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 Santa Clara Magazine

A Leg Up

A Leg Up

By Matt Morgan

Portrait of Leah Sparkman Photo by Adam Guggenheim
As president of St. Andrew Nativity, Carolyn Becic ’87 is changing education for low-income students in Portland and helping future Broncos like Leah Sparkman ’21 flourish. 

What happens when you offer a free Jesuit education to kids of limited means? Or open a network of contacts and resources to first-generation students? One single middle school can’t change the world—or even transform Portland, Oregon. But President Carolyn Becic ’87—along with a crew of Broncos on her staff—is opening doors for young people at St. Andrew Nativity.

Leah Sparkman and Carolyn Becic
Years after graduating from St. Andrew, Leah Sparkman asked Carolyn Becic for advice on applying to college. Photo by Andrew Guggenheim

Here’s what compassion can do to the educational arc of a 12-year-old. As Leah Sparkman ’21 puts it, she was a pretty outspoken sixth grader. Her teachers would say outspoken is putting it mildly. Sparkman was a bright kid and accustomed to speaking with adults. That doesn’t always fly in middle school. “I wanted to be seen as—not equal—but have everyone respected for their opinions and where they’re coming from,” she says.

This is where perception changes reality. Talking back to teachers in middle school often begets punishment: detention at first, maybe suspension. Soon a student is missing classes, falling behind.

But for Leah, teachers at St. Andrew met her where she was. “I built those relationships so teachers understood what I needed,” Sparkman says. “I learned when to be outspoken and who to be outspoken toward.”

Make no mistake: St. Andrew is built on a challenging program. Classes run 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with up to two hours of study hall—a long day, but it gives students every chance to succeed. Study halls ensure that students get help from teachers so they finish homework. A full-time counselor sets up in-home visits to understand challenges facing families. Like this: 53 percent of St. Andrew students come from non-English speaking homes. Most are first-generation immigrants. St. Andrew helps with high school placement, FAFSA, immigration education, employment after college. “We play the role of a parent who’s been to college,” Becic says. They’ve even helped kids get braces and paid heating bills.

On average, students at St. Andrew jump five grade levels in three years. Each student is also guaranteed a free private education in high school and continued counseling. “It’s a family in every way,” Sparkman affirms.

She is set to graduate from St. Michael’s University School in British Columbia. She’ll attend SCU on full scholarship, already eyeing law school. She wants to study history, learn more about religion, and get involved in social justice, too. “Leah is so comfortable in her own skin,” Becic says. “She’ll find ways to be a leader.

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