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Filling a Void on the Lower East Side
School offers girls reading, writing and opportunity

Cornelia Connelly Middle School of the Holy Child provides low-income families from the Lower East Side with a place for their daughters to get a private schoolstyle education.

Director Constance Bush said that in 1993, she co-founded the Cornelia Connelly Center—which now includes the middle school as well as a theater and housing facilities for two teacher trainees—to address the lack of opportunity for local kids.

“Every girl in this school, if it wasn’t for this school, would be in public school, they wouldn’t be in Catholic school,” Bush said. “We look for the average and below average achieving girl.”

The fifth- through eighth-grade institution was modeled after Nativity Mission, a boys school nearby where Bush was a teacher, and is sponsored by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. The girls get the same small class sizes and individual attention found only at a private school—for only $55 a month. Most of the funding comes from private donors and foundations, along with proceeds raised by the theater space next door, which is rented out for local productions when the student drama program isn’t using it.

With only 62 students all together and 16 girls in each classroom, Cornelia Connelly functions just as much as a community as a place of learning, according to Principal Kimberly Morcate.

“Adolescents need to feel connected and here they feel connected to each other and to us as adults,” said Morcate, who is beginning her seventh year this fall.

It’s common for younger sisters of graduates to attend the school, and for graduates to return as teachers.

Morcate describes Cornelia Connelly as an “independent Catholic school.” It’s recognized by the Archdiocese, which owns the school’s five-floor building on East 4th Street. Religion is taught, prayers are said in the morning, and the girls wear Catholic school-style uniforms. But the church provides no funding and the curriculum follows state guidelines. “You don’t have to be Catholic to go here,” Morcate said. “We have girls from every religion and all kinds of backgrounds.”

A day in the life of a Cornelia Connelly student is about an hour and a half longer than at a public school. After a free breakfast of cereal, the day begins with homeroom, when students check in with their teachers. A school-wide assembly is held at 8:15 a.m. Teachers take attendance and make announcements, and Morcate provides a thought for the day, which is meant to guide the girls as they develop solid learning skills and interpersonal relationships. This year the theme is “E pluribus unum (Out of many, one),” in honor of the fact that for the first time the school is offering Latin as a language elective.

Latin is an unusual choice for a language curriculum today, but the school’s leaders believe it helps kids develop a strong sense of language fundamentals. Developing communication skills, in fact, is a major part of the curriculum. Students take an hour of reading and language arts every day in which they read books individually and in groups, and write in their daily journals. As Morcate said, “You can’t be a functioning adult without communication skills. You can’t be an educated person and have a connection with the world.”

Aside from the three Rs, Cornelia Connelly is branching out this year with its first ever after-school program. Once a week, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., the girls will have their pick of a dance class or glee club. And for those who want to stay on top of the latest in technology, there will be digital photography and Web design programs.

Cornelia Connelly also affords its students an opportunity many of these city kids never get: summer camp. Every June, sixth-, seventhand eighth-graders go to Lake Placid for two and a half weeks. It’s the full sleep-away experience, complete with cabins, hikes and campfires.

Two-thirds of the girls have gone on to Catholic schools, and the rest go to the better public high schools. The school provides guidance through its Graduate Support Program (GSP), which also helps alumni get into college and provides facilities and after school tutoring.

“We’re with them from the fifth through the 12th grade,” said Bush.

Ninety percent of the students graduate in four years—compared to the “fiveand six-year plan” prevalent in the district, according to the director.

One former student credits Cornelia Connelly’s community atmosphere and individual attention for her success today. When Rosanjela Batista, 23, came to the school as a fifth grader, she had a learning disability that prevented her from reading. But that didn’t stop her teachers.

“No one told me I couldn’t read,” said Batista, who is now getting a master’s degree in mathematics from Villanova University. “They just told me I can and that I need to learn how.”

At her high school graduation ceremony, Batista was picked to address the whole school, completing her transformation from a fifth-grader with a self-described “attitude problem” who had never written a paragraph to a gifted public speaker.

“That was definitely an emotional experience,” she remembered. “It was overwhelming.”

- David Crohn



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