Some look at San Diego as a place of ideal climate, pristine beaches and tourist hot spots, but not everyone lives in that San Diego. In Southeast San Diego, poverty, crime and violence are ever-present. One school is trying to make sure their inner-city students don’t become victims.

All the kids have to do is clean the school – there are no custodians at the Nativity Prep Academy, or NPA. Parents even get drawn into the school’s chores by donating their time to help with landscape and cosmetic touch-ups, such as painting around the property.

NPA, is a catholic college prep school for at-risk children. Seeing a need for change, NPA Founder David Rivera took the steps to bring about an educational revolution in 2001. He found that by opening the nonprofit middle school, area kids could get a private school education – for free.

Bringing together a group of his friends from the University of San Diego, and Notre Dame, to develop a plan, Rivera said they all came to the same conclusion, “to open up an amazing nonprofit school that would have a huge impact on people’s lives.”

“We duplicated a model that began in New York City that sends over 80 percent of their students to college,” he said.

The school Rivera speaks of was founded in 1971 by Jesuits who wanted to push past poverty’s cycle through education. While on a flight to Philadelphia to attend a friend’s wedding, Rivera stumbled upon a Parade Magazine article that talked about an ideal school model in New York City.

Taken aback by what he read, Rivera recalled, “I literally was reading about it on the plane and hours later was at the school.” After researching dozens of educational and nonprofit school models Nativity Mission Center’s school in New York was a perfect fit for San Diego, Rivera said.

Community leaders in Southeast San Diego, apparently, agree.

“Nativity Prep Academy addresses an overwhelming need to provide high quality education in areas most in need,” said Ben Hueso, who represents the area on the San Diego City Council. Hueso is a long-time supporter of the school.

Before the school’s opening in 2001, Rivera and his group evaluated census tracks and connected with local and national leaders, as well as public, nonprofit and private schools to answer the question: What’s the greatest need in San Diego?

Their research showed that 14 neighborhoods in Southeast San Diego were very high-risk areas. In these locales children qualified for free and reduced lunches, lived in broken homes with high abuse and neglect and were doing school work that was below their grade level.

“You’ve got people living in housing units that are half the size of the county average and on top of that there are almost three times as many people living in each housing unit. That’s between five and six times the about of people living per square foot of space down here,” Rivera said.

According to the 2000 census, the median household income in Southeast San Diego was $23,554 for families of four to eight people, and only 18 percent of adults in the area have a high school diploma.

By opening NPA in 2001, the group felt they were giving the community a much-needed second chance.

Nativity Prep Academy offers smaller classrooms of 20 children in each grade covering sixth, seventh, and eighth grade levels. They provide an extended 10-and-a-half-hour school day, which administrator’s say keeps students off the streets, while stimulating their minds. The schedule also lets parents work all day with less worry.

“It’s an incredibly high crime area, especially for murders,” Rivera said. “That’s the environment that they live in – gangs, violence, and so forth. It’s hard to picture when you visit San Diego.”

Administrators want to ensure, however, that they’re not serving as baby sitters for troubled kids. There is an application process for students – and their parents – and officials visit an applicants home to determine who has the drive to get a good education.

Walking the steps to the gates of NPA, however, you wouldn’t know they were a school of students with hardships, or that they came from homes with a low percentage of parents who had graduated high school, let alone attended college. Their school is clean and colorful, with student artwork surrounding the rooms, friendly people coming out from the crevices and students taking recess in their courtyard introducing themselves without prompting, with big smiles and firm hand shakes.

Rivera explained that if parents and guardians can’t help tutoring their children, they have after-school tutoring and a mentorship program to be the otherwise void presence in a student’s life. And where public schools are limited on funds for field trips, they may go on as many as one field trip per week.

“Our students have been to places I haven’t been,” Rivera said. “We’ve got one trip where they go fishing in the ocean and catch squid, and they come back and dissect it, learn about it, cook it and eat it.”

Although religion is a key element in their academics, NPA said they aren’t especially blessed. But because of San Diego’s unique geography, part of their syllabus naturally fits into experiential learning of marine biology and science, in addition to the basics of math, reading and language classes.

Frank Penney, dean of students and teacher at NPA said that each kid has a job to help establish a sense of daily dependability.

“During lunch time kids are responsible for passing out the lunch, cleaning up after themselves and taking out trash,” he said. All which he explained are just day-to-day routine things that are part of household chores growing up.

NPA said they can fill certain gaps other organizations can’t. Rivera explained that inner-city schools really get hit hard and inappropriately by critics, but that it’s the socioeconomic structure they are presented with that is to blame.

“We’re different in that we’re more individualized for students, and that’s the big thing. I think public schools, if they had the freedom would love to some of the things that we can do.”

Although they are a school that is pioneering new methods of educating, they don’t have all the answers. What they do have, however, is the spirit to be successful.

“It’s a crash course you could say,” Rivera said. “They know that people here love them and care about them and are here to listen to them and respect them. We are a small enough school that we can give that kind of an impact.”

The component that has allowed Rivera’s vision to take on new heights has been that 100 percent of their funding comes from private donors.

By going out into the community and doing presentations, they have gained the name recognition to make their goals come to life. The school also brings in funding through their connection with the San Diego Foundation’s Endow San Diego initiative, which helps nonprofits start their own endowments.

Recently, through Endow San Diego, NPA secured a $100,000 gift, bringing their total to over $500,000 in their endowment fund in just a few short months.

“They really positively exploited an opportunity that we made available to the entire nonprofit community in San Diego,” Paul Thompson of the San Diego Foundation said. “This funding literally came through because of their interest in finding supporters for their campaign. It was Nativity Prep seeing an opportunity to join, engage and do it.”

Rather than having donors give money for tomorrow, this is money for perpetuity.

“To be able to go out and get $100,000 we can now say that desk is going to be there forever, that seat is going to be there forever regardless which student is in it,” Rivera said.

As for Penney, he would like everyone to understand that, “The kids are just wonderful, wonderful kids – bottom line. You can see the neighborhood for what it’s worth, it is what it is, but the kids we get here want to be here, each and everyday.”

Rivera is grateful for dedicated staff that has allowed the school’s success to grow. He, however, knows they have one more challenge to endure – finding a new school building for their school in the midst of zoning issues.

Although they have secured a pledge for half the cost of a new $3 million building, Rivera has met a road block. He said the city has effectively zoned out the use of commercial industrial space in Southeast San Diego for schools, but said their present building is becoming “functionally obsolete” with “an inefficient use of space, specific differed maintenance and the need to expand further as high as 80 maybe 90 students.”

Although these plans have not been finalized by the school, the ever-thinking Rivera is always looking for more opportunities to keep providing to the underserved.

(This story originally stated that Rivera’s group was from UCSD and Notre Dame. The group is actually from USD and Notre Dame.)

Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice’s Editorial Assistant.

Please contact her directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter here.

Would you care to voice your thoughts about K-12 education in San Diego?

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.