St. Ignatius’ vice president of advancement. “Instead of just having them for the summer, we’re enrolling them for the whole school year at the Father Sauer Academy. The educational divide is often tied to the economic divide. We want to provide solid college preparation to students who lack the opportunity.”

Vollert explained that over the last nearly 30 years the Catholic Diocese has closed parochial schools in the City, including St. Paul of the Shipwreck in Bayview, which shuttered its elementary school in 2003. According to Diocese records, 10 parish schools have been shut down in San Francisco since 1990. Several school mergers have also taken place. The Father Sauer Academy is an attempt to help fill some of the educational gaps in the City’s hard-pressed communities.

The genesis of the Father Sauer Academy began when St. Ignatius’s new president, Father Edward Reese, arrived at the school in 2016. Reese had previously served as president of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. During his 20 years at Brophy he started the Loyola Academy, a program similar to the Father Sauer Academy. According to Paul Totah, St. Ignatius’ communications director, Reese announced creation of the Academy shortly after he assumed his new post as president. The Sangiacomo family, longtime donors to St. Ignatius, gave $3 million to help launch the effort.

Karen Hammen was hired as the Academy’s director, along with two full-time teachers and a volunteer teaching assistant. Hammen, originally from Montana, has taught at several Catholic schools in California and other states. She holds two master’s degrees in education from the University of Notre Dame.

“Our scholars live in San Francisco in neighborhoods such as Hunters Point, Bayview, Ingleside and one student in Western Addition,” said Hammen. “The curriculum is rigorous. This is an opportunity for our scholars that will enable them to be prepared for St. Ignatius and put them on the path to college. This is really life changing for our 25 scholars.”

This year’s sixth grade class consists of 25 pupils; 13 boys, 12 girls. Forty percent of Academy scholars identify as African-American, 40 percent as Latino and 20 percent as either Asian or Multicultural. At St. Ignatius, 50 percent of students are Caucasian, 20 percent Multicultural, three percent African-American, 12 percent Asian, seven percent Filipino, six percent Latino and two percent identify as “other.”  There’s no requirement to live in San Francisco, though currently all students reside in the City. This year the school is providing transportation for students, which Hammen commented has been challenging due to severe traffic congestion. Parents of students must demonstrate financial need, as evidenced, in part, by being income-eligible for the San Francisco Unified School District’s free lunch program.

The Academy’s recruitment efforts have focused on local churches and organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Boys & Girls Club. The admissions process weighs traditional metrics, such as grades and test scores, but also puts emphasis on whether the applicant has demonstrated that they want to be challenged to learn and grow as a scholar. Interviews are held with both the child and parents. The Academy received 70 applications for the 2017-2018 school year. The application process for the 2018-2019 school year begins in January.

According to Connor Geraghty, an Academy English language arts teacher who graduated from St. Ignatius in 2009, experiential learning opportunities are incorporated into the curriculum. He explained that lower-income youth may not have the same opportunities to engage in such activities as going to a San Francisco Giants game, flying in an airplane, seeing a play or visiting a museum, which can hamper their learning potential. The Academy provides a monthly field trip to places like the Exploratorium to create occasions for cultural enrichment. There are structured encounters between St. Ignatius high schoolers and Academy scholars, to allow both groups of students to gain new perspectives. For example, during study hall hours, high school scholars serve as tutors to their younger peers.

Once admitted to the Father Sauer Academy, scholars are ensured a spot at St. Ignatius through 12th grade, tuition-free, provided they graduate from each grade level. Reapplication from eighth grade into high school isn’t required. According to Vollert, there are usually 1,200 applicants for 370 spots at St. Ignatius; Academy students would likely be admitted anyway — they’re just enrolled three years earlier to better prepare them for SI’s curriculum.

Geraghty commented that most alumni he’s spoken with have been supportive of the Academy, conveying that it should have started earlier.

“As an alumni, the creation of the Father Sauer Academy is the decision that I’m most proud of my alma mater this millennium,” offered Tripp Jones. “The City of San Francisco has always been good to St. Ignatius, and the Academy is a way to show the community that the school is here for all of the San Francisco Bay Area. Through the great work of a lot of people, St. Ignatius has transformed itself over the last several decades from the high school where the Catholic families of San Francisco educated their boys into one of the region’s premiere college preparatory schools serving the entire Bay Area community. Overall, this has been a boon to the St. Ignatius community, because amazing parents from around the Bay have increasingly realized that SI sets kids up on a strong path in life, into college and beyond. Unfortunately, like so many things in our society, low-income families did not share equally in the success of the St. Ignatius community. Since before my time, SI has made real efforts to include children from low-income families, but, in certain circumstances, the on-ramp to college starts before high school.”

Jones explained that some in the St. Ignatius community are unhappy with the amount of money and resources the Academy requires, and see incoming Academy students as “taking spots away” from kids that would otherwise be accepted to SI.

“For a school that is steeped in traditions, the Father Sauer Academy is an audacious project that will disproportionately benefit low-income families and people of color and I think that it is wonderful,” Jones expressed. “For St. Ignatius to thrive for another 150 plus years, it needs to serve all people of the Bay Area. In our hyper-competitive world, the members of the St. Ignatius community should remember that the Ignatian ideal is to become ‘men and women for others’ and not ‘men and women for getting their kids into Harvard.’”