Service, education, faith balanced at Nativity

CHARLESTON — The principal’s office at Nativity School has a bright view. True, the window looks out over a parking lot, but the walls are filled with the vivid hues of crayon and pencil, the artwork of students

David Knab, PhD., would never consider anything but placing the work of his students before him. That’s why he and his staff are there.

“Children here get more than just an education,” he said. “We are Christ-centered and faith-based. We are here for our faith. It is everything we do. The teachers sacrifice so very much for the love of Catholic education.”

Nativity school was built on James Island adjacent to the Church of the Nativity in 1960. Long enough for students, now grown, to send their own children there.

Parents play a major role in any child’s education, and Nativity parents seem to be at the forefront. Parents raised more than $40,000 to renovate the school library and provide it with an automated card catalog system. Their stewardship funded new computers and connected every classroom to the Internet.

“Students use the computers in the classrooms which enhances and enriches their education,” Knab said. “But that helped us save money. I don’t have to send memos to teachers, I send e-mails.’

One of the main focuses at the school is reading.

“Our children are prolific readers,” he said. “They have read over 2,000 books. We now have two, going on three, reading walls.”

They kicked off a reading wall campaign last September where students’ names are placed on a wall after they read a book. Certain numbers of books win them a “dress down day” when they get to wear regular clothes or ice cream parties after a whole wall is filled.

“When we finish the third wall, Dr. (Margaret) Adams will ask the bishop for a day off from school,” the principal said. “We’re going to exceed what we did last year.”

Inspiration like this has shown results, the principal said. Nativity reading scores are up, and students have improved their Iowa Test scores.

Each child’s level of learning ability is also important.

“Our goal is not to just help students who need remedial education but to ensure that we are providing enrichment opportunities to students who are completing their work faster and need more challenges,” he said. “We try to make sure we work to provide for the needs of all students.”

Nativity employs a four-block system to teach language arts every day. It involves guided reading, writing, working with words, and self-selected reading. Each block lasts 30 minutes.

“We use focused teaching with lots of student working, which means it’s not just the teacher lecturing,” Knab said.

This year’s focus is math.

“We are trying to prepare students for high school,” he said. “All eighth-grade students take algebra one, all seventh-graders take pre-algebra. That gives them two high school credits.”

Part of the school’s Catholic identity is its social justice program, prayer and liturgies.

“Every day we pray together, have readings from the Bible and recognize the achievement of our students,” the principal said. “Every Thursday we have Mass. The children love it, and they are active participants in and are responsible for the Mass. They read, they sing, they help plan.”

The social justice component of the school involves the seven corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and burying the dead). All students actively engage in social justice issues. Each year they have a debate on a topical issue such as stewardship of the environment and invite local officials or experts.

The eighth grade will prepare a prayer service to remember the dead, other students will write anonymous letters to incarcerated individuals, they also do chores to raise money to buy baby clothes and food for people in need.

“All students from first through eighth grade are engaged in some ministry,” Knab said. Even the kindergarteners do Operation Christmas Child where they put together a box of goods and toys for children in need at Christmas. Those sorts of activities make us who we are. That is most important.”

The school is having its share of struggles, however. Enrollment is down from 276 students last year to 200 this year. Cutbacks had to be made and as a result, several people were let go.

“We were anticipating more students when we originally budgeted for the school year,” Knab said. “As a result, we had a significant budget deficit. Our finance committee came up with two-prong plan. We also went to parents requesting additional support. We had a good response, but, unfortunately, the money we raised wasn’t enough to cover our entire deficit, and we had to eliminate positions.”

The plan for next year is a zero-based budget where the school does not spend money or hire staff until it has enrollment complete. They also raised tuition by 10 percent.

“That is still in the middle for the Charleston area and for Catholic schools,” the principal said.

He said the budget for the next year looks good.

“The future of the school is very bright. We are not closing; we are committed.”

Though some volunteer service is required at the school, Knab estimates that more than half of the parents volunteer on a regular basis.

“Our parents are very active, and we haven’t had to push them,” he said. “We have great parents.”

Parents monitor the lunchroom, act as super readers tutoring children, read in classes or help around the school in other ways.

In his fifth year as principal, Knab still loves being at Nativity. Both of his children graduated from the school.

“It’s a happy place,” he said. “Kids are safe here; they love it here. That’s our discipline attitude, too. The kids love it, so they don’t want to disappoint us. I could go on and on.”