'An oasis' of safety on the first day of school

August 20, 2012

Monday was the first day of class at St. Matthew in Phoenix. Chances are this little school is not like the one you send your kids to. KJZZ’s Peter O’Dowd visited the campus, about a mile west of downtown, and files this report.

St. Matthew Catholic SchoolSt. Matthew's principal Gena McGowan says the first day of school is 'organized chaos.' (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

St. Matthew Catholic SchoolMichael Guerra teaches middle school science and social studies. He also helped his uncle clean St. Matthew's as a child. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

St. Matthew Catholic SchoolA group of kindergarteners walks to lunch on the first day of school at St. Matthew's in Phoenix. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

PETER O’DOWD: It’s hard to be in kindergarten, especially on day one.

GENA MCGOWAN: Why are you crying, sweetheart. Do you miss your mommy? Yeah, but she’ll be back.

O’DOWD: Gena McGowan is principal at St. Matthew. It’s part of the Catholic diocese of Phoenix, and 200 kids study here through eighth grade. All but three students come from Latino families, and McGowan says every student lives in a household that falls at or below the poverty line. That works out to about $23,000 dollars a year for a family of four. So the school must raise half the money it costs to educate each student.

MCGOWAN: It’s a dangerous neighborhood, and I think it’s a little oasis of safety in a difficult area.

O’DOWD: There is a sense of order here. The older boys wear clip-on ties. The girls are dressed in green checkered jumpers. The little ones march in a line to the lunch room. But with the start of a new school year comes a familiar challenge. McGowan says test scores at St. Matthew are below average.

MCGOWAN: Last year, the principal of Brophy said something that really stuck with me. He said your boys aren’t academically prepared to come to school here.

O’DOWD: Brophy is the all-boys Catholic high school a few miles to the north. The school accepts some of McGowan’s graduating eighth graders. She says she used the words from Brophy as a challenge to her teachers.  

MCGOWAN: The poor work, they don’t want to be poor. If we can teach them the means and the ways to get out of this thorough a good high school education, then we will be doing our jobs. What keeps me awake at night is, ‘are my test scores going to be good enough, are my teachers doing their jobs?’

MICHAEL GUERRA: In the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit…go ahead…

O’DOWD: Michael Guerra is the middle school science and social studies teacher. He’s about to send his students off to lunch. 

GUERRA: Please pray for all those who are hungry.

O’DOWD: Guerra grew up in this neighborhood. It was a difficult childhood. As a boy, he’d come to St. Matthew’s with his uncle, who worked here as a janitor. Guerra once helped clean the school where he now teaches. So he knows why his students struggle.

GUERRA: I hung out with gang members because they served as protection from other gangs ... I was offered, but I knew it would lead to a lot more problems.

O’DOWD: Guerra still sees those offers. This time it’s the boys in his class who have difficult decisions to make. Join a gang, or go to school.

GUERRA: It’s starting younger and younger. Here, speaking from experience it would be a fourth grader, and he’s in sixth grade now.

O’DOWD: Why would anyone want a fourth grader to join a gang?

GUERRA: Those are the best soldiers. They don’t ask questions.They just do.

O’DOWD: And so it is, another year starts at St. Matthew’s. And as principal McGowan says, it is clearly is a haven of sorts. A haven for parents even. Here’s Mary, who has five kids enrolled here.

 MARY: I finished eight grade, and decided to get married.

O’DOWD: Mary won’t say her last name. She didn’t go to high school. Her past is riddled with family in and out of prison. Her brother is dead because of gangs. St. Matthew’s is a chance for her to break out of all this. Mary volunteers here. She feels like part of a family. And the first day of school … well, it feels good for her, too.

MARY: It means everything. It means my second home is open is again. I’m back home.