SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — In the empty classrooms at Temple Hesed, religious and community leaders see potential.
They see opportunity for innovative programs, support and hope for children in Scranton.
They see a place where lives will change.
The NativityMiguel School of Scranton, an idea first discussed by religious congregations in 2012, and quickly supported by area civic and education leaders, is nearing reality.
Organizers plan to open the tuition-free Catholic school for students from low-income families and underserved populations in the fall, in the lower level of Temple Hesed near Lake Scranton.
"Once this fell into place ... it was meant to be," said Lois Draina, chairwoman of the school's founders council, as she stood in a classroom.
The school's founders announced this week that Sister Josephine Cioffi, who has 30 years of experience at a school in East Harlem, will be the new school's principal.
"It was an act of faith," Draina said. "This area is so ready for this."
The Scranton school will follow the NativityMiguel model, which is used by 60 other schools nationwide. The model includes longer school days, an extended school year with summer programs and opportunities for parent involvement. Fifth- through eighth-graders will attend the school tuition-free and receive support throughout high school.
Organizers plan to start with one fifth-grade class this fall, with hopes of adding an additional grade each year, and in time, two classes in each grade. Founders estimate the school, which will eventually have about 120 students, will cost about $1 million a year to operate.
Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scranton and Sisters of Christian Charity, Eastern Province sponsor the school. Others that endorse and support the school include: The Sisters of Mercy, Mid-Atlantic Community; Marywood University; the Society of Jesus; University of Scranton; Misericordia University; Keystone College; Congregation of the Holy Cross; King's College; Lackawanna College; and various civic leaders.
Now with a location and principal, Robert Angeloni, the school's president, can seek funds. Before foundations and other groups would commit, they wanted to see that the school would actually open, he said. Opportunities to sponsor tuition costs for students will also be available.
After Angeloni became the school's president this summer, the former longtime president of Friendship House toured about 30 locations in the area, looking for a place to open the school. He was running out of options.
Soon after, The Times-Tribune wrote about the president of the Scranton School District teachers union calling for a boycott of Gertrude Hawk Chocolates because of David Hawk's involvement with the new school. Rosemary Boland said district teachers were equipped to handle the needs of students.
Hawk, chairman of the board at the chocolate company and a member of the school's founder's council, got a knock on his door.
Neighbor Larry Milliken introduced himself and said he had seen the story. He also had an idea for a possible location for the school.
Milliken, a vice president at Temple Hesed, said the congregation would love to host the school in its empty classrooms in the lower level.
"We think this is one of the greatest projects going," Milliken said. "Our community is so blessed to have this come here. These children will have the opportunity to receive the tools for life."
Sister Cioffi spent 30 years as principal of St. Ann School in East Harlem, which has a similar framework as the school planned for Scranton. There, students spent long days at school learning not just academic subjects, but the leadership and life skills to give them a chance at a better future. The current coordinator of student progress for the Inner-City Scholarship Fund for the Archdiocese of New York, she is eager to help students in Northeast Pennsylvania.
"I have a passion for education," she said.
She will soon start planning curriculum, which will include art and music, and a summer program, which will likely include involvement from area colleges. Some renovations to the classroom space at the temple, including tearing down walls and expanding restrooms, are planned. The next hires for the school will be a development director and a fifth-grade teacher, and people have volunteered to help run programs or be guest speakers.
The admissions process will also begin soon. Students who qualify for the federal free lunch program, or whose family incomes below the poverty level, will be eligible to apply. This year, children in a family of four that makes $23,850 are eligible for free lunches. The application process will include an interview and is open to students regardless of religion.
"We're looking to help those who are not getting what they need," Angeloni said. "The middle grades are when you can dramatically improve the lives of students."
Temple Hesed, located near Lake Scranton, is too far to walk from most of the neighborhoods where prospective students live. The school will rely on Scranton School District buses to transport students in the morning, and because of the longer school day, a combination of private or parental transportation in the afternoon. State law requires a school district to transport students who live within its boundaries to a private school.
Sister Ellen Maroney, president of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said the school will change lives.
"It's like giving life to a dream," she said. "We see our school as doing that. We're here to enable the students."
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/