Imago Dei

By April Bourie –

Middle School Creates a ‘Village’ for Young Students

“It takes a village” is a phrase that many of today’s parents know all too well.

This “village” often consists of an intricate network of grandparents, babysitters, friends, teachers and after-school programs. The wider “village” for Imago Dei Middle School − an independent, tuition-free middle school for children from low-income families − extends to a collaboration of individuals, companies and nonprofits in Tucson.

The strong support of these entities is helping the school to achieve its vision of breaking the cycle of poverty through quality education. The school recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Ninety percent of its graduates have gone on or are on track to receive their high school diplomas. The school recently was named the beneficiary of a $600,000 grant from Angel Charity for Children.

Imago Dei – translated it means “Image of God” − is an Episcopal school that welcomes children of all or no faiths. It serves children in grades five through eight who qualify for the national free or reduced lunch program.

Rev. Anne Sawyer, co-founder and head of school, said the experience is an “education of the family.” A requirement for “scholars,” the term the school uses for its students, is to have a parent or guardian at home that will support the child through his or her tenure at the school. Many of the parents value education but may not have the resources to provide the support the children need to succeed.

“Many of our families are dealing with economic, housing and unemployment problems, which force them to focus on priorities other than their children’s education,” Sawyer said. “We even see a few cases of addiction and abuse.”

To overcome those obstacles, the school operates differently than other schools, Sawyer said. Students attend classes 10 hours a day, six days a week, and 11 months of the year.

“Many students who come to us in fifth grade are actually learning at a second- or third-grade level,” Sawyer said. “Because of the extended schedule, our teachers are able to teach and build relationships with the children, discovering their specific needs (both at home and at school), and close those educational gaps.”

When scholars are getting close to graduation, the staff assists in choosing the best high school that will continue to motivate them to learn. In addition, college selection and scholarship application assistance is provided to any scholars requesting it.

“It’s a terrific journey,” said Alba Nichols, whose four children have attended the school, three of whom have graduated. “The teachers are able to help with any issues, and my kids have become so much more independent and responsible because of their time there.”

Downtown Tucson, where Imago Dei is located, has become an extended campus for the young scholars. The school collaborates with the Sonoran Glass School, Playformance, Arizona Theatre Company, UCA Tucson Capoeira and the Tucson Museum of Art to provide enrichment classes.

“Given the close proximity to TMA, our collaboration is an ideal relationship where students are able to walk to the museum to learn about various artistic practices and diverse exhibitions on view,” said Marianna Pegno, associate curator of education at the museum. “Working with these students over several years has built trust, comfort, creativity and critical thinking for them, and sets the stage for TMA to engage with local schools.”

Imago Dei also partners with the Tucson Girls Chorus, Intuit and several colleges at the University of Arizona. Sawyer said the school’s success “is a result of the love and support of the entire Tucson community and its support of education.”

Operating costs at the school amount to approximately $15,000 per student. Many of the enrichment collaborations are covered by grants, which the local arts organizations have applied for on their own. Salaries and other operating costs are covered completely by donations and grants, making the $600,000 Angel Charity award extremely valuable. Imago Dei will purchase its building with the award.

“We were renting our space, but now we have the confidence of owning the building and even receiving rent payments from other tenants,” Sawyer said. “It is truly an honor to receive this award from an organization with such leadership, knowledge and expertise.”

Adding Angel Charity into Imago Dei’s “village” of support will position the school for success in the next 10 years and beyond, Sawyer said, allowing it to make a positive difference in the lives of its scholars and their families.

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