Seattle Nativity School Brings Tuition-Free Education to the South End

by Melia LaCour

On July 1, Columbia City welcomed the Seattle Nativity School to the neighborhood. Described by staff and students as a place that “feels like family,” this Jesuit-endorsed, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) middle school’s mission is to “break the cycle of poverty through an education that nourishes the souls and ignites leaders for love and service.” 

Though small by design, with only 40 students across 6th, 7th and 8th grade, this school provides a host of educational benefits that align with their mighty mission. Most impressively, Seattle Nativity offers a tuition-free education. Young scholars receive this benefit based on the requirement that every student attending the school must qualify for free and reduced lunch. 

“What stands out about Seattle Nativity, from any other school, is that not only is it private, but it’s also an affordable school that focuses on underrepresented and first-generation students that other schools do not,” said former student, Henock Arega. Arega recently graduated from Evergreen High School’s Running Start program, making him and others from his 2016 Nativity class the first cohort to graduate from high school. 

The school’s student body is both multiracial and multifaith. Last year, 100% of the students attending were students of color. While the school is a Catholic-Jesuit school, students of all faiths are welcomed. This model is rooted in the 48-year old tradition of the NativityMiguel schools that were created to “provide quality, faith-based education for low-income families.” Currently there are 65 NativityMiguel schools across the country. 

For students like Arega, the close-knit, Jesuit school community provides the kind of support needed to be successful. Small class sizes tend to increase student engagement and allow students more individual attention from teachers. Over the last seven years, classes have been limited to 15 students, in part because of the small capacity of their former South Massachusetts Street location. Yet the desire to expand student enrollment led to a move to the newly available St. Edward School campus, which will provide ample space for class sizes up to 20. 

“If it weren’t for Nativity,” Arega added, “I would have gone to just a random public school where they don’t focus on the students as much as they do there. And also, Seattle Nativity, being a small school, gives every student opportunities to interact with teachers and their peers. It gives students a lot of chances to be one-on-one with the teacher and to talk with them about anything that is on their mind.” 

Arega’s experiences highlight the academic offerings that may make this school a unique choice for many South End families. 

“We encourage our students to think critically,” said Edward Nelson, Seattle Nativity Principal of five years. “They write essays, research topics that are important to them, and write their representatives to make a change. They critically examine how the narrative of history was written and decide whether they want to subscribe to it or not.”

Bennet added that in social studies and math classes, students are encouraged to research and write on topics related to social justice such as critical conversations about advocacy and police brutality. 

“We have created a culture where students feel that speaking up and speaking for change and acting for change is an important aspect,” said Bennet. “And that’s something we try to highlight when we are teaching what it means to be a Seattle Nativity student.”

Along with the rigorous curriculum, school leadership and staff have a shared commitment to develop strong student leadership. Through the school’s “Six Virtues of a Graduate upon Graduation,” students are encouraged to be “Intellectually Competent, Open to Growth, Loving, Grateful, Religious, and Committed to doing Justice.” Students who exceptionally model each virtue are recognized as students of the month.

The virtues, especially “Committed to Doing Justice,” are also intentionally woven into the curriculum so that students have an opportunity to apply meaning to their own lives. 

“We are basically an 11-year program,” explained Judy Shafer, Director of Development for the school. “They are taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade on site and then we help them find the right academic setting for high school that will advance them to college. Then, we work with them throughout those years, dependent on their needs. If they need help applying for FAFSA, if they need help with tuition assistance in high school — we try to connect all those dots that each individual student needs throughout college graduation and into their first job. It’s called the Graduate Support Program.”

This innovative program is headed by Seattle Nativity President, Father Jeffrey McDougall, S.J. and Graduate Support Director, Artice Jackson, who was a graduate of a Nativity School in Portland. Currently, the program is serving 50 students, most of whom are now in high school, and some, like Arega, are headed to college. 

“For some, they are going to be one of the first people in their family to go to college,” said math teacher, Sam Bennet. “And we have an understanding that colleges don’t necessarily do a great job of supporting first-generation students, especially first-generation students of color. So, our Graduate Support Director is in charge of ensuring we are staying in contact with families and that we are a support line to families and to graduates until they are 25.”

In fact, this program helped Arega secure the financial aid required to realize his childhood dreams. 

“I am attending Georgetown University in the Fall,” Arega shared. “I’ll be studying Global Health on a pre-med track. When I grew up in Ethiopia, in a rural area, I saw a lot of people who did not have the basic medical services there. And me, also growing up with asthma and not having basic medical devices like an inhaler really caused me to want to become a doctor to study the health gaps around the world.”

Leadership and staff at Seattle Nativity intend for Arega’s academic success to be every child’s success. By offering a high-quality education with strong social and emotional supports, they appear to be poised to achieve this goal.

“I feel a lot of joy when I think of the school,” said Shafer. “I feel all of us have just this joy and deep commitment to always do our best plus 50 percent or 100 percent more. I really feel that’s a great aspect of our leadership.” 

“We have high expectations in the service of our students,” added Nelson. “For example, all of our students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, no matter where they start in sixth grade. We accept students with very different ability levels. We have a very rigorous program.” 

Nelson and other staff are also quick to add that the strong sense of community among teachers, students, and families contributes to the true power of the education offered at Seattle Nativity. 

“We come together as a community,” Nelson said. “Teachers work together to create a cohesive curriculum to provide continuity across the subject areas for students. Kids also work together and, in that, they really get to know each other. And then we really do see our parents as partners in the education of their students. I think parents are the primary educators of our children. We are their partners. Because we are so small, we get to know each family, each student, their story and how to best serve them.”

Hour of Code with Amazon Volunteers at Seattle Nativity School; students celebrate with special T-shirts every year (Orange in 2019). Image courtesy of Seattle Nativity.

Prospective students can now apply for the 2020–2021 school year by visiting the Seattle Nativity School website. While students across the state await confirmation that classes will be held in person, the leadership and staff at Seattle Nativity are eager to launch the academic year. 

“We are really excited to move further south to come to Columbia City,” said Bennet. “We are excited to be a part of a vibrant community. We are looking to expand now that we have a building space, we want to grow our student population. Come check us out! We work really hard, and our students and families create a strong culture of learning and kindness and caring.”

For more information, contact Edward Nelson at

Melia LaCour is a columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director and Founder of “Becoming Justice.” She identifies as mixed race Black and her work is rooted in the belief that racial healing is a fundamental component of racial justice work. She is a native Seattleite with a passion for justice, writing, and karaoke.

Featured image: Seattle Nativity graduating class of 2017, courtesy of Seattle Nativity School.