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San Miguel Academy Helps Underprivileged Students in Newburgh

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Photos courtesy of San Miguel Academy of Newburgh

Newburgh’s San Miguel Academy gives underprivileged children every reason to succeed in the Hudson Valley and beyond.

Growing up in Newburgh isn’t always easy, though the city boasts a distinguished pedigree. It served as the headquarters of George Washington and the Continental Army from the spring of 1782 to the summer of 1783, shortly before the Revolutionary War officially ended. Today, however, Newburgh fights different battles.

According to the United States Census Bureau, about 22 percent of its residents live in poverty. Newburgh’s students face challenges as well—in August 2021, the NYS Education Department reported a four-year graduation rate of 76 percent. In other words, nearly one in four students had slipped away by the time their classmates put on caps and gowns.

Yet on an unassuming street in the south side of downtown, there’s a small school that encompasses grades five through eight, and in those years sets up its students to beat the odds. An impressive 97 percent of students will go on to graduate high school, and 90 percent ultimately attend college, go into a trade, enter the military, or pursue other fulfilling work. A cadre of devoted teachers, led by an exceptional director, create this very special institution. It’s private, it’s incredible, and its name is San Miguel Academy.

San Miguel rowing

“Originally, San Miguel was my vision, that is true,” concedes executive director Father Mark Connell, 63, who by nature prefers to give credit to others. The idea for the Academy first came to him when he began working as a professor at Newburgh’s Mount Saint Mary College in 1998. “I was quite comfortable, as college professors are, but as I started to move around Newburgh, I saw a poverty that shocked me,” he recalls. “I realized my words weren’t matching my life. You can preach a message, but are you living the message?”

That tenet, Father Connell explains, is one all religions uphold: “All people have dignity. All people have a right to live a life with opportunity,” he says. In Chappaqua, where he served as an assistant priest on weekends, he began sharing stories of Newburgh’s under-resourced children. He and a group of friends there formed a board to create an outstanding middle school in Newburgh, and then held a large fundraising dinner that netted around $1 million. Years of feasibility studies, further fundraising, and conversations with Albany’s education department followed, until at last, in July 2006, San Miguel opened its doors. At first it was a boys’ school, but in 2020 it expanded its mission and became co-ed.

Walk through the front door and you’ll see approximately 60 students—80 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African American—cozily ensconced in bright and airy classrooms, or eating lunch in a spacious hall. One hundred percent of the children qualify for free meals. Although each student is treated as an individual brimming with promise, they all wear neat uniforms. “Parents want their kids to look nice for school, but finding good school clothes is hard,” said Father Connell. We said, ‘OK, we’ll provide the uniform.’ That ended that conversation.”

In one important way, however, they do have an advantage—their futures will almost certainly be brighter than those of the other young people just beyond San Miguel’s door. There are, Father Connell says, “a number of gangs here who compete for the drug trade.” Yet many of their members are actually in favor of the school. “They say to themselves, ‘We wish somebody had helped us, so we didn’t have to live this kind of life,’” shares Father Connell. “Some of the kids here have older siblings in the gangs. And then finally, the mom brings the [youngest] child here, saying, ‘Can you save this one? I’ve lost my other kids.’”

San Miguel is equally determined that no child enrolled there will be lost. A six-week Summer Scholars Program runs from July to August, preventing summer slide and shielding students from the city’s streets, which rank among the most violent in the nation. Each student is also connected to a social worker, and collaborative partnerships with Catholic charities provide guidance and positive reinforcement. The school remained open throughout the pandemic for in-person instruction.

Nor are San Miguel kids pushed from the nest after their graduation. The school places them at prestigious private schools on generous scholarships when possible, and helps them every step of the way through their academic careers. Alumni can reach out for mentoring, test prep, tutoring, and counseling services straight through their senior year of college, if they attend one.

