Education Without a Price

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Written by Victoria Blute/El Independiente

Tough economic times have not stopped Imago Dei Middle School from continuing to provide a solid, tuition-free prep-school education to more than 50 low-income students.

The school has survived when other schools have failed.

Imago Dei Middle School, 639 N. Sixth Ave., was founded in 2006 by the reverends Anne Sawyer and Susan Anderson-Smith, both graduates of the Harvard Divinity School.

"Truthfully, it had been a journey of faith from the get-go," she says. "While many nonprofits were having to freeze budgets and cut budgets in order to operate, over the past four years we've had to grow a budget."

The school has added one grade each year, which requires a larger budget over time, Sawyer says. Further, it costs roughly $15,000 per child per year to attend the school, she says—money that parents of students never pay as part of a tuition-free institution for low-income families.

Last year's national average cost per year per student was $18,300, according to the National Association for Independent Schools. Imago Dei tries to keep their costs low.

"It takes resources to staff a program and offer a small class size and a low student-teacher ratio," Sawyer says. She emphasizes that their model isn't complicated—but sticking to it is vital.

"When we were identifying ways to cut costs, our options were to shorten the day, increase the class size and thus decrease the student teacher ratio. In doing so, we [would be] taking away the strength from the program and our ability to affect change."

The school depends on individual and corporate donations and foundation funding to continue effecting change.

"Most of our donors, in addition to paying Arizona state tax, give to support education," she says. "They believe in education. They know that education is a powerful tool."

Parents Luis and Linda Cruz are pleased with the education that Imago Dei has provided for their eighth-grade son.

"There's so much extra time that they're here during the day—three hours on a Saturday—you don't get that kind of education somewhere else," Luis Cruz says. "I wish I'd had a school like this when I was going to school."

With a 10-hour school day, five days a week and three hours on Saturdays, for 11 months a year, Imago Dei Middle School students get a lot of time with their teachers.

Seventh-grader Dandre Yancey says he didn't fully appreciate going to school at Imago Dei until recently.

"I'm starting to like it," he says. "I didn't really like it at first. ... I go to school longer than my mom goes to work."

Yancey enjoys math and some of the activities the school offers.

"Right now we're working on a lot," he says. "We're making a garden to put up so that we can help the environment. It's a lot of native plants. Last week we built water harvesting tanks."

Luis Cruz is hopeful that the school will continue to provide education to underserved students in Tucson.

"This school is unique," Cruz says. "They've sought help when they needed it. They've said, 'Let's grab these reigns and get the funding we need to make this happen.'"

Sawyer hopes that awareness about Imago Dei will encourage people to donate.

"The issue of sustainability is critical and a topic of ongoing discussion," she says. "More and more folks will begin to know about us and hopefully respond."

For the time being, the school's future looks bright. John Wesley Miller has offered to put together a committee to actually build a "sustainable school of the future" designed by Imago Dei students that won in a national competition.

Sawyer says the accomplishment is proof that if students are given love, support and a solid education, they can achieve anything. However, the benefits don't stop there.

"If they were able to build the school, they would be giving back to the community," she says. "The school itself would serve as an inspiration and reminder of the power of education, and what young people can accomplish and how they can impact the community for a good."

Victoria Blue is a senior at the UA School of Journalism and is the managing editor of El Independiente, the bilingual newspaper for South Tucson. For more news, visit Elindenews.com

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