San Miguel Academy students

Tito Jimenez, 22, is one example of the successful young adults San Miguel nurtures. After graduation, he attended the highly regarded Canterbury School, based in New Milford, Connecticut, and then went on to SUNY Maritime, where he studied international training and transportation. Now in the Navy, he hopes to become a lieutenant.

He thinks fondly of how San Miguel guided him. “My life would have been different if I hadn’t been here,” he reflects. “I don’t know what I would be doing right now if it wasn’t for San Miguel and their support.”

Colleges are also grateful for San Miguel’s role in creating excellent scholars. “SUNY Maritime College admires the level of respect, intelligence, and preparedness San Miguel Academy students have,” says Alex El Hou, the school’s assistant director of admissions for communications and international student coordinator. “A few traits essential to success at SUNY Maritime College are preparedness, motivation, drive, determination, and extreme humility. San Miguel students have these traits.”

Another institution eager to sing its praises is Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry. “We are delighted to welcome San Miguel Academy students into the Mercy family,” says president Tim Hall. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to continue Father Connell’s early intervention work to advance the lives of San Miguel students, who have already accomplished so much. Mercy College is proud to help them complete their journeys.”

The journey at San Miguel begins with a selective process. “The number-one criteria is that you have to be on the National School Lunch Program,” explains Father Connell. Among the other factors assessed is whether a child will have a level of support at home that will allow them to do well at the school.

“My life would have been different if I hadn’t been here. I don’t know what I would be doing right now if it wasn’t for San Miguel and their support.”

Once a child is accepted, though, a world of opportunity awaits—including one of the largest middle-school rowing teams in the country. Last year, the team earned a first-place finish in a race at the Northeast Youth Championships, which qualified the team for the USRowing Youth National Championship in Sarasota, Florida. There, the group came in 11th place. Two-thirds of the San Miguel student body participates in the rowing program, becoming adept at a sport often viewed as elite. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt their college-admissions prospects down the line.

When they return to the school building, the children aren’t just back on land—they’re well grounded. San Miguel’s more than half a dozen teachers all have master’s degrees. “You need educated teachers,” says Father Connell. The facilities also encourage innovation; in the science lab, for instance, you’ll find a 3-D printer, laster cutters, robotics and Lego kits, and a flight simulator.

Nor does the day necessarily end when the last bell rings; San Miguel also provides an additional two hours of instruction through its Soaring Eagle Enrichment Program. (“It’s a fancy name that one of our development directors gave to our after-school program,” jokes Father Connell.) Among its many clubs are robotics, in which students not only design a robot, but learn to program it to follow a track on the school grounds. And then there’s so much more, including a fitness club, a laser-cutting club that made Christmas ornaments last year, and the “Financial Cents-ability” club, which teaches kids basic financial literacy. “About 95 percent of our families opt to participate in our after-school clubs, because it keeps their kids supervised,” says Father Connell.

These robust programs lead to big dreams. Nelli, 14, takes a break from her lunch to share her long game: She plans to attend the well-respected Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts, a co-ed college-prep institution. From there, “I want to become a pediatrician,” she says excitedly.

Her friend Gianna, 13, will follow Tito’s steps to Canterbury School this fall. “When I grow up, I want to be an entrepreneur or a teacher,” she shares. “It’s been a really great experience here,” she adds. “It’s so different from [public] school, especially the relationships we have with other people here and our teachers.” Nelli agrees. “Also, we have grown a lot more mentally, being able to do so much physical work. For example, I’m doing rowing now.” So is Gianna.

San Miguel is determined to keep students like these flourishing. A benefit concert last May, called Swingin’ Into Spring, raised $35,000. The funds will help ensure many more proud graduates. But from their very first day at school, students are assured their disadvantaged backgrounds should never be a source of shame. “Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness,” reads a sign above the middle school entrance.

At San Miguel, they get exactly that.

Related: Inside Thomas Cole’s Rise to Fame With the Hudson River School

